Led Zeppelin were many things, but they certainly weren’t slackers. Unlike many of their illustrious contemporaries, they liked to get things done quickly, content to leave year-long studio stints to the likes of Pink Floyd. At the height of their fame, Led Zeppelin were a song-making machine, capable of churning out hit singles as if they were nothing.
Their entire 1969 debut, for example, was recorded in just 36 hours, and that’s including mixing time. Their legendary 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV was recorded at the same breakneck speed. However, the chaotic and unpredictable nature of studio sessions meant that the group’s original recordings all had to be redubbed at a later date – all except one.
Led Zeppelin started work on their fourth studio album at the tail end of 1970. They booked a week of studio time in London and then put in another six days of recording at the group’s custom studio at Headley Grange, a former poorhouse in Hampshire that was built in 1795. The creative freedom that the private studio offered the band sparked hitherto unseen levels of creativity. With a pep in their step, Led Zeppelin left Headley Grange and returned to London for five days of overdubs.
Altogether, Led Zeppelin spent about 17 days creating one of the greatest albums in the history of classic rock. Alas, the process of mixing and mastering the album in LA took almost as long. Following a studio error, Jimmy Page, whose life was turning into a living nightmare by this point, was forced to ditch all but one of the tracks mixed in LA. Arguably, it was the fault of engineer Andy Johns, who has suggested that Led Zeppelin should mix the album at Sunset Sound to soak up the flavours of The Beach Boys and Joni Mithcell, both of whom had recorded at the studio.
The timing couldn’t have been worse. The ’71 San Fernando earthquake had taken place just a few days before, meaning that it was nearly impossible for Page and Johns to work in peace: “So the tapes began rolling and sure enough there was an aftershock,” Johns recalled in a 2013 interview.
“Totally coincidental of course, but Jimmy was convinced it was the power of the music. So that was rather funny.” Less funny was the moment Led Zeppelin realised all of the LA mixes were unusable. Apart from ‘When The Levee Breaks’, everything had to be thrown out. “The previous stuff I’d done at Sunset was really good,” Johns once recalled. “I thought Sunset was a cool place but they had changed the room since I was last there. I don’t know what happened.”
Jimmy Page was equally perplexed: “It didn’t sound anything like it did in L.A.,” the guitarist said of the playback sessions in Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page. “I was astonished. […] Maybe the monitors were giving us a totally false sound picture.” But when Page returned to London to remix the tracks, he found that ‘When The Levee’ Breaks’ sounded just as good as it had in LA. Something about that truck, it seemed, was utterly indestructible, as though it contained something no amount of studio misdirection could spoil. No wonder it’s stood the test of time.