Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti is a glimmering swirl of a thing. Weaving the smokiness of delta blues, the exotic charm of middle-eastern classical, and the earthiness of country and Americana, the album bends and shifts gloriously, remoulding itself countless times so that we’re never quite sure whats going to be thrown our way next. From the disco infusions of ‘Trampled Under Foot’ to the apocalyptic riffs of ‘Kashmir’, it is truly a wonder to behold.
However, there is one track in particular that, for me, has always stood out. And while it might not be the most stadium-worthy face-melter on the album (far from it in fact) it’s always had a certain charm for me. Why? Well, because it bears a striking resemblance to the work of one of America’s greatest songwriters: the leg-stamping, big oil-admonishing, Spotify-boycotting legend that is Mr Neil Young.
Released on his 1969 album with Crazy Horse, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, ‘Down By The River’ contains the first buds of what would later flourish in his 1972 album Harvest. The track, which features Young strumming his faithful Les Paul ‘Old Black’, sees the singer-songwriter tell the story of a man who has killed his lover, having shot her dead after feeling unable to go beyond the emotional highs of their relationship. “I shot my baby, down by the river,” Young sings, evoking the murderous tales in some of America’s earliest country and blues tracks.
But, at its heart, ‘Down By The River’ is a song about the death of love rather than the death of a lover. “There’s no real murder in it,” Young once declared during an interview with Fusion Magazine in 1970. “It’s about blowing your thing with a chick. See, now, in the beginning, it’s ‘I’ll be on your side, you be on mine.’ It could be anything. Then the chick thing comes in. Then at the end, it’s a whole other thing. It’s a plea… a desperation cry.”
How Led Zeppelin came across ‘Down By The River’ is unclear. What is clear is that they were clearly blown away by Young’s control over melody, structure and subject matter. Young is a masterful storyteller, and Plant himself always had a taste for tracks that followed archetypal narratives, whether it’s the voyage narrative in ‘Immigrant Song’ or the allusions to the myth of Icarus in ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
In ‘Down By The Seaside, we not only hear Led Zeppelin adopt Young’s sauntering, folkish melodies and lush chord progressions, we also see Page and Plant adopt the same reverence for the earth beneath their feet. In his song, Young uses the titular river both as a setting and an omniscient observer, who witnesses and judges the actions of the killer. In this way, Young’s river is bestowed with an innocence that the human characters lack. Likewise, Plant’s lyrics treat the ocean and the countryside as places where humanity exits in a purer form, untainted by the corrupting influence of the metropolis.
While the city streets are full of “folks racin’, racin’ / No time left, to pass the time of day”, people in the countryside spend their time sailing, singing, and speaking to the fishes: “Sing loud for the sunshine / Pray hard for the rain / And show/ your love for lady nature/ And she will come back again.” Here, we clearly see the influence of Bron-yr-Aur, the cottage in Wales where Led Zeppelin stayed after a gruelling US tour, and where Page and Plant wrote ‘Down By The Seaside’ in a nod to the great Neil Young. Give both tracks a listen and tell me you don’t hear the similarities.