In December 1970 Led Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham had just taken delivery of a brand new Ludwig drum kit. It was about to get a hell of a hammering.
He and the band were recording their fourth album at Headley Grange, a former poorhouse in Hampshire, and they were seeking a special kind of drum sound for a song called “When the Levee Breaks”: something big, something epic.
There’s a long tradition of British recording artists employing a domestic approach to the creation of distinctive sonic effects: 1960s producer and songwriter Joe Meek (of “Telstar” fame) used the bathroom of his rented flat on London’s Holloway Road to record vocals; Ringo Starr stretched tea towels over his drums to achieve a muffled effect.
Zeppelin’s solution was to place the drum kit at the foot of Headley Grange’s three-storey stairwell and hang microphones from the top, thus exploiting the structure’s natural reverberative qualities. The result is one of the heaviest — and most heavily sampled — drum tracks ever recorded: Bonham locks down a groove that is truly massive, his limbs pumping like steam-driven pistons as bass drum and snare whump and rattle, with the occasional splash of cymbal shimmering. And the track itself is one of Zeppelin’s finest moments, a draggy, druggy haze of drums, guitar, vocals and backwards-recorded harmonica; a swirling, hypnotic vortex of heavily treated sound — no wonder they almost never played it live.
The song’s origins, though, are more modest. Guitarist Jimmy Page had emerged from the British blues boom of the 1960s with The Yardbirds before forming Led Zeppelin in 1968, and “When the Levee Breaks” — like a fair amount of Zeppelin’s material — had its origins in the American blues: in this case, an old tune of the same title by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie; released in 1929, the duo’s song recalls the devastating Mississippi floods of 1927. With its briskly strummed guitars, McCoy and Minnie’s song has an almost jaunty quality that is at odds with its subject matter (“Mean ol’ levee, cause me to weep and moan,” sings McCoy).
Zeppelin had got themselves into trouble on an earlier album by failing to properly credit Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” as a key component in “The Lemon Song” (Wolf’s music publisher sued; the parties settled out of court), and the band were dogged by accusations that they ripped off blues acts. In the case of “When the Levee Breaks”, though, the credits were given as Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham/Memphis Minnie.
The label for the 1929 Columbia disc of the song has a couple of bits of printed description: “Guitar accomp.” and “Electrical process”. But the real “electrical process” came in the 1960s and early 1970s when bands such as Cream, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Fleetwood Mac and Zeppelin plugged the blues into the mains and broadcast it to a new audience of white kids. Essentially, what Zeppelin and the other British blues-based bands were doing was a kind of sampling: taking a song, or an element of a song, and working it into something radically new.
So there is a satisfying karmic circularity to the fact that Bonham’s drum track was subsequently picked up and sampled by dozens of US hip-hop acts, who clearly relished its pulverising groove: The Beastie Boys on “Rhymin’ & Stealin’” (1986); MC Lyte’s “Survival of the Fittest” (1989); Dr Dre on “Lyrical Gangbang” from his 1992 album The Chronic; Eminem on “Kim” (2000). (Bristol trip-hoppers Massive Attack also used it on 1998’s “Man Next Door”.) And all because, at Headley Grange in 1970, John Bonham had been stationed in a stairwell to musical heaven.
Photograph: Getty Images
For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song