When the Levee Breaks (Led Zeppelin song)

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When the Levee Breaks
Appears on Led Zeppelin IV
Published by Superhype Music
Registration ASCAP 530172822
Release date 8 November 1971
Recorded January 1971 at
Headley Grange, Hampshire with the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio
.Mixed at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles.
Genre Blues rock, hard rock
Language English
Length 7 minutes 8 seconds
Composer Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Memphis Minnie
Label Atlantic Records
Producer Jimmy Page
Engineer Andy Johns

'When the Levee Breaks' is a song written and recorded by British rock group Led Zeppelin, partly based on an original lyrical composition by Lizzie Douglas (Memphis Minnie) and Joe McCoy, titled 'When the Levee Breaks'.

Overview

The basis of the song lies in Robert Plant, who reinterpreted the McCoy and Minnie recording by rewriting and rearranging lyrical parts with the focus on the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the band combining to create a new original melody. Recording for the song took place in December 1970 at Headley Grange, where the band used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. It had already been tried unsuccessfully by the band at Island Studios at the beginning of the recording sessions for their fourth album.[1]

The song features a distinctive pounding drum beat by John Bonham recorded in a three-story stairwell, driving guitars and a wailing harmonica, all presumably meant to symbolize the relentless storm that threatens to break the levee, backing a powerful vocal performance by Robert Plant. The vocals were processed differently on each verse, sometimes with phasing added. According to Page, the song's structure 'was a riff that I'd been working on, but Bonzo's drum sound really makes a difference on that point.'[2]

The famous drum performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns by placing Bonham and a new drumkit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, and recording it using two Beyerdynamic M160 microphones at the top, giving the distinctive resonant but slightly muffled sound.[3][4] Back in the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, Johns compressed the drum sound through two channels and added echo through guitarist Jimmy Page's Binson echo unit.[5] The performance was made on a brand new drum kit that had only just been delivered from the factory.[6] The drum break has long been popular in hip hop and dance music circles for its 'heavy' sound, and has been sampled for many tracks.[7]

Page recorded Plant's harmonica part using the backward echo technique, putting the echo ahead of the sound when mixing, creating a distinct effect.[8] 'When the Levee Breaks' was recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down. Plant then sang in the sort-of-in-between key the song was now in (approximately F minor), which explains its sort of flat and sludgy sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. Because this song was heavily produced in the studio, it was difficult to recreate live. The band only played it a few times in the early stages of their 1975 U.S. Tour.[9]

'When the Levee Breaks' was the only song on the album that was not re-mixed after a supposedly disastrous mixing job in the U.S. (the rest of the tracks were mixed again in England). The original mixing done on this song was kept in its original form.

In the May 2008 issue of Uncut Magazine, Page elaborated upon the effects at the end of the song:

Interviewer: How was the swirly effect at the end of 'When the Levee Breaks' achieved? I always imagine you sitting there with a joystick...

Page: It's sort of like that, isn't it? It's interesting, on 'Levee Breaks' you've got backwards harmonica, backwards echo, phasing, and there's also flanging, and at the end you get this super-dense sound, in layers, that's all built around the drum track. And you've got Robert, constant in the middle, and everything starts to spiral around him. It's all done with panning.[10]

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had performed it on their MTV Unplugged appearance and their 1995-96 world tour, swapping it with 'Nobody's Fault but Mine' at times. John Paul Jones worked the song into the tour for his two solo albums. With Plant playing guitar along with T-Bone Burnett's band, Alison Krauss sang it for the CMT Crossroads TV special starring Plant and Krauss, to promote their album Raising Sand. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss also regularly covered the song during their tour of USA and Europe in April and May 2008.[11]

Credits

Personnel
  • Musicians:
    • Jimmy Page – electric guitar, producer, remastering, digital remastering
    • Robert Plant – vocals, harmonica
    • John Paul Jones – bass guitar
    • John Bonham - drums, percussion
  • Production:
    • Peter Grant – executive producer
    • Andy Johns - engineer, mixing
    • Joe Sidore - original CD mastering engineer (mid-1980s)
    • George Marino - remastered CD engineer (1990)

References

  1. Lewis, Dave (2012). Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press, 57. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1. 
  2. Schulps, Dave (October 1977). "Jimmy Page: The Trouser Press Interview". Trouser Press 4 (22). ISSN 0164-1883.
  3. Welch, Chris (2009). Led Zeppelin: The Stories Behind Every Led Zeppelin Song, Revised. London: Carlton Books Ltd, 82. ISBN 978-1-84732-286-9. 
  4. Lewis, Dave (2012). Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press, 57. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1. 
  5. Lewis, Dave (2012). Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press, 57. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1. 
  6. Lewis, Dave (2012). Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press, 57. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1. 
  7. Samples: Led Zeppelin. Rap Sample FAQ. The-Breaks.com (2014). Retrieved on 24 April 2014.
  8. Lewis, Dave (2012). Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press, 57. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1. 
  9. Lewis, Dave (2012). Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press, 57. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1. 
  10. Cavanagh, David (May 2008). "Jimmy Page: Mission Accomplished". Uncut: 49. ISSN 1368-0722.
  11. Empire, Kitty. A whole new lotta love, The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 May 2008. Retrieved on 24 April 2014.