When The Levee Breaks (1971)
With John Bonham’s big, brazen drum work leading the charge, “When the Levee Breaks” is a howling, Blues-swept vision of the apocalypse, as only the Metal Gods of Led Zeppelin can deliver it.
The opening is barren and cavernous – immensely empty – isolating Bonzo’s now-classic riff, a taut Ludwig snare and hi-hat sewn together with heavy kick-drum depth charges. The widely sampled in-the-pocket groove – recorded in a stairwell at the entrance of the hallowed Headley Grange rehearsing and recording venue – drives the song, relentless and plodding, to its watery end.
Guitar phenom Jimmy Page, who handled much of the band’s production work, liked exploring with “location recording” (hence the Headley stairwell) to discover new, eccentric sounds that couldn’t be replicated in a traditional studio setting. There’s no doubt it worked in this instance, capturing the brilliance of Bonham’s enormous sound.
The perfect storm if ever there was one
This is Zeppelin’s jacked-up revamp of the 1929 Delta Blues classic written and recorded by husband-wife duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. The original is a mournful, “eye-witness” account of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which wiped out countless homes and businesses, and decimated agriculture, the mainstay across the Mississippi Basin. The disaster forced thousands – mainly African Americans – to flee to higher ground, and ultimately, to migrate to the cities of the Midwest in search of work.
Some 40 years removed from the worst river flood in U.S. history, Zeppelin tapped back into that end-of-the-world doom and despair at a time when sharp racial tension, a devastating war in Vietnam and widespread distrust of the federal government strained stability and civility across America and abroad.
The Bonham sledgehammer lead-in sets up perfectly the gale-force crush of swirling instrumentals from Robert Plant (harmonica), Jimmy Page (guitar) and John Paul Jones (bass) as they rain down chaos from above. The most popular hard rock band in history picks you up and drops you from 10,000 feet right into the middle of the raging storm.
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay
The relatively sparse (and repetitive) AAB lyric pattern common in traditional blues formats features the terminally rambunctious Plant singing with a restrained, plodding inevitability – a cold acceptance of the calamity:
Cryin’ won’t help ya, prayin’ won’t do ya no good (A)
Now cryin’ won’t help ya, prayin’ won’t do ya no good (A)
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move (B)
The band’s smoldering instrumental work crafted by Jimmy Page’s production wizardry adds to the song’s full-body cataclysmic feel. Page created those churning waves of musical chaos through the generous application of the “backward echo” technique, which electronically “reversed” the harmonica and guitar solos as if they were being blown back onto themselves.
The use of vocal phasing – which can turn a human voice into a synthetic robotic one – makes it sound like the ghost of Robert Plant is singing from under 50 feet of Mississippi River water. Slow-motion playback gives the song its sludgy molasses groove; the tempo of the original recording was significantly faster than is heard in the final product.
Page’s wildly creative production efforts had one negative effect: “When the Levee Breaks” could not be accurately replicated live (a challenge that dogged the Beatles when trying to perform songs off the heavily produced Sgt. Pepper’s). Zeppelin attempted the “Levee” twice live, with less than stellar results, then dropped it from the setlist for good.
As the closing track on Led Zeppelin IV, “When the Levee Breaks” is the final word, the take-away, on an album many believe to be the band’s finest output with sizzlers like “Black Dog” and “Rock-n-Roll,” the mystical, nostalgia-filled stock of “Going to California,” and of course one of the greatest, slow-cook Rock anthems ever in “Stairway to Heaven.”
The cautionary vision of the world’s end was a persistent Rock-N-Roll theme in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s, laid bare in songs like “All Along the Watchtower” by Dylan (brilliantly covered by Hendrix); Credence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” (1969); “The End” (1967) by the Doors, and the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (1969). Were they trying to tell us something?
“When the Levee Breaks” stands tall with its classic apocalyptic predecessors because, in the end, few bands can match Led Zeppelin’s feel for darkness and doom. They were devil worshippers after all.
- The version that appears on Led Zeppelin IV was recorded at a faster speed (or tempo), and then slowed in production, giving the song the sludgy, relentless feel of a gathering storm. Listen to the alternate track (original tempo, altered vocals, no echo effect).
- The original version of the song performed by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie was released in 1929, roughly two years after the Great Flood dumped 15 inches of rain on New Orleans in just 18 hours – and the levee broke. Listen here.
- Jason Bonham to Q magazine on his dad’s contribution to “When The Levee Breaks”: “It’s the drum intro of the Gods. You could play it anywhere and people would know it’s John Bonham. I never had the chance to tell dad how amazing he was – he was just dad.”
- Due to mixing complexities, Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” sounds best through a quality pair of headphones. (Browse our selection of high-end headphones here.)
Also by Led Zeppelin on SongMango.com:
- Babe, I'm Gonna Leave YouThe pounding choruses echo the interior pounding, the unresolved secret, this... emanation of the heart.
- Whole Lotta LoveBlended into a sharp-tasting draft of Rock that's been fermented into a tasty, spacey brew with a big foamy head.
- Stairway To HeavenIt is wonderful. It’s marvelous. It is one of the most inventive compositions of Rock’s first golden age. And one of the most exalted.