We all know the story of Achilles. The hero of Homer’s The Illiad, Achilles was a fierce warrior who was invulnerable to injury thanks to his mother’s decision to dip him into the river Styx as an infant, holding him by his heel. It would be this heel that would be pierced by an arrow shot by the Trojan prince, Paris, near the end of the Trojan war, giving us the term ‘Achilles heel’. But for Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, the story took on a new resonance when the singer had a near-death experience whilst travelling in Greece with his wife.
The lyrics for ‘Achilles Last Stand’ were inspired by Robert Plant’s travels throughout Morocco, Greece, and Spain. Following their US tour, Led Zeppelin travelled extensively in order to remain tax exiles. So, in June 1975, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant went to Morocco, where they developed material for their next album. The track is heavily influenced by the flamenco and Moroccon musical traditions, which Page soaked up during the trip, and attempted to replicate in his guitar playing. The lyrics were also inspired by some of the poetry Robert was reading at the time, which included William Blake and John Milton.
However, the song’s title is actually an ironic reference to another trip Plant went on during this period of exile. The Led Zeppelin frontman was travelling through Greece with his wife when, whilst out driving, he lost control of the vehicle and crashed. The hair-raising incident could easily have killed them both, but, surprisingly, Plant emerged from the crash with nothing more than a broken ankle. During this period, the band were writing material for Presence. By the time Plant and the band entered the Musicland studio to record the album, Plant was still in a wheelchair.
‘Achilles Last Stand’ was coming together nicely. Led Zeppelin had already recorded Bonham’s metal-driven drums, John Paul Jones throbbing bassline, and Jimmy Page’s mysterious guitar lines. Plant was so enthused by the outcome that, when it was time to record his vocal lines, he got a little too excited and managed to fall, injuring his ankle almost as badly as he had in the initial car crash. The band decided to name the track ‘Achilles Last Stand’ as a tongue and cheek reference to Plant’s incapacitation.
For Zeppelin fans, the track is regarded as one of their very best. It drips with otherworldly, psychedelic arrangments, which, with the help of Bonham’s furious drumming, take on an intense, motoric energy. Jimmy Page was especially proud of the track. He overdubbed seven separate guitar parts to give the song the depth of colour he wanted. “It was done in one evening, the whole of the arrangement,” Page said in a 2007 interview. “To be honest with you, the other guys didn’t know: ‘Has he gone mad? Does he know what he’s doing?’ But at the end of it, the picture became clear. It was like a little vignette, every time something comes around.”
As Page later described, the track came to represent a moment of perfection in a period of intense anxiety: “Presence and my control over all the contributing factors to that LP the fact that it was done in three weeks, and all the rest of it – is so good for me,” Page said. “It was just good for everything really, even though it was a very anxious point, and the anxiety shows, group-wise – you know, ‘Is Robert going to walk again from his auto accident in Greece?’ and all this sort of thing. But I guess the solo in ‘Achilles Last Stand’ on Presence is in the same tradition as the solo from ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on the fourth LP. It is on that level to me.”