The following is a statement issued by Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones on December 4, 1980 – two months after drummer John Bonham’s death.
We wish it to be known, that the loss of our dear friend and the deep respect we have for his family, together with the deep sense of undivided harmony felt by ourselves and our manager, have led us to decide that we could not continue as we were.
I remember being at a grocery store with my parents to pick up a cake for my brother’s first birthday. As we were lining up to the register, my mom was pointing to something in the magazine stand, shaking her head in disbelief. My dad walked over to the stand and picked up one the magazines, turned a few pages and exclaimed, “Jesus, so young!” “Which one of them was it?” my mom asked. “The drummer,” my dad answered. “What a shame, can’t believe there’s no Led Zeppelin anymore,” he continued. “What’s Zeppelin?” I asked. That night after dinner, my mom and dad had a few glasses of wine and introduced me to the music of Led Zeppelin.
It was such a long time ago but I remember it like yesterday. They told me stories about hitchhiking across Europe the summer before I was born – that’s when they had fallen in love with Led Zeppelin’s music. A British couple in their thirties had given them a lift from Munich to Paris (about a nine-to-ten-hour drive) and apparently, they had played “Led Zeppelin III” in the car stereo pretty much all the way. My mom and dad bought the group’s first three records as soon as they got to Paris. However, these were not the LPs we were blasting that night. We were listening to “Led Zeppelin IV,” a record my mom had bought my dad in November 1971 when it came out. She had just found out that I was on the way and wanted to deliver the good news to my dad over a glass of wine and some of their favorite music. According to my dad, this is the reason why that particular album is the best album in the world. Not surprisingly, our track of the week comes from “Led Zeppelin IV.” However, it’s not “Stairway To Heaven” (it would be too obvious a choice) but rather another favorite of mine, “When The Levee Breaks.”
“When The Levee Breaks” was definitely not the first or the last time Led Zeppelin played around with the blues but to me at least, it is their finest hour as far as reworking blues standards is concerned – and mind you, this is a group that built their entire sound and musical style on famous blues songs. While Led Zeppelin has gotten a lot of flak for “borrowing” lyrics, riffs and melodies from these well-known staples (and perhaps deservedly so), it could also be argued that the blues owes every bit as much to Led Zeppelin as Led Zeppelin owes to the blues. After all, they reinvented this entire genre by modernizing it and taking it to a whole new, unpredictable direction with their distinctive approach that fused the blues with many different musical styles, including Indian music, folk, pop, reggae and jazz.
In the case of “When The Levee Breaks,” Page took an old blues tune by the same name (written by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in the late twenties) and revamped it with his group into a blues symphony of sorts. “When The Levee Breaks” starts with very little (with John Bonham’s compressed drum beat) but evolves little by little into a powerful and blistering production that leaves you breathless and slightly unnerved. This triumph of a tune is hidden on the B-side of “Led Zeppelin IV” and while it is not their most famous or celebrated song, it is one of their best tracks. I quite agree with Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who (writing for AllMusic) called the song "an apocalyptic slice of urban blues ... as forceful and frightening as Zeppelin ever got.” Erlewine continued his praise of the song by saying that “its seismic rhythms and layered dynamics illustrate why none of their imitators could ever equal them."
In the light of this, it is quite understandable that “When The Levee Breaks” has always been one of Page’s favorite Led Zeppelin productions and something he continues to be very proud of. In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine Page elaborated upon the effects at the end of the song:
It's interesting: On "Levee Breaks" you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging; and at the end, you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It's all done with panning.
Speaking of Robert, this vocal has got to be one of his absolute best as well as one his most intense. For instance, listen to how he lets it rip in the middle eight (“Don't it make you feel bad when you're tryin' to find your way home”) and at the very end (“Going down, going down now”). However, the vocal here is a bit of a miracle throughout, filled with subtle but fantastic adlibs like the “Oh well, oh well, oh well” after the line “Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home.” On this track, Plant’s voice has an incredible timber and feel to it. From the perspective of the blues, his vocal is very authentic but yet at the same time, you feel like you are listening to something you’ve never heard before. Other things to take note of are Bonham’s menacing drums, Plant’s devilish harmonica, Page’s ominous slide guitar and the song’s threatening lyric that Led Zeppelin adapted from Memphis Minnie’s original blues couplets:
Cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good
Now, cryin' won't help you, prayin' won't do you no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move
Speaking of menacing, devilish and ominous, it is of course widely known that Jimmy Page was fascinated by the occult and was an an avid collector of the British mystic and occult legend Aleister Crowley’s books and manuscripts. According to some rumors, Page owns most of Crowley’s unpublished works and even some manuscripts inscribed by Crowley himself. However, there’s more to the story than just Crowley’s writings. In 1970, Page went as far as buying Boleskine House, a remote manor in the Scottish highlands once owned by Crowley. This was a house that Crowley had acquired for one purpose only: to perform his dark rituals.
After a while, Page stopped going to the house claiming it was haunted and had “bad vibes.” The guitarist hung on to the property but left the manor in the care of his friend Malcolm Dent, who lived there with his family. Page finally sold Boleskine House in the early nineties and in 2015, the manor mysteriously caught fire. The building suffered extensive damage and it is unlikely it will ever be restored. This is unfortunate, since the house was a magnificent and very exciting place for Led Zeppelin fans to visit. At least I thought so when I went to experience it in the summer of 1990. I will never forget the eerie atmosphere that owed a lot to the mist from Loch Ness – and this, combined with what I knew of the manor’s history, was enough to rattle my bones.
Going to Boleskine House is, by the way, quite a trip from London. If anyone out there intends to check it out, reserve two days (you’ll be much more comfortable and well-rested staying the night in Inverness before heading back to London the next day). However, the eight-hour train ride from London to Inverness is not the hardest aspect about travelling to Boleskine House. The most difficult thing I had to do on that journey was to pronounce a place name (upon buying a bus ticket at the Inverness transit station) that’s practically unpronounceable: “Inverfarigaig.” This is the village where Boleskine House is located. In fact, once we got back to Inverness that night and had shaken Crowley’s ghost off our backs, my friend and I ended up in a local pub. There, we practiced saying “Inverfarigaig” with the help of some elderly patrons all night…well, really just an hour or so…it became impossible to pronounce after a few pints. Aah, to be young again.
Check out this incredible live performance of “Kashmir” featured on the “Celebration Day” DVD that came out in 2012:
You can learn more about Led Zeppelin here:
About the curator - Tommi Tikka
Tom Tikka is a linguist, poet, professional songwriter, recording artist and a music aficionado. He started playing guitar when he was four and writing songs when he was six. Consequently, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't playing or writing. It's fair to say, music and lyrics are not just something he loves to engage himself in; to him, they are a way of life.