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In Through The Out Door: Behind Led Zeppelin’s Unintended Swan Song
In Depth

In Through The Out Door: Behind Led Zeppelin’s Unintended Swan Song

Led Zeppelin’s final album, ‘In Through The Out Door’ found the group feeling out the future – even as they inadvertently said goodbye.

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The old adage “the higher you fly, the further you fall” is often applied to Led Zeppelin’s career. Indeed, most retrospectives focus on their imperial period, from their self-titled debut album through to 1975’s Physical Graffiti, and overlook albums such as Presence and In Through The Out Door, despite the latter finding the group bowing out – unintentionally – with a record that more than holds its own against other hard rock releases of the late 70s.

Listen to ‘In Through The Out Door’ here.

“We were left quite alone”

It’s worth remembering that In Through The Out Door came at a time when punk rock had tried to unseat the likes of Led Zeppelin – and yet it still managed to top both the US and UK charts on release, showing that the band continued to pack a mighty punch at the close of the decade they had dominated.

Certainly, punk’s establishment-baiting, back-to-basics rock didn’t help Led Zeppelin’s cause, but when In Through The Out Door first appeared, on 15 August 1979, it also came up against early releases by the newly emerging New Wave Of British Heavy Metal bands such as Def Leppard and Iron Maiden – hungry young homegrown rock acts who had set their sights on stealing Led Zeppelin’s crown.

It’s a testament to Led Zeppelin’s collective resolve that they were still capable of making compelling new music at a time when they were at their lowest ebb. Guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham were struggling with drug- and alcohol-related issues, and, worst of all, frontman Robert Plant’s five-year-old son Karac had died suddenly of a respiratory infection during the summer of 1977. Understandably, the singer was devastated and withdrew into his family, leaving open the question of whether Led Zeppelin would (or even could) continue.

“We tended to get on with it”

Fortunately for the band, multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones took the creative charge during this precarious period, so when Led Zeppelin finally reconvened, in November 1978, they discovered they had a decent backlog of material to knock into shape. As it turned out, Plant’s return to the band was also partly brokered by his friendship with Jones, and the duo’s creative nexus drove the albums sessions forward.

“It just seemed that Robert and I got to rehearsals first and we basically wrote the album, just the two of us,” Jones told Australian music journalist Ritchie Yorke in 1991. “We were left alone quite a lot of the time, along with John [Bonham], so we tended to get on with it, I think. I suppose you could say that In Through The Out Door is my album, the way Presence was Jimmy’s album.”

Punchy aggression, heartfelt tenderness

In Through The Out Door was captured relatively quickly during sessions lasting just three weeks at ABBA’S Polar Studios in Stockholm, late in 1978. Plant and Jones mostly worked in the daytime – sometimes in tandem with Bonham, though the drummer also spent time with Page, who mostly recorded his contributions during nocturnal hours.

The album opened with In The Evening. Its heaviest and most guitar-oriented track, the song featured familiar touches such as Page’s heavily reverbed riffs and Bonham’s thunderous backbeat. However, while its punchy aggression may have initially reassured long-term fans – and continues to stand among the best Led Zeppelin songs – it wasn’t representative of In Through The Out Door’s overall content.

Instead, most of the songs were dominated by Jones’ keyboards, not least the epic, ten-minute prog-disco epic, Carouselambra, and the glorious All My Love. Framed by Jones’ strident synths and a supple, Bootsy Collins-esque bassline, the former had a sweeping, widescreen vibe akin to Presence’s Achilles Last Stand, while All My Love was a truly rhapsodic ballad – a heartfelt tribute from Plant for his late son, sung with a tenderness which ensures it ranks among Led Zeppelin’s most sincere and beautiful songs.

Elsewhere, the Tex-Mex flavoured Fool In The Rain revealed that Led Zeppelin remained capable of throwing a stylistic curveball or two, while both Sound Bound Suarez and the Sun Studios-style rockabilly pastiche Hot Dog showed that the band still knew to enjoy themselves, despite everything that had gone down in recent times.

In general, it’s true that Jimmy Page’s influence was dialled back somewhat, yet the legendary guitarist still made his presence felt on the record. His short yet telling solos were crucial to In The Evening and the slow blues workout I’m Gonna Crawl, while he contributed some truly gorgeous textural parts throughout In Through The Out Door – not least the beautifully executed quasi-classical nylon-string flourishes he added to both Fool In The Rain and All My Love.

“A new era that never really got going”

Due to delays in design company Hipgnosis completing the album cover, In Through The Out Door’s release was postponed until after Led Zeppelin staged their two highly publicised concerts at Knebworth in August 1979. The group performed to an estimated 150,000 people at these legendary shows, and with In Through the Out Door then topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (and moving over five million copies in the US alone), it seemed that Led Zeppelin maintained their place at rock’s top table after all.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The band survived to see the start of the next decade, and a low-key European tour during the summer of 1980 again boded well for their future. However, after John Bonham died following a massive vodka binge at Jimmy Page’s home on 24 September that same year, Led Zeppelin were laid to rest and In Through The Out Door – by accident rather than design – became the band’s epitaph.

“Bonzo and I had already started discussing plans for a hard-driving rock album to come after that,” Page later said of the band’s intended future. “We both felt that In Through The Out Door was a little soft… In its place it was fine, but I wouldn’t wanted to have pursued that direction in the future.”

John Paul Jones felt that both In Through The Out Door and the Knebworth shows were part of “a special occasion for the band”, before adding, “But I’d have to say that I do look back on it with some sadness, because it was really the start of a whole new era for us that never really got going.”

Check out our best Led Zeppelin songs to find out which ‘In Through The Out Door’ track gained entry.

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