Certain Songs #890: Led Zeppelin – “Communication Breakdown”

Album: Led Zeppelin
Year: 1969

Rocketing out of the final notes of “Black Mountain Side” like a pissed off laser beam, “Communication Breakdown” was not just a 2:30 shot of finely amplified adrenalin but also an anomaly in Led Zeppelin history: it’s probably the only song where John Bonham couldn’t figure out what to do.

I didn’t even realize it until a couple of years ago, but on the verses, Bonham is playing against the energy of the song. Jimmy Page, Robert Plant & John Paul Jones are all hopping a supersonic rocket ship to the moon, and with every single beat, Bonham is trying to keep it anchored to Earth. It’s a very weird drum part.

And even weirder, it’s not so far off from what Bill Ward would end up doing a year later on it’s evil twin, “Paranoid.” And it’s not like either one of them couldn’t play fast ones, as Bonham killed on “Achilles Last Stand” an so did Ward on “Symptom of the Universe.

But of course, none of that mattered, because “Communication Breakdown” was another twisted attempt at a pop song, though it was never released as such, except as the b-side of “Good Times, Bad Times.” That said, it balanced the aggressive attack with completely catchy chorus, featuring an army of overdubbed Robert Plants singing over a modified Chuck Berry riff.

Communication breakdown, it’s always the same
I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!

And then of course, after the second chorus, Led Zeppelin quite literally caught lighting in a bottle as the whole song comes to a stop and a reverse-echoed Robert Plant comes swooping with a long “Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhh, SUCK!” and Jimmy Page uncorks a solo that sounds like a army of hornets wielding power drills aimed directly at your heart.

Watch out!!

As the solo skitters between speakers trying to find a place to roost, the better to drill you with, eventually the chorus comes back in, but not even that can stop Page’s guitar, not until the solo swirls right out of the speakers, narrowly missing you while making a hole in your wall while disappearing from view. Hope nobody was standing on the other side!

Meanwhile the rest of Led Zeppelin are just chanting “communication breakdown” as Robert Plant screams at the top of his register about wanting to be loved all night, and the whole thing is just utter glorious chaos that eventually fades out into oblivion.

It was the teenage love angst so wonderfully expressed in a song “Communication Breakdown” that’s made Led Zeppelin an album that’s resonated with successive generations of newly-hormoned teenagers.

And I know that “Communication Breakdown” wasn’t punk rock, but like the aforementioned “Paranoid” and Queen’s seemingly forgotten “Modern Times Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it also kinda was in the way that it crystallized pure energy over a speed-freak riff in much the same way The Stooges and the MC5 were doing.

“Communication Breakdown”

“Communication Breakdown” performed live

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