There were two competing forces when it came to Led Zeppelin. One was the simple twelve bars and three core chords of the blues, but the other, well, the other came to the fore when they were comically crowned the greatest rock band of all time as Planet Rock held a survey asking for their audience to vote for their favourite singer, guitarist, bassist and drummer. The supergroup that this fantasy poll created already existed, they were called Led Zeppelin, each member winning their respective category.
In short, their central tenets might have been structured around simplicity, but they were brimming with such monumental musicianship in their ranks that could make musical beans on toast into a Michelin Star dish. A case in point would be ‘Black Dog’, a simple track in the hands of another band, but Led Zeppelin managed to come up with a time structure so complex that even Timpson’s would be powerless to help.
Nevertheless, they managed to rattle through ‘Black Dog’ on 230 scintillating occasions live. After all, they were a live band. As Jorgen Angel, the photographer who snapped their very first gig told us: “When they went on stage it was something very special and different and spectacular. They were full of energy, and they were different.” They were different on record too. For some, the superfluous musical flourishes they twisted into the blues were simply overblown. However, for others, they were virtuosos pushing the boundaries of rock.
However, with one track they ended up hoisted by their own petard, so to speak. John Bonham might not be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummer of all time, but he’s certainly in the conversation. Testimony for this is the influence he still holds over modern masters like Matt Helders who commented: “He’s somebody that I always come back to.”
And Speaking of his ‘Moby Dick’ solo he added: “It gives me chills, and that’s no exaggeration. I can hardly even express what it does to me. It’s perfect, absolutely perfect. It sounds unreachable to get to a standard like that. It’s not that it’s so difficult – a lot of people could learn to play it, and I’m sure they have. But the way that he executes it is just so unique – there’s so much character to it.”
Nevertheless, character couldn’t help him drum his way out of a pickle that Led Zep landed themselves in with the ‘Four Sticks’—perhaps the most obscure song on the opus that is Led Zeppelin IV. The song’s meandering wistful section offers a ying to the heavy yang of the bulk of the track. After all, none other than George Harrison had said they should offer a change of pace. And in order to achieve this, they took a literal approach and transitioned from the thunderous 5/4 main section, suddenly floating into dreamy 6/8, and back rolling into the insistent main riff without breaking stride.
Even recording this rhythmic oddity was difficult never mind playing it live. “It took him ages to get ‘Four Sticks’,” John Paul Jones recalled regarding Bonham’s angry struggles. “I seemed to be the only one who could actually count things in. Page would play something and [John would] say, ‘That’s great. Where’s the first beat? You know it, but you gotta tell us…’ He couldn’t actually count what he was playing. It would be a great phrase, but you couldn’t relate it to a count. If you think of ‘one’ being in the wrong place, you are completely screwed”.
In other words, the band were singing from the same hymn sheet but in different languages, the meta was all messed up and the self-taught ‘Thunder of Drums’ was at a loss. Perhaps this wasn’t all that surprising, as Jimmy Page said, “The song was supposed to be abstract.” As the heartbeat of the band, this had Bonham looking at a Jackson Pollock wondering which bit was the nose. In the end, he got it in two takes, but not because he nailed it, but as Page explained, because “it was physically impossible for him to do another.”
Bonham was also helped along the way by downing a beer, and this Dutch courage helped him lay down a beat. He took inspiration from the Little Richard classic ‘Keep a Knockin’’, originally drummed by the legendary Charles Connor, who James Brown fitting declared “was the first drummer to put funk into rhythm”. Thus, you can also take that as a mark of Led Zeppelin’s wildly eclectic oeuvre that there is even an echo of funk in the mix.
In the end, Bonham refused to be defeated and even came back for more once his first take was laid down. The clacking sound you can hear on the track is Bonham running through it a second time with an extra stick in each hand, hence why it is called ‘Four Sticks’. What’s more, he even declared consummate victory over his foe by playing it live… once… in Copenhagen. And that triumphant outing over time-signatures lives to tell the tale in the video below.