This is an indulgent post by me, an ode to how one of the world’s greatest bands produced an underrated masterpiece. Sure it wasn’t as widely known as Stairway To Heaven or as much fun as Rock’N’Roll. But to me, it’s a sonic work of art, a complex yet powerful testament to what a genius producer can get out of four incredible musicians.
Originally, “When The Levee Breaks” was an obscure blues song written and recorded in 1929 by obscure blues singers Kansas JoeMcCoy and Memphis Minnie ( back when you basically couldn’t be a blues singer if your name didn’t include the name of a state). She wrote the song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, a disastrous event that was responsible for the migration of many African Americans to the Midwest in search of work (hence the repeated line about ‘goin to Chicago’) The lyrics, like many blues standards from the time are all about doom and gloom and punctuated with African American phrases and grammar.Which is why it’s so weird to hear a 24 year white Welshman like Robert Plant sing the words. Enter Led Zeppelin. Faithful fans of black American artists, they took the song and made it their own, something they tended to do without crediting the original artists due to the lax copyright enforcement at the time.
The Very First Time
I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. My friend Bilal who was always my go to guy for music had introduced me to Zeppelin at the age of 14. One day he walked in and he said he had found a song of theirs that was even better than “Stairway To Heaven” and it was going to be unlike anything I had ever heard. We gathered round the stereo as he popped in the CD and put on “When The Levee Breaks.” That was when I heard those first few seconds of John Bonham’s legendary drum intro. He was right.
Just listen to the first few seconds. Just listen to it. Put on your head phones and turn up the volume. It was unlike anything I had ever heard and it raised the hair on the back of my neck. It was thunderous, filling the air with doom, sounding like an invasion of giants. I clearly remember wondering how anyone could make a drum set sound so huge, so volcanic and so powerful. No one has since then. That’s because there hasn’t been another John Bonham. (Although Dave Grohl comes close). And not everyone was as smart as lead guitarist Jimmy Page when it came to recording and producing drum sounds.
Much of the sound comes from the sheer brute force used by Bonham when playing the drums. Most drummers will use their feet just to keep the beat steady on the bass drum, putting most of their power into their upper body playing. Not Bonzo. The massive stomp from the bass drum comes from his technique of not just raising his foot on its heel to play the bass pedal but raising his entire foot off the ground and pressing down with the toes pointing downward. This allowed him to stomp with massive power and simultaneously also freed his foot up to be quick and flexible, making him capable of playing delicately or thudding away as per the songs requirement. That defining thud of the bass drum is what the entire song is built around. Combine that with gun-shot like hits on the snare and you have a full on sonic assault.
Jimmy Page was also one of the first people to realize that distance equals depth when it comes to recording instruments with such a huge dynamic range as Bonzo’s drums. Led Zeppelin were recording their fourth album not at some hi-fi studio but at the Headley Grange, a run down, spooky old castle where they lived and recorded, making stuff up along the way. Now the common practice for recording drums is to individually place a single small mic on each piece of the drumset, the snare, the toms the bass and so on. But when you have a phenomenon like Bonzo, Page had other plans.
To record the sound for “When The Levee Breaks,” Page and the engineers set up Bonzo’s kit at the bottom of a stairwell and dangled two mics from three stories above, giving the drums this huge airy space that magnifies the sound ten fold. Page was one of the first people to recognize that you had to record not just the sound coming from the instrument but also capture the air in between, where the sound travels. Think about that next time you hear the carefully produced, metronomic, tight and airless drum tracks for most pop and rock songs today. No computer in the world will ever replicate that natural ambience.
Making The Song Actually Sound Like A Storm
This is where Jimmy Page’s genius as a producer really shines. The song itself is fairly simple, there’s three distinct musical sections that repeat three times. But every time a section repeats, if you listen very closely there’s something added. The instruments get muddier, the sound starts swaying from left to right and Plant’s voice and the harmonica seem to be the only things cutting through the swirl. That’s a very deliberate effect.
To achieve the muddy swirl Page used several physical techniques that could be achieved quite easily today through digital effects. For one, the song was recorded at a fast tempo but then the tape was slowed down to give it that dragging, lumbering giant feel. Then Page kept switching where the instrument sounds were coming from as the song progressed. Past the 4 minute mark, if you listen with headphones, you’ll realize that the guitars and the harmonica start from the right and left headphones respectively but switch places multiple times, creating that circular swirl effect. He then added several analog effects, the most elaborate being his pioneering use of ‘backward echo.’ This meant that you could hear the echo of an instrument before you would hear the source. Which is why the harmonica sounds so otherworldy. Who the hell thinks of this stuff?
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. – Jimmy Page speaking to Uncut Magazine.
The Incredible Vocals of Robert Plant
For most people, Robert Plant is a sharply divisive character. For some people, he was the weakest link in Led Zeppelin with his high pitched caterwauling ruining the music of guitarist Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer Bonham, who were all contenders to be the best living musicians on their respective instruments. For others, me included, he is one of the greatest front men of all time, the man who basically created the template of the power house lead vocalist/sex symbol/Golden God.
While I admit that the older he got, the worse he sounded, here Plant is at the peak of his powers. He starts the song with a low, mournful delivery and by the time he gets to the “going to Chicago” refrain, he’s full on wailing like a banshee. It’s an incredible range for a guy who was barely 23-years old at the time. Plant’s alternate wailing and growling make the song less of a mournful dirge and almost uplifting. Those vocals get me every time, especially those final taunts if “going down….goin down now…goin down” where it sounds like he’s slowly getting submerged under water.
But really…it’s just kind of awesome.
Listening to this song always gives me goosebumps. Zep ended up never playing it live because it was so hard to replicate its feel while playing live. It’s not everyday that a song manages to create such a vivid visual of a natural disaster. But that’s exactly what it manages to do. And of course. It fucking rocks at the same time too.
And it inspired a host of imitators…
It’s hard to create a completely unique drum beat on a fairly regular time signature, but that’s what Bonzo did. Many bands were clearly inspired by it. Here’s a bunch of the good ones.
Pearl Jam made it awesome with “No Way”
Coldplay made it totally wussy with “In My Place”
And finally Cameron Crowe paid tribute to it with the fictional band Stillwater from the movie “Almost Famous” who were based in part on Led Zeppelin themselves, bringing the whole thing full circle.