It’s hard to say exactly when heavy metal was invented. Today, the timeline favoured by most critics and writers tends to cite Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album in February 1970 as having fully removed any blues elements from rock music and instead focusing on distorted guitar riffs and doom-laden imagery. But there were plenty of predecessors and contemporaries who could make equal claims to the crown.
Most examples are one-offs: The Beatles creating a single discordant freak out on ‘Helter Skelter’; the otherwise flower-power psychedelic groups like Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer creating heavy-hitting riff rockers on ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ and ‘Summertime Blues’, respectively; The Who laying waste to the University of Leeds just one day after Black Sabbath was released; Steppenwolf pioneering the phrase “heavy metal” in relation to motorcycle culture on ‘Born to Be Wild’; Arthur Brown’s macabre references to Hell on ‘Fire’; and Deep Purple’s Mark II line-up that utilised Jon Lord’s bone-crunching organ and Ian Gillan’s banshee wail starting with Deep Purple in Rock. However, despite all of these contributions, no band was playing harder, faster, and louder than Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin themselves often bemoan the heavy metal title placed upon them, and it’s not hard to see why. The band’s initial sound was heavily blues-influenced, while much of their most celebrated works have more directly to do with folk, progressive rock, and funk. They were playing rock music at unprecedented volume levels, complete with instrumentalists who favoured hard-hitting styles and mammoth riffs — but to call Led Zeppelin heavy metal would be negating most of their eclectic discography. Still, they were in the right place at the right time for when heavy metal truly took flight.
1970 was the year in which hard rock officially began to morph into something else. That is, of course, the year that Black Sabbath, Live at Leeds, and Deep Purple in Rock were released, but it was also the year of Led Zeppelin III. After two blues-heavy LPs, the members of Led Zeppelin retreated to the confines of the Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales to write new material. The pastoral nature of the space influenced the band to adopt a more prominent acoustic sound. When the band hopped over to Headley Grange in Hampshire to record, the result was lighter tracks like ‘Tangerine’, ‘Friends’, ‘That’s The Way’, and ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’. Ironically, the recording would also produce the band’s heaviest song to date.
Before recording the LP, the band took a short trip to Reykjavík, Iceland, to perform at the Laugardalshöll sports hall. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, in particular, were so taken by the snow-capped landscapes and the enthusiastic response from the audience that they were inspired to create a brand new song. Plant, who was a keen follower of Norse mythology, found parallels in the band’s conquest of foreign lands to the Viking quests of the Middle Ages.
“We weren’t being pompous; we did come from the land of the ice and snow,” Plant explained. “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.”
Plant peppered the lyrics with Nordic references, from the “hammer of the gods” to the noble hall of the dead, Valhalla. “I think ‘Immigrant Song’ was great,” he said. “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.” With a set of lyrics about pillaging lands and surviving “tides of war”, the music that accompanied them had to be something heavier than the band had ever attempted before.
For Led Zeppelin, getting heavy was never a problem. The opening song on their first album, ‘Good Times Bad Times’, is a heart-thumping joyride through proto-metal. Tracks like ‘The Lemon Song’, ‘Communication Breakdown’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ were louder and heavier than their contemporaries, but they still needed to kick it up a notch for ‘Immigrant Song’. That’s when John Bonham stumbled upon the galloping drum pattern that drives the song. Bonham’s right foot is legendary, and his consistently ferocious bass drum stomp on ‘Immigrant Song’ rivals any of his flashier footwork on ‘Good Times Bad Times’ or ‘Rock and Roll’.
Page found the perfect accompaniment by simply hitting octaves on F# to create the titanic riff that runs through the song. John Paul Jones sticks with Page during the verses but creates frenetic ascending runs during the chorus that remain high in the mix. Jones’ bass is perhaps the most dynamic part of the song, a number that otherwise contains Plant’s trademark howl, some of Bonham’s best drum work, and a Page riff for the ages. Yet it’s Jones who’s playing the most challenging and interesting parts of ‘Immigrant Song’.
Led Zeppelin were reticent to release singles during their run, but the power of ‘Immigrant Song’ just couldn’t be ignored. The band were under constant pressure from their label, Atlantic, to release singles, and most of the time, they were able to fend off these requests. Led Zeppelin I and II both only had one single each, but II‘s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ managed to reach number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Looking to capitalise on their somewhat unlikely status as a hot singles band, Zeppelin dutifully released ‘Immigrant Song’, which, despite its unparalleled and unprecedented heaviness, managed to crack the top 20 in America.
Led Zeppelin never stopped playing heavy music, even if they baulked at the “heavy metal” label. Their following album, Led Zeppelin IV, would be another eclectic mix of heavy rock (‘Four Sticks’, ‘Black Dog’) and gentle folk (‘Going to California’, ‘The Battle of Evermore’), but albums that followed would be more interested in expanding the band’s scope to funk (‘The Grunge’, ‘The Wanton Song’), progressive rock (‘In the Light’, ‘The Rain Song’), and even reggae (‘D’yer Mak’er’). However, the band never strayed far from heaviness, and as late as the band’s swan song Coda, you can hear the drive of tracks like ‘Wearing and Tearing’. The band’s major claim to the heavy metal crown, however, remains ‘Immigrant Song’, even if they’re not terribly eager to collect their prize.