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Music

The stories behind five classic Led Zeppelin songs

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One of the most famous names in rock music, Led Zeppelin quickly traversed the tricky terrestrial categorisations and genre boundaries to become bonafide icons. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones are now rightly considered some of rock and roll’s most untouchable heroes, but they achieved such ends with musical means. Below, we’re diving into their iconography by picking out five of their classic songs and explaining the stories behind them.

Formed in 1968, after the mercurial talent of Page saw him go in search of a new band, having witnessed The Yardbirds fall apart, Led Zep quickly made waves amid the growing R&B circuit that was swallowing London up. Recruiting Plant, Bonham and Jones, the group found their name thanks to Keith Moon who said their new band would go down like “a lead balloon”.

Led Zeppelin were quickly signed up as part of the growing roster of rock acts on Atlantic Records and found a tidy home within the iconic walls of the label. The band toured relentlessly and refined the idea of a rock show like no other band had done before them. With their touring schedule, the group showcased a vision of the future and laid the blueprints for most modern rock shows as we know them today.

Though the band spent a few years in comparative obscurity, eventually, the world caught on, and Led Zeppelin became one of the biggest bands the world had ever seen. Their live shows became more and more epic while their albums and songs somehow managed to match their growing vision and enlargening egos, doing what most bands can only hope to achieve: walking the walk and talking the talk.

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Within their songs, the band display not only a humungous amount of musical talent but also a hefty narrative structure. It would be easy to rest on the snarling talent of Page and his guitar, or allow the thunder and lighting of Bonham’s drums and Plant’s wail to carry them through their work while Jones delivers killer rhythm. But, instead, they decided to give themselves over to their art and create songs with substance as well as structure.

Below, we’ve picked out five stories from the making of some Led Zeppelin classics.

The stories behind 5 Led Zeppelin songs:

‘Immigrant Song’

The first track of the band’s third album, ‘Immigrant Song’ came out of the traps with a fire in its belly and one of Plant’s finest performances on record. While lyrically, Plant doesn’t have much to contend with, his transformative “Ahhhhh” will go down in history as one of the most iconic rock moments of all time.

“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.

‘D’Yer Mak’er’

The title, frequently mispronounced as ‘Dear Maker’ or even ‘Dire Maker’, is actually meant to be pronounced “Jamaica” in a double-edged reference to the old joke that Robert Plant once regaled in a Rolling Stone interview and also how locals pronounce the name of their Caribbean island.

In the Dave Lewis novel that explores the back catalogue of Led Zeppelin, bassist John Paul expresses his distaste for the song, dismissing it as a joke that should never have left the studio. However, others welcome the track as a refreshing change – a sort of cocktail that breaks up the onslaught of ale – from the rest of the 1973 record Houses of the Holy. As Jimmy Page explained regarding the mixed review that the single received, “I didn’t expect people not to get it. I thought it was pretty obvious.”

The song’s sound came from the difficulty that the Godfather of heavy metal drumming, John Bonham, had in recreating the reggae drum style. Bonham started with a beat derivative of 1950s doo-wop and twisted it into Zeppelin style with a typical off-beat tempo that proves difficult to imitate. As Jimmy Page illuminated in an interview back in 1977, The song itself was a cross between reggae and a ’50s number, Poor Little Fool,’ Ben E. King’s things, stuff like that.”

The song now stands out as a sort of love/hate oddity amidst their back catalogue, some champion it as a shining example of both the humour of the band and the depth they were capable of.

‘Whole Lotta Love’

The legendary track took over a year to perfect, with Jimmy Page initially coming up with the intuitive riff during the summer of 1968. A period when he was residing in his houseboat on the River Thames, apparently listening to Willie Dixon as the song bears a striking resemblance to Dixon’s song ‘You Need Love’. Unfortunately, the riff didn’t find a home on their self-titled debut, which was released the following January but, showing longevity, the composition was eventually put to good use.

Page would take up the reigns as a producer on ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and used his genius experimental ideas with pioneering recording techniques to elevate the track. John Bonham’s monstrous drum sound acted as the foundation for this song, and, in order to get the best sound possible out of the drumming maestro, Page expertly decided to record his part in the big room at Olympic Studios in London, a location which boasted 28-foot ceilings.

One of the engineers, George Chkiantz, sampled the sound by placing the drums on a platform and setting up microphones in unusual places. Adding a stereo boom eight feet above the kit, two distant side microphones, and an AKG D30 was placed two feet from the bass drum, the track was elevated to new levels. “For the song to work as this panoramic audio experience, I needed Bonzo to really stand out, so that every stick stroke sounded clear and you could really feel them,” Page said in the Wall Street Journal. “If the drums were recorded just right, we could lay in everything else.”

Robert Plant was brutally honest about the blatant steal, telling Musician Magazine some years later: “Page’s riff was Page’s riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, ‘well, what am I going to sing?’ That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that .. well, you only get caught when you’re successful. That’s the game.”

‘Stairway To Heaven’

It would be impossible to ignore the sheer weight and gravitas that ‘Stairway To Heaven’ holds. It’s easy to fall in love with ‘Stairway’, after all. It’s eight minutes of pure songwriting brilliance. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is a track that could only have come from the brains of Page, and it’s an indictment of his unwavering creative vision. Every single compartment of the song slot together perfectly. It remains eight minutes of pure songwriting brilliance, and the guitarist once explained what was racing through his thought process when he created the classic effort.

“I wanted to put something together which started with quite a fragile, exposed guitar,” he noted to the BBC. “As far as the instrumentation goes, there are recorders in the early part which give it a slightly medieval feel. That was an idea of John Paul-Jones to put the recorders on, and he played them. When I first had the idea for ‘Stairway’, that wasn’t what I was thinking, and I was thinking more about the texture of the electric piano.”

He added: “The idea of ‘Stairway’ was to have a piece of music, a composition, whereby it would just keep on unfolding into more layers, more moods. The subtlety of the intensity and the overlay of the composition would actually accelerate as it went through on every level, every emotional level, every musical level, so it just keeps opening up as it continues through its passage.”

It remains perhaps Zeppelin’s most famous song of all.

‘The Rain Song’

Taken from 1973’s Houses of the Holy, the track is unusual as part of Zeppelin’s collection, mainly because it was inspired by direct criticism. Clocking in at over seven minutes, ‘The Rain Song’ is one of the slowest burns in Led Zeppelin’s catalogue, second only to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

There’s much debate surrounding the song’s origins, with some saying that John Bonham bought the idea into the studio and others that it was Jimmy Page who originally constructed the melody in front of the new mixing console he’d just installed in his home studio in Plumpton, England. For me, though, ‘The Rain Song’ feels like a truly collaborative effort. Indeed, it is one of the only Zeppelin songs where all four members shared the composer credit.

‘The Rain Song’ has an astounding clarity of intent. It’s as though Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham all set out with one clear goal in mind and executed it with meticulous precision. The truth is that they probably did have a very clear idea of what they wanted this track to be as soon as they began stitching it together. It has been said that Page wrote ‘The Rain Song’ in response to some comments made by George Harrison to John Bonham after The Beatles guitarist attended one of their concerts.

As Jimmy Page’s biographer, Brad Tolinski, recalled, Harrison complained that Bonham’s group was unable to write ballads. Jimmy Page once described how: “George was talking to Bonzo one evening and said, ‘The problem with you guys is that you never do ballads.’ I said, ‘I’ll give him a ballad,’ and I wrote ‘Rain Song,’ which appears on Houses of the Holy. In fact, you’ll notice I even quote ‘Something’ in the song’s first two chords.”