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Music

Why Led Zeppelin rarely played ‘When the Levee Breaks’ live

@TylerGolsen

Bootlegging Led Zeppelin gigs was a dangerous business. Armed with an aggressive and intimidating manager in Peter Grant, Zeppelin were known for strong-arming their way across the US and Europe throughout the 1970s. If the group felt like they were being swindled in any way, shape, or form, whoever was on their bad side was putting themselves in danger.

This was especially true for illegal recordings. If you were lucky, you’d have your expensive recording equipment doused with water before you were unceremoniously thrown out of the venue. If you weren’t, you could catch a swift beating from the massive Grant or any number of the band’s burly roadcrew. Grant was known to hover around English record shops just to make sure nobody was selling any bootleg Zeppelin albums, unabashedly causing great physical and monetary damage if he saw the unauthorised records in shops.

That obviously didn’t stop bootleggers. Led Zeppelin only released one live album, the soundtrack to 1976’s The Song Remains the Same, during their decade-long run as the biggest band in the world. Their live shows were legendary, and there was a massive demand to hear what the group sounded like in their natural environment. Despite the risk to life and limb, a fair number of people continued to prop up microphones to capture the mighty Zeppelin in all their glory.

With quite a bit of time passed since their dissolution, Led Zeppelin are ironically well-archived thanks to the prevalence of bootlegs. They even serve historical purposes: the group only occasionally played some of their songs that went on to become legendary. While ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ found permanent places in their concert setlists, Zeppelin were a bit coy with some of their other hits.

That is certainly the case for ‘When the Levee Breaks’, the legendary closing track to the group’s untitled fourth album. Despite being right in the band’s blues-centric wheelhouse, the song was only rarely played during the group’s live gigs. That might be because John Bonham’s classic drum work was brought to life through studio trickery, the kind that was difficult to replicate live. Or maybe the band just didn’t see why they had to include ‘Levee’ over tracks like ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ or ‘In My Time of Dying’.

These days, ‘When the Levee Breaks‘ is one of Led Zeppelin’s most popular tracks. Even back in their contemporary heyday, fans could easily identify the song during its opening drum salvo. That can clearly be heard on a soundboard recording from the group’s 1975 concert in Bloomington, Minnesota. The show was the kickoff for the group’s 1975 North American tour, and a recently uncovered soundboard recording shows how intense Led Zeppelin were on stage.

Check out the live recording of ‘When the Levee Breaks’ down below.