Led Zeppelin & Identity: Analyzing “In Through the Out Door” in the Context of an Eriksonian Identity Crisis

It had always been difficult to pigeonhole Led Zeppelin’s music into something tidy and concise, but nothing from their canon stood out as much as In Through the Out Door.  The propulsive, guitar-driven machismo that had come to define the band is traded in for a symphony of synthesizers and music that has more connection to pop than heavy metal.  Released in 1979, this would become the group’s final studio album, although this was hardly their intention at the time.

Zeppelin disbanded less than a year later after John Bonham’s death, and the suddenness of this tragic event forced them to cap their creative journey before it was able to run its course.  This was far from the only traumatic event endured by the band during this time, however.  Robert Plant’s son, Karac, had recently passed away at the age of five, and both Jimmy Page and Bonham struggled with addiction and substance abuse.  Page’s struggles prevented him from controlling the creative process like he had with every other Zeppelin record, and as a result, John Paul Jones was in charge of much of the musical direction.  With all of these weighty circumstances at play, the fact that their sound underwent such a significant metamorphosis for their final album comes at little shock.

The exact ways in which these changes manifest themselves in their music, however, are noteworthy.  These changes suggest a connection to the research and theories regarding human development and identity by Erik Erikson.  According to Erikson, people begin to challenge their preconceived notions of identity during adolescence, and it is only through the exploration of numerous aspects of identity that people can fully know themselves.  Fans of Led Zeppelin had come to expect certain things, but their final studio album circumvented many of those tenets of their identity.  Through actively exploring aspects of their musical identity by challenging many of the most integral components of what had come to define them, Led Zeppelin are undergoing a sort of musical Eriksonian identity crisis with In Through the Out Door, particularly in the epic track, “Carouselambra.”

In order to understand Zeppelin’s music in this perspective, it is essential to first establish a proper understanding of Erikson’s work.  The most lasting contribution from Erikson is his identification of the different stages of human life, which are each marked by a conflict that the individual must address and resolve before advancing to the next stage.  The most important of these for the purposes of this discussion is that of Identity vs. Role Confusion, which takes place during adolescence.  These are the years during which a person is no longer content to borrow their sense of being from their family, and they instead seeks to forge their own identity. The search for identity is pitted against what Erikson labels as role confusion, which refers to the inability to commit to any particular identity.

The rigorous journey on which an individual must traverse to find a balance between these polarities is known as the identity crisis.  Further challenge is added to this by perceived hostilities from a world that demands conformity (such as pressures for boys to become manly) as well as the pervasive desire to reject both verbalized and subconscious wishes expressed by the individual’s parents.  According to Erikson, the search for identity is a courageous act because of these odds, especially when it comes to accepting one’s personal diversity.

One final pertinent aspect of Erikson’s theories on identity is that of trauma acting as an instigator for an identity crisis later in life.  Assuming a satisfactory completion of the Identity vs. Role Confusion stage, most adults will not have to worry about confronting an identity crisis.  However, a devastating personal tragedy can force an adult, regardless of the state of their identity, to reconsider what defines them. People who are confronted by personal tragedy will often enter into a period of disengagement from the world, and they return as a much different person.  According to Erikson’s theories, such a person would have been shocked into an additional identity crisis, and after a period of moratorium, they reemerged with a completely different identity.

All of these aspects of Eriksonian identity can be applied to the transformation Led Zeppelin experienced with ITtOD, which is why their sonic evolution functions as an example of an identity crisis as opposed to just a change in sound.  The term “identity crisis” could be administered rather loosely to many rock and pop artists, as almost every such musician who maintains a lasting career undergoes some sort of significant change.  However, there is an important distinction between a band’s sound changing as a result of a simple evolution of their tastes or desires and a band actively attempting to reform their identity.  Through a series of musical and extramusical circumstances, Led Zeppelin maintain some of the core elements of their cultivated musical identity, yet they achieve a wildly unique sonic result and imply a potential aspiration towards a reformed persona.

At its core, ITtOD is an active exploration of the sound that had come to define Zeppelin.  Regarding the band’s sound, the fact that Zeppelin had consciously crafted their own identity and did so from their inception can hardly be disputed. In an interview from their first Rolling Stone cover story with Cameron Crowe, Plant stated, “although we were steeped in blues and R&B, we found out in the first hour and a half that we had our own identity.”  Most people who think of Led Zeppelin immediately go to Page and the instrumental dominance and virtuosity displayed by him and Jones.  As music scholar and devoted Zeppelin fan Susan Fast states, “the important technical device of bass and guitar doubling each other is used on the first album and every one thereafter.”  The degree to which the guitar/bass tandem propelled the motion of their music was without precedent at this point in rock, which is why so many people associate this type of aggression in rock with Zeppelin.  This also speaks to the importance of the riff in their music, which Fast claims to “structure the vast majority of Led Zeppelin’s songs.”  The concept of the riff was something that they borrowed from the blues tradition, but the way in which riffs give motion and structure to their music has proven incredibly inspirational for generations of rock bands since.

There are other less pervasive components of Led Zeppelin’s identity that, while only appearing in a portion of their repertoire, are still an equally vital part of their fans’ understanding of who they were.  For example, many fans appreciated their use of epic forms to construct rock magnum opi, which, as Eastman professor Dave Headlem summarizes, consisted of the “creation of large, complex forms based on contrasting sectional blocks.”  “Stairway to Heaven” is perhaps the most commonly cited example of this, but early cuts like “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” demonstrate more intriguing epic formal designs that have close ties to classical conventions.  Specifically, both of these examples feature three-part forms that include middle sections allowing for extreme experimentation, which can be traced to Classical Sonata form.

These and other elements of their identity appear in various forms throughout ITtOD, yet they are also all being challenged.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the album’s epic track, “Carouselambra.”  It is clear that Led Zeppelin are taking a different approach to their music, and the most obvious example of this is the prevalent use of keyboards throughout.  Oddly, the keyboard is the most integral component of the instrumental parts, and it is almost always stronger in the mix than the guitar.  In regard to their identity, this challenges the dominance of guitars from their earlier albums.

The beginning serves as a good example of this.  The song kicks off with a repeated two-pitch motif in a reverberant 80’s-pop style synth, which introduces the rest of the rhythm section shortly thereafter.  The synth adopts a new progression driven by a resolving suspension figure within the iv – I motif (Ex. 1), but more importantly, it maintains its role as the most important instrumental part.  Its importance is also highlighted by the fact that it performs this section’s driving riff, which is a role that had previously been allocated to the guitar.  Page’s guitar enters with everyone else, but his overdriven guitar only marks each downbeat with a sustained power chord that is moved back in the mix.  It is not until the song’s middle section (4:07-7:08, in terms of time) that the guitar takes over as the leading instrumental voice.  However, this has more to do with the fact that the synthesizer has disappeared completely from the mix than it does with any assertive action by the guitar itself.  The impact of the guitar’s dominance is lessened here by its relatively weak gestures (the bulk of this section features the same sustained power chord idea from the beginning) as well as the return of a synth-dominated texture in the final section.

 

Zeppelin’s use of epic form is also being challenged in “Carousleambra.”   There are strong parallels between this song’s global three-part structure and those of both “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love.”  All three songs adopt an ABA form in which two similar sections are connected by a contrasting middle section, but the ways in which these sections function are substantially different.  For instance, the B section for each song presents a more open and spacious contrast to the general sense of motion and drive that propelled the identifiable material from the A section.  Both of the B sections for the two earlier songs explore improvisation and electronic guitar effects with an escalating sense of tension that climaxes at the return of the A section.  The B section in “Carouselambra,” on the other hand, has no improvisation or manipulated guitar sounds beyond the distortion that appears throughout the rest of the song, and the tension remains static throughout.  Plant also adds lyrics to this B section, whereas his only contributions to the earlier examples were aleatoric moans that produce the effect of another instrument.  As a result, the B section of “Carouselambra” is just another section of the song, even though it still has its own distinct character.  It fits more cohesively into the greater context of the composition by sacrificing the indeterminate and aesthetic extremes of the band’s earlier epics.

Zeppelin’s modifications to their conventional ABA structure can be further detected in the returning A sections.  Both “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” come out of their B sections with exact restatements of their initial A sections.  In stark contrast, this resurfacing of familiar material is almost entirely absent from “Carouselambra.”  The two outer sections in this song are connected much more abstractly and creatively.  For example, both sections are guided by resolving suspension figures in the synth part, but the actual figure has changed significantly.  The synth line that drives the final section is much lighter and more punctuated, and it is also presented in a different tonality and harmonic progression (Ex 3).

 

Related to this is the shift in not only the key but also the overall tonal stability of the two A sections.  While the first A section freely tonicizes four different key areas (the same suspension figures highlight keys of C, A, D and F major within the same verse), the final A section functions in D major exclusively.  Even though the suspension figures of this section outline a G major harmony for four measures and then an A major harmony for four more before arriving at D major, these are operating as IV and V chords in the overall context of a D major tonality.  Such subtle shifts between these sections demonstrate a refined level of sophistication in the band’s composition, but they also show how their use of ABA form in their epics had evolved.

Another defining aspect of Zeppelin’s music is their emphasis on mysticism, particularly in their lyrics.  Their implementation of this has also shifted in the mellow “Carouselambra,” and this exemplifies the effects of trauma and maturation on Plant. Drawing a comparison between the lyrics of “Carouselambra” and “Immigrant Song” illustrates this point well, as both depict images of Nordic adventure but from radically different perspectives.  The following sample lyrics demonstrate this:

“Immigrant Song”:

How soft your fields so green
can whisper tales of gore
of how we calmed the tides of war
we are your overlords

“Carouselambra”:

To live in bliss and cherish my defeat
an ending that’s a shadow of the day

The former feeds off of the carnal nature of the music from “Immigrant Song,” and they proclaim a bold victory cry.  The latter sees its hero graciously accepting his defeat – something the protagonist of the earlier song would surely never do.  This is allegorical for the change Plant had undertaken: he feels downtrodden and defeated, and he would rather accept that with humility than conquer his adversity with resurgent vigor.

Perhaps the strongest objection to this theory of Zeppelin entering into an identity crisis is that the band already had an established identity at the time, whereas the adolescents to whom Erikson is devoting his research are building an identity where none had existed previously. However, consideration for Erikson’s theories on the effects of adult trauma on identity in the context of Zeppelin can account for this. Plant said in an interview, “in ’77, when I lost my boy, I didn’t really want to go swinging around – ‘Hey hey mama say the way you move’ didn’t really have a great deal of import any more.  In Through the Out Door is more conscientious and less animal.”  Plant was forced to rethink his perspective on music as well as life, and this is emblematic of how the group as a whole was challenging its identity.  Specifically, it accounts for the lamenting quality of both the music and the lyrics throughout ITtOD, which suggests that this is not merely a band mellowing with age but rather a band undergoing an identity crisis.

What adds merit to an interpretation of an identity crisis occurring with ITtOD is the fact that not even the band members agreed as to what their identity was or where it was going.  Not surprisingly, Page was vocal about his distaste for the album – he called it “a little soft” – and he had already begun laying groundwork for a return to their guitar-driven sound for their next project before ITtOD was even released.  On the other hand, Jones saw the album as only the first step in their new development, and in regard to their future he said, “the next album would have been even more interesting had we followed that direction.”  While it is impossible to say with any certainty where their sound and identity were headed, it is clear that even the band members themselves were not committed to any one particular direction.  What they do seem to agree upon, however, is that ITtOD marked a transitional time for the group in which aspects of their identity were being explored at length.

All of the descriptive, non-musical terminology that has been used in this analysis of the music and the process of ITtOD can also be found in Erikson’s theories regarding identity crisis.  The idea of active exploration is paramount in both instances – for Erikson, an adolescent is responsible for exploring as many different components of his/her identity as possible in order to determine a good match, and for Zeppelin, they found themselves in the process of challenging their sound and exploring new directions.  The concept of trauma launching an unplanned identity crisis from Erikson’s theories helps to explain Zeppelin’s search for identity after one had already been so firmly established.  The technical semantics and application of these ideas may be unique to their respective situations, but there certainly seem to be significant deep structural connections between the work of Erikson and Zeppelin’s final album.  Such an analysis of their music is significant because not only does it form an intriguing connection with an unrelated academic field, it also adds depth and a fresh perspective towards understanding their music.  Unfortunately, the band’s sudden demise meant that world never got to experience the resolution of this identity crisis, and Zeppelin will forever remain in a state of moratorium.

 

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