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Music

Listen to John Paul Jones' elemental bassline for Led Zeppelin song 'Heartbreaker'

@SamWKemp

Someone once told me that a mini fridge is more important than a bassist. John Paul Jones is more than enough proof of just how ridiculous that notion is. The sheer eye-popping magnitude of Robert Page, Jimy Plant, and John Bonham’s musical virtuosity has meant that the bassist and keyboardist’s work with seminal rock band Led Zeppelin has often gone underappreciated. Still, the isolated recording of Jones’ fretwork on ‘Heartbreaker’ found below should – if there is any dignity left in the world – put things straight.

Jones was introduced to Jimmy Page when the two were working as session musicians in London. But it wouldn’t be until 1968 that Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones would meet for the first time in a dim studio for their first rehearsal as Led Zeppelin. As Jones once recalled, the four musicians first played together in “a small room on Gerrard Street, a basement room, which is now Chinatown,” he said, adding: “There was just wall-to-wall amplifiers, and a space for the door – and that was it. Literally, it was everyone looking at each other – ‘what shall we play?’ Me doing more sessions, I didn’t know anything at all. There was an old Yardbirds’ number called ‘Train Kept a Rollin’… The whole room just exploded.”

Jones immediately carved out a niche for himself, one that would see him ground the band’s swirling stadium-rock sound with classical musicianship. Jones, after all, was the only Led Zeppelin musician to have had a formal musical education, having worked as an organist and choirmaster at a local church after studying at Blackheath’s Christ’s College. He was just 14-years-old when he took that job. The same year he bought his first bass guitar, an instrument that would see him pull away from the formality of church music and embrace the chaotic world of rock ‘n’ roll.

This rumbling isolated recording showcases Jones’ incredible control over his tone. Despite its intensely guttural quality, the bassline to ‘Heartbreaker’ somehow manages to pop out of the mix with startling clarity. That’s no small feat considering Jones had Plant’s soaring vocals, Page’s jet-fuel guitar lines, and Bonham’s floor-shaking drums to compete with. The bassline’s charm lies – as is so often the case with Jones’ fretwork – in its simplicity. 

Led Zeppelin needed somebody with a lack of ego to centre the group’s sound, and Jones was the perfect musician for the job. His metrical, groove-laden riffs acted as the centre point around which the rest of Led Zeppelin swung, rooting their sound in something low-slung and elemental. 

Take a listen to the isolated recording of Jones’ bassline for ‘Heartbreaker’ to hear what I mean.