15 Apr 2018

The Secrets Of When The Levee Breaks

Led Zeppelin's most enigmatic song unravelled with rumours, truth, and some stuff inbetween.

Led Zeppelin’s Fourth is a legend. Not only is it the reinvention of arguably the best rock band in history, but the definition of an entire genre. The brilliance in musicality, sound engineering and poetic theatricality perches it atop the mountain of artistic perfection. Beginning with the album cover, so non-specific, yet describing exactly what the entire album is about: rediscovery and journey (the hermit tarot card) on a backlog of banality (pealing wallpaper). For drummers, John Bonham is a hero, for guitarists, Jimmy Page is godly, for vocalists, Robert Plant is impossible to best, for bassists and keyboardists (song writers in general), John Paul Jones is a heroic teacher.

But everyone forgets about Andy Johns, the engineer.

There’s a reason When The Levee Breaks hasn’t been on Led Zeppelin’s live sets basically since it’s production. It’s unplayable. Well it is playable, as basically every drummer learns that thunderous entrance early on in their journey through skin bashing. The difficulty in playing is comes down to how well it sounds relative to the recording. The missing link is Andy Johns’ magic touch.

The Magic Touch

There are a multitude of recording techniques that are used these days…all digitally. Back when Zeppelin was recording, they didn’t have this luxury. Instead they had Headley Grange, a beautiful building with a rich history. Bonzo’s drums weren’t big enough, so Andy came up with an idea. Place the new kit at the bottom of one of the stairwells, and hook up two microphones at the top. That echo cannot be replicated because it is just so organic. On top of that, the tracks were slowed down just a bit to give it a bit more of a booming punch.

Before the tracks were slowed though, Page had to work his own magic. Obviously he plays with the same skill as always, but again Andy steps in to work his own little magic. Slowing down the tracks does something very special to the recording. It gives that lumbering feel, as if something is always trying to catch up, but never making it there. I imagine a steam train trying to accelerate, but just with too much load to carry. It’s remarkable how well it is done, and how well it works.

On top of all that is the now famous backwards echo. This involves recording a track and putting the echo a bit before the actual recording itself. This was done on Plant’s harmonicas, which again adds to that sludgy lumbering feel.

The Story

The best forms of art tell a story. This one does as well. Surprisingly many people (me included), When The Levee Breaks is technically a cover song, telling the story of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 where so many people had to flee their homes. The story is not only told through the lyrics, but additionally by the music that is played. It is massive yet tortuous. It’s repeating relentlessly by always building on fresh ideas. It feels like a flood ripping through people’s livelihoods, and destroying their lives, but at the same time enriching the soil and bringing in new life.

When The Levee Breaks is a special song that was made great by the work of the engineering and production. Andy Johns is an incredible man with talent that rivalled the men he mixed and mastered. Without him it would not be so great. It is the purest culmination of musical talent and will hopefully live on as one of the best songs ever recorded.

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