Certain Songs #897: Led Zeppelin – “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do”

B-side, 1970

These days, of course, this wonderful non-album b-side — the only one that Led Zeppelin ever released — can easily be found on the expanded version of Coda, or the box set, or Spotify or YouTube or whatever.

But it wasn’t always the case: for the longest time, “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” was more a legend that anything. Sure, the “Immigrant Song” single sold pretty damn well, but for whatever reason, its b-side was for the longest time one of those things that I read about in the record store listings in the back of magazines or in articles about rare tracks.

So, like “Heaven and Hell” by The Who or Dylan’s live 1966 version of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” actually owning “Hey Hey What Can I Do” was something that eluded me longer that I wanted it to.

It was all more tantalizing because I would occasionally hear “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” on the radio — maybe on KKDJ before they went formatted, or KLOS or KMET when we roadtripped to L.A., but even as I started knocking off the rarest records by my favorite artists – “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” showed up on an Australian comp called Masterpieces that Joe bought at some point (and was in the jukebox of The Olympic Tavern) and “Heaven and Hell” was on the Who’s Zoo bootleg I bought in SLO Town before showing up on 1985’s Who’s Missing.

But still, “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” eluded me: they didn’t even put it on the original version of Coda, preferring to keep that record’s concept of all unreleased songs perfectly clean. Finally, in 1990, they put out the Led Zeppelin box set, and while the selling point was all-new remastering by Jimmy Page (the eternal selling point with Zep reissues), I bought it in order to own “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do.”

And why not? Had they bothered to put “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” on Led Zeppelin III, for which it was recorded but didn’t quite fit, it would have arguably been the best song on the album.

At its heart a sing-along campfire strum, “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” is a rather sordid tale of Robert Plant not being able to satisfy a woman and basically doing a shrug emoji about it. The real hook for most of the song — with no insult to John Bonham’s ever-present drums and John Paul Jones burbling bassline and trilling mandolin — is how Jimmy Page’s guitar telegraphs the sing-along ending during the early choruses.

Which, of course, is what you listen to “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” for in the first place: singing along with Jimmy Page and John Bonham as they ask the eternal question:

Hey, hey, what can I do?
Oh, no, what can I say?
Hey, hey, what can I do?
On, no, what can I say?

That ending, with Page & Bonham singing the shrug while Plant enthusiastically shouts “yeah and no and yeah and no” and “keep ballin’ keep ballin”) again and again against hyperstrummed acoustic guitars which are being encircled by the mandolin and the drums rolling and tumbling around each other is as friendly and thrilling as Led Zeppelin ever got. And there wasn’t an electric instrument within miles of it, either.

Easily one of my top ten Led Zeppelin songs, maybe even top five, “Hey, Hey, What Can I Do” is completely different from all of the other greatest Led Zeppelin songs, showcasing a band that could have fully traded the hammer of the gods for the the paperclip of the gods and still done just fine.

“Hey, Hey, What Can I Do”

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