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"We were playing in one room in a house with a recording truck, and a drum kit was duly set up in the main hallway, which is a three storey hall with a staircase going up on the inside of it. And when John Bonham went out to play the kit in the hall, I went ‘Oh, wait a minute, we gotta do this!' Curiously enough that's just a stereo mike that's up the stairs on the second floor of this building, and that was his natural balance."

********************

There will never be a more important band than The Beatles. The Beatles redefined pop music, essentially created power pop music, redefined pop rock, and created the template of success for every single band that arrived after them. The Beatles were the first band to transcend the notion of a global audience; songs like "She Loves You" flattened and leveled the world. The Beatles forever changed the way that music is marketed and digested on a mass level. There will never be another Beatles, just like there will never be another George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Part of the mass appeal of The Beatles was that they were a band of four guys who were both collectively cool and individually God-like. Of course, nearly everyone identified themselves with McCartney or Lennon as the former represented a universal kind of genius and accessibility while the latter tapped into the arty and culturally conscious kind of genius that life after 1968 demanded. And then you had Harrison's Quiet Guy personality—smart, reserved, sensitive, spiritually experimental—and Ringo's Everyman quality—the blue collar and working man's totem; a (mostly) forgotten personality but a guy who nonetheless checked his ego at the door and thanklessly provided the foundation for every Beatles song ever made. Each band member had a meaning above their role as a musician/entertainer. To reiterate: The Beatles changed how we look at music, and musicians.

A handful of other bands and artists around this time (namely, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Who) also arrived and created their own mythology-making machines, but in terms of four-man bands the only one, I think, that rivals The Beatles in terms of individual larger-than-life, God-like personalities whose sum was greater than its individual parts is Led Zeppelin.

As a band, all Zeppelin did was take power blues with a collective force to levels not seen before (to the point that one can plausibly map out the history of heavy metal to include the seeds laid down by Robert Plant's screams, Jimmy Page's mythical riffs, John Paul Jones's heavy bass riffs, and John Bonham's booming drums). To be sure, there were bands doing power blues before Zeppelin, most notably Cream, but Zeppelin pulled away from the pack almost instantly. "Good Times Bad Times," the first song on their debut album, announces itself to the world so powerfully that only Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" stands above it in terms debut album openers. "Good Times Bad Times" kicks down your door and punches you in the face; the strengths of each Zeppelin member is on display with this song. You can learn a lot about an artist and what their trajectory will be based on their first piece and "Good Times Bad Times" shows you everything you need to know in spades.

As individuals, the members of Led Zeppelin are iconic and mythical; demigods to any rock-loving guy or man that's ever stepped on American or British soil over the last five decades. When viewed strictly through the lens of talent Plant, Page, Jones, and Bonham are all arguably in the top 5 of their respective abilities in the history of rock. Would anyone disagree that Plant is not one of the best rock frontmen/lead singers; that Page is not one of the best rock guitarists; that Jones isn't one of the best rock bassists; that Bonham isn't one of the best rock drummers of all time? But to say that these guys are some of the best individuals to grace a microphone, guitar, bass guitar, and drums does not paint the entire picture. The reality is that these guys are not only demigods but also comic book superheroes incarnate as well. Damn near every guy who loves rock has imagined being like any one or all of them, or some combination of them.

The history of rock is in part written by emulation and deification, and few are the guys who haven't tried to sing like Plant during that intro of "Immigrant Song." Few are the guys who've never wished that they looked like Jimmy Page performing on stage, or being able to pull something like "Over the Hills and Far Away" out of their ass while learning the guitar. Few are the guys who haven't envied Bonham's drum-playing ability, or to be in position to re-enact his personal highlights. Few are the guys who have heard the bass lines to "Dazed and Confused" and didn't imitate their crisp sound at least once while it played through their car or stereo speakers. Few are the guys who didn't draw at least one of the runes from their fourth album on a book cover, folder, or backpack during a class or study hall in high school. I believe it was Chuck Klosterman who once wrote that most guys will agree that The Rolling Stones are the best rock band of all time, but that Led Zeppelin is the band that they most want to emulate and love on a more personal basis. And I cannot disagree with this assessment at all. After all, who would you rather be if given the chance: Charlie Watts or John Bonham?

So where does Led Zeppelin's collective and individual greatness dovetail—where does their masterful craftsmanship intersect with the (sometimes pot smoke-induced) mythology that has been applied to them? What is their best overall song that also shows each member at the height of their demigod powers? It's "When the Levee Breaks"—specifically the part of the song that runs from 2:26 until 3:05. There are other songs one can choose when talking about Zeppelin's overall presence ("Stairway to Heaven," "Kashmir") or about individual deification ("You Shook Me" or "The Rain Song" for Page and/or Plant; "Moby-Dick" or "Immigrant Song" for Bonham; "Dazed and Confused" or "In the Light" for Jones, amongst others) but "When the Levee Breaks" is the band's masterpiece. The track starts with John Bonham's famous thundering drum beats, recorded by way of the setup explained in the quote at the beginning of this post, and then it proceeds to be one of the best rock songs ever made as it effortlessly marries straight-up rock with just experimental enough production touches (the backward echo harmonica). And then starting at 2:26 and running until 3:05 you have Jimmy Page shifting from metallic jangly riffs to letting off riffs that are the auditory equivalent of fireworks, but the firework riffs are drowned out a bit by Bonham's assaulting dual bulldozer bass drums and Jones's deep bass lines.

And then there are the screams by Robert Plant.

The screams are short, guttural, and alien. They are exactly the kind of thing that you will never be able to imitate in your car but fuck if you think you nail them every time while this song is blaring. "When the Levee Breaks" is the last track on Led Zeppelin IV, which is arguably Zeppelin's most accessible album and the album that is filled with radio-friendly juggernauts. "Stairway to Heaven" (or even "Kashmir") might be the go-to seven-plus minute song in Zeppelin's catalog for many people but for me "When the Levee Breaks" kills every song in their catalog. It stands alone. It is the crown jewel from four demigods. It is the exclamation point on one of the most iconic albums of the last 40 years. It reinforces the reason why all of the many symbols of Zeppelin appeared on so many guys' backpacks and jackets and book covers. It is one of the best blues covers of all time.[1]

[1] "When the Levee Breaks" was originally recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929.

From: Pantheon Songs

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This Month in
Led Zeppelin History

May 31, 1948 - John Henry Bonham was born at Redditch, Worchestershire
May xx, 1969 - The band’s debut album enters the US Top 10
May xx, 1969 - Recording sessions for Led Zeppelin II begin
May xx, 1970 - The band works on new material at Bron-Y-Aur
May 03, 1971 - Richard Cole jams on Whole Lotta Love playing congas
May xx, 1972 - Houses Of The Holy recording sessions on location at Stargroves and Olympic studios
May 27, 1972 - Warm-up gigs kick off in Holland for an upcoming American tour
May 04, 1973 - Led Zeppelin gross nearly $250,000 for their performance in Atlanta, GA
May 05, 1973 - 56,800 attend the second show of the 1973 US tour at Tampa. This sets a record for the largest attendance for a one-act performance, previously held by the Beatlesfor their Shea Stadium show in 1965
May 10, 1974 - Swan Song Records is officially launched
May 11, 1974 - Led Zeppelin attend an Elvis concert and are thrilled when Elvis announces that Led Zeppelin is in the building
May 10, 1975 - Showco ships their PA system and video screens for the Earls Court shows from Dallas to London
May 23, 1976 - Page and Plant join Bad Company onstage at the LA Forum
May 21, 1977 - The Houston Summit claims $500,000 in damages to their venue caused by rowdy fans
May xx, 1978 - The band reunite at Clearwater Castle to rehearse
May 22, 1979 - It is officially announce that Led Zeppelin will headline at the Knebworth Festival in August
May 15, 1980 - After many revisions the European tour dates are finalized and the band is scheduled to open in Germany
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