Today is the birthday of, yes, Walt Whitman, but for our purposes it’s the birthday of John “Bonzo” Bonham, the storied drummer—which is to say the originator of the galloping rhino beat—of Led Zeppelin. In the history of great bands there is always something magically fortuitous. That four or five particular individuals found one another and formed a band that became more than the sum of its parts, creating an unmistakable body of work that lives on . . . . And yes the heroicizing tone is fitting when one tells the saga of Zep.
|John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Robert Plant|
There are really only a handful of bands about which that romantic account works. They have to have solidified their line-up early and once and for all. And they have to have evolved over the course of their career—which should run to five albums at least, but, for a band from the Sixties (the heyday for this sort of thing) the productive years should be a decade at least and, since albums tended to come yearly in those days, that means closer to 10 albums. Led Zeppelin gave us eight studio albums and a live album before Bonzo left this world, done in by his own appetites, we might say, his capaciousness having reached its limit.
What he gave on those nine albums—stretched out beyond that by posthumous releases—is some mighty heavy drumming. Today’s song, from the band’s fourth album, is one of my favorites for what Bonham can get up to, the way the song opens with him playing a pattern that is a swampy groove that soon finds accompaniment from harmonica, bass, and guitar with the blues harp leading the way but that beat dominating. Then it hits the first mini-crescendo a minute into the song, that intro establishing a dark foreboding with wailing harmonica that sounds as tortured as it can get (it’s being treated by the recording process to make the sound dense and layered). But the way the drums announce the song, ending in a pregnant pause, give us a sense of all hell about to come down: “If it keep on raining the levee’s going to break / When the levee breaks I’ve got no place to stay.” “Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan,” then, after the oh wells, that crescendo again and another pause that lets guitar take over the harmonica’s riff and start creating various textures as Plant takes up the vocals a notch—“Don’t it make you feel bad / When you’re tryin’ to find your way home / And you don’t know which way to go”—then something about “goin’ off to Chicago.”
The song, in its original incarnation by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, was about escaping the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and Plant’s version sounds suitably distressed. But the drum pattern Bonham sets up becomes positively tonic as he goes bashing away (reportedly, he was recorded in a stair well to create those booming echoes). Page starts what sounds like a vibrato-treated guitar that might be a slide at times and which is mixed with harmonica to create an unearthly effect—it just keeps going, punctuated by those great cymbal crescendos. “Cryin’ won’t help ya and prayin’ won’t do you no good,” and my favorite part “All last night I sat on the levee and moaned / Thinking about my baby and my happy home”—lost in the flood.
Then Bonham goes crazy with fills that sound like some huge beast crashing through brick walls as the guitar/harmonica continues to crank and then gets echoey as Plant starts moaning about “going to Chicago, sorry but I can’t take you . . .”
Anyway, it’s a song that showcases Bonham in a very tangible way, and it’s a brooding, big production masterpiece from the first Led Zep album I ever bought—in 1971—and the one that I most strongly identify with, and “When the Levee Breaks” is one of the key exhibits.
Going’ down, goin’ down down, goin’ down