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Music

How Joni Mitchell influenced a Led Zeppelin classic

@TomTaylorFO

They might seem like pretty disparate artists on paper, but beyond the bombastic elements of Led Zeppelin’s booming classic rock sound is a core of Greenwich Village folk spawned timeless songwriting. As frontman Robert Plant opined: “Something happened when [Bob] Dylan arrived… He was absorbing the details of America and bringing it out without any reservation at all and ignited a social conscience that is spectacular.”

This notion is something that Led Zeppelin always kept as a central tenet. However, it wasn’t only the social consciousness pouring out of the folk scene but also the delicate melodies and introspective tales that inspired the boys in Led Zeppelin. Few artists do that any better than the wondrous Joni Mitchell and the rockers were instantly enamoured with her filigreed ways.

As Jimmy Page once told Rolling Stone: “That’s the music that I play at home all the time, Joni Mitchell. Court and Spark I love because I’d always hoped that she’d work with a band. But the main thing with Joni is that she’s able to look at something that’s happened to her, drawback and crystallize the whole situation, then write about it. She brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say? It’s bloody eerie.”

With her masterpiece album Blue, Mitchell was at the peak of her life in lyrics styling. Music and heartache are never far apart, but when it comes to folk music, in particular, solemnity and songs form a harmonious match made in matrimony hell. Nowhere have those ill-fated wedding bells sounded more like manna from heaven than on Joni Mitchell’s tragedy transfigured that is Blue.

For Joni Mitchell, however, the album does not only capture the end of a relationship but the end of an era. “I was being isolated, starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage,” she told Rolling Stone. That same sense of entrapment of fame, increasing commercialism, and industry cajoling seemed to riddle her thinking when it came to relationships at the time. 

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While still in a relationship with Graham Nash, Mitchell packed up from their home that once seemed so idyllic and travelled to Europe alone. Therein, she sent Nash a telegram explaining that the relationship was over. And yet, even that sense of escape eventually had her longing for home once more and this came to the fore with the track ‘California’.

In the song, Mitchell recalls her European journey but looks forward to the cathartic boom of a homecoming. Led Zeppelin had their ear twisted by this motif and give it their own take with ‘Going to California’ later that year. Led Zep’s track warps the narrative slightly as Plant plays the part of a spurned lover hoping to leave his woman behind for a fresh start in the canyons of California.

For the track, they even switched to a typical folk double drop D tuning to give it a similar timeless atmosphere. Plant did, however, admit that he did struggle to be as nakedly vulnerable as Mitchell. “It might be a bit embarrassing at times lyrically,” he told Spin, “but it did sum up a period of my life when I was 22.” Much like Mitchell’s original beauteous ditty, as the benefactors, we can all be thankful that they braced hardship with such exuberance to leave us something joyous.