Despite their hesitance, there is no song that more quickly coronated Led Zeppelin as the kings of heavy metal than ‘Immigrant Song‘. Noted for singer Robert Plant’s unholy rock wail, the track is actually underpinned by some fine work from the entire band. Jimmy Page is alive and electric on his riffs while the bass of John Paul Jones thuds along like a steam train. But perhaps the most unusually subtle performance comes from John Bonham.
Speaking to radio station Q107 in 2010, Plant shared the reason why this song meant so much to him. Revealing: “I think ‘Immigrant Song’ was great. Having been to Iceland, where we wrote it, I could understand exactly how it caught me musically and the agitation of the music too. It was smooth, cool.” Much of that smoothness was brought to the fore by John Bonham’s effortless percussion style, something which can be heard more faithfully in the isolated drum track below.
Taken from the band’s second record, aptly titled Led Zeppelin II the track is seen as one of the group’s defining moments in becoming the huge names they were. It was also a song that somehow captured their already meteoric rise to prominence. Little did the band know that the ‘Immigrant Song’ would become a staple of every rock and roll bar’s jukebox forevermore. Despite the imagery in the effort, it did all come from an authentic place.
As Robert Plant told Chris Welch in his 1994 book Led Zeppelin, reflecting on the now-iconic trip to Iceland, “We weren’t being pompous … We did come from the land of the ice and snow. We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission. We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik, and the day before we arrived, all the civil servants went on strike, and the gig was going to be cancelled. The university prepared a concert hall for us, and it was phenomenal.
“The response from the kids was remarkable, and we had a great time. ‘Immigrant Song’ was about that trip, and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different.” Lyrically, the song was a departure for the band, but musically it was a trademark of their soon-to-be universal hammer blows.
Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer, once picked out ‘Immigrant Song’ as one of his favourite displays of John Bonham’s talent, especially the live performance at Madison Square Garden in 1972. “This live version just comes right out of the gate,” confirms Grohl. In the live track, we get a real sense of Bonham’s commitment to putting on a show for the fans, “You know that people’s jaws would have dropped. Bonham is really pushing it. He’s either drunk as hell, or he’s just having the time of his life.”
There’s a good reason for his joy; the song is perfectly designed to let him roll out his finest work. It’s something you can hear most clearly in the isolated drums below, which speak highly of John Bonham as arguably the greatest drummer of all time.