October 1970: Led Zeppelin Shocks Rock with LED ZEPPELIN III

Monday, October 4, 2021

"Talent borrows, genius steals." It's a timeworn adage that gets trotted out often when talking about artists, particularly ones who've been especially successful at it. What often gets overlooked, however, is that genius also tends to confound. In terms of music, many of the most revered artists and recordings were ones that were initially derided and mocked.

Case in point: Led Zeppelin's third album. With the seismic shockwaves of the band's second LP still reverberating around the world, Jimmy Page and company delivered Led Zeppelin III on October 5, 1970. The whole world was listening, and according to the initial response, much of it just didn't get what they were hearing.

In retrospect, the source of much of the initial ire towards Led Zeppelin III seems to stem from the heavily pastoral mood that permeates much of the album. Having already pummeled rock and roll into submission across the band's first two albums, Zeppelin was ready to explore new dimensions in their sound.

Upon its arrival, legendary rock journalist Lester Bangs, writing for Rolling Stone, appeared to enjoy slamming the group and record throughout his review: "It doesn't challenge anybody's intelligence or sensibilities, relying instead on a pat visceral impact that will insure absolute stardom for many moons to come," he sniffed. "Their albums refine the crude public tools of all dull white blues bands into something awesome in its very insensitive grossness, like a Cecil B. DeMille epic. If I rely so much on visual and filmic metaphors, it's because they apply so exactly."

"Journalists were in a rush and they were looking for the new 'Whole Lotta Love' and not actually listening to what was there," Page countered to writer Nigel Williamson. "It was too fresh for them and they didn't get the plot. It doesn't surprise me that the diversity and breadth of what we were doing was overlooked or under-appreciated at the time."

Despite the critical rancor, Led Zeppelin III flew all the way to #1 in America for the week of Halloween 1970. It held the top spot for the rest of the month and most of November 1970, finally falling to Santana's Abraxas for the week of November 28, 1970.

"We were so far ahead that it was difficult for people to know what the hell we were doing," Page told journalist Brad Tolinski in the 2012 book, Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page. "Critics especially couldn't relate to it. Led Zeppelin was growing. Where many of our contemporaries were narrowing their perspective, we were really being expansive. I was maturing as a composer and player, and there were many kinds of music that I found stimulating, and with this wonderful group I had the chance to be really adventurous."