Certain Songs #914: Led Zeppelin – “Achilles Last Stand”

Album: Presence
Year: 1976

If a band that sold eighty gazillion (that’s an estimate) albums in its career could be said to have a cult album, then Presence is absolutely Led Zeppelin’s cult record.

From the moment it was released, Presence was kind of underrated, and I think it’s for the same reason that I love it: it’s their most straightforward and uncomplicated record, bereft of any kind of extraneous instrumentation whatsoever.

Just Jimmy Page on guitars (and more guitars), Robert Plant on vocals (and harmonica), John Paul Jones on bass and John Bonham on drums.


At the time, after the staggering variety of Physical Graffiti, the simplicity of Presence seemed like a step back for a group that had proven they could do anything. That said, given that the follow-up was the keyboard-dominated In Through The Out Door, you could almost see Presence as more like hitting the reset button, or even Jimmy’s last stand.

See what I did there?

With a chiming guitar fading in from the spheres that then kicks into a typically ferocious John Bonham drum beat, “Achilles Last Stand” is a 10-minute fever dream that moves a near-punk rock speed but also refuses to stay in a single place for very long.

So one moment, Jimmy Page’s guitars reaching towards the sun, each riff climbing on the other’s back, and the next moment, Bonham is crashing the song into a mountain with sped-up “Bolero” drumbeats. Meanwhile Robert Plant is singing about — oh, I have no idea what he’s singing about.

The interpretation has always been that he’s singing about the car accident that wiped out a world tour, put him in a wheelchair and inadvertently spurred Presence in the first place.

Wandering and wandering
What place to rest the search?
The mighty arms of Atlas
Hold the heavens from the earth

Which you could totally get from that verse or chorus or whatever it is. And, of course, it doesn’t even matter; not when “Achilles Last Stand” features dueling overdubbed Plants in several spots, so he can counterpoint himself while also dueling with Jimmy Page’s guitar.

Also dueling with Jimmy Page’s guitar: Jimmy Page’s guitar. I think the real reason that the people who love Presence love it so much is that there is so. much. guitar. And from the moment it begins, “Achilles Last Stand” is chock full of guitars commenting on the action, guitars soloing around the melody line, guitars wobbling around the drumbeat, considerable guitars trying to speak not even realizing that they cannot form words, guitars bending and weaving and churning and laughing and crying all at once.

Guitars.

“Achilles Last Stand” is the sound of Jimmy Page cramming more ideas into a song that even he thought possible, and just might be his greatest creation.

“Achilles Last Stand”

“Achilles Last Stand” live at Knebworth, 1979

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