“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 III. With the seismic shockwaves of Led Zeppelin II still being felt all around the world, the band delivered III in early October of 1970. The whole world was listening, and according to the initial response, much of it simply didn’t get it.
Legendary rock critic Lester Bangs seemed to take a perverse glee in delivering a series of backhanded slams to the group and III upon release in his review for Rolling Stone. Even when it seems like he’s trying to be complementary, there’s yet another jab nearby: “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,” Bangs sniffed. “In fact, when I first heard the album my main impression was the consistent anonymity of most of the songs — no one could mistake the band, but no gimmicks stand out with any special outrageousness.”
Looking back, the source of much of the ire directed towards III stemmed from the heavily pastoral mood that permeates a good portion of the album. Having already pummeled rock and roll into submission across the first two full-lengths, Zeppelin was ready to explore new dimensions in their sound.
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page rolled out to the wilds of Machynlleth, Wales, to the legendary Bron-Y-Aur, to start composing for the album. A holiday cottage used by Plant’s family, the place had no running water and more importantly, no electricity. The locale inspired the two to create acoustically, lending the album’s organic feel.
There’s still plenty of earth-shaking proto-metal--”Immigrant Song” is forever among the heaviest in the band’s catalog--as well as a wealth of electrified blues, highlighted by the visceral “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” For Lester Bangs, the song "represents the obligatory slow and lethally dull seven-minute blues jam."
“Journalists were in a rush and they were looking for the new Whole Lotta Love and not actually listening to what was there,” Jimmy Page told writer Nigel Williamson about the album’s initial reception. “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.”
The chilly critical reception and relatively quick descent of the album on the charts was all the band needed to get fired up for the next full-length. Any question of Led Zeppelin’s staggering genius would be put to rest the following year with one of the best-selling and most influential rock albums of all time: the untitled LP commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV.