Certain Songs #902: Led Zeppelin – “When The Levee Breaks”

Year: 1971

“If it keeps on raining,” she said, “The levee’s gonna break.”

In their all-time greatest recording (if not my favorite of their songs) (though sometimes it is), Led Zeppelin turn the blues upside down using the simple trick of recording John Bonham from the other side of the universe, and then taking advantage of the light-years it took for his playing to actually get to the studio by filling in as much of the space and time with guitars, harmonica and Robert Plant trying to sound like both a guitar and harmonica.

When Robert Christgau (who’s a fan) called Led Zeppelin a “techno-cosmic doomshow” in his Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll article about The Rolling Stones (trust me, it made sense in context), it was probably “When The Levee Breaks” he was talking about, as Jimmy Page took the unrelenting drum part Bonzo came up with and made it the pulsebeat of the end of the world.

That lady who was buying the stairway to heaven is nowhere to be found here, as she and it were swept away by the unrelenting floodwaters that crested the river, the levees, the damns, everything it their path with John Bonham’s multiple stop-time snare/crashes the sound of the entire world being washed away.

“Crying won’t help you,” she pointed out. “Prayin’ won’t do you no good.”

Meanwhile, Jimmy Page’s terrific hypnotic guitar riff somehow surfs the flood like a rock skipped over a placid lake, because like the levee, his guitar is moving with the flood, not trying to impede it, figuring that there’s no point in trying to stop it, and maybe they’ll all end up in a better place.

Which just ignores the harmonica trying to sound the warning to the poor folks still downstream, as well as Robert Plants continual wails of “goin’ down, goin’ down now” as the whole world spins off of its axis. At one point near the end, the whole band is lost in the flood, submerged, fighting for life and breath, but still playing because it’s the only thing they can possibly do.

All last night sat on the levee and moaned

Meanwhile, I’m playing air drums to the stop-time part — which generates enough power to stop time itself on occasion — and The Beastie Boys brilliantly jumpstart their massive Licensed to Ill with a sample that sounded utterly startling in 1987, which in turn created an ongoing cottage industry of getting instant heaviosity credits by sampling Zeppelin.

About which, I’ve never read anything by either Page, Plant or Jones about their music being sampled, but given that they were basically a human sampler as a band, I’m guessing that they were cool with it.

“When The Levee Breaks”

Led Zep (plus Neil Young!) perform “When The Levee Breaks” at their Rock ‘n’ Roll HOF induction

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