There are few bass players in the history of rock music with more iconic performances than John Paul Jones. Ostensibly ‘The Quite One’ in Led Zeppelin, Jones could make a thunderous racket when the band got going, especially if he was feeding off the indefatigable energy of John Bonham. Jones brought in elements of funk, jazz, and classical to the band’s already eclectic sound, and his desire to push boundaries allowed Led Zeppelin to innovate beyond the parameters of a mere blues band.
The greatest thrill was when Jones began to seek melodies and rhythms all his own. These are some of his greatest tracks put to take: the wandering lines of ‘Ramble On’, the fluid fills of ‘Good Times Bad Times’, the exploratory opening salvo of ‘The Song Remains The Same’. It’s when he frees himself of riff-rock that Jones begins to show his versatility and restlessly musical mind.
But if there’s one perfect union of the band’s blues-based origins and Jones’ desire to explore all across the fretboard, it would be ‘The Lemon Song’ from Led Zeppelin II. Rooted primarily in Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’, Zeppelin also manage to explore Robert Johnson’s ‘Traveling Riverside Blues’ and Albert King’s ‘Cross-Cut Saw’ while integrating their own unique musical ideas, from Jimmy Page’s wild guitar runs to Bonham’s driving intensity during the song’s tempo changes. But it’s Jones who really shines throughout the song.
His genius is all over the track, but it’s during the song’s breakdown where Jones elevates himself from great player to rock legend. He’s itching to get out of the gate, but it’s when Robert Plant tells the others to “take it down a bit” that Jones really starts going off. Page and Bonham recognise what’s going on and amicably get out of his way, allowing Jones to take a rare moment in the spotlight. He uses all of it that he can, bringing a soul-influenced exploration of the bass around the three-chord structure that the song is limited to.
By the time Plant gets to the titular lemon squeezing, Jones is making his bobbing bass seem effortless. Never one to indulge in histrionics, Jones never lets his flashier tendencies get in the way of the groove, and holds down the funk as the others dance around him.
The best Led Zeppelin songs found the members passing the baton, and the fact that the band had four musical leaders at the height of their powers meant that songs could go anywhere. When Jones was in charge, things were inevitably going to get funky.
Check out Jones’ iconic bass part, isolated in all its glory, down below.