John Bonham. One of the most influential drummers of all time. This is neither a beginning nor an end to his story, however, when he sat on his brand new Ludwig in 1970, he most probably had no idea that he will create a rumble resembled a thunder that stole thousands of people’s homes in 1927, Great Mississippi flood.
The haunting drum intro on When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin (originally written by Kansas Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie) has been used numerous times in pop culture. The spectrum is so broad, from The Tea Party to Beastie Boys, from Enigma to Eminem, anytime you hear the drum sample, it`s a splash of water to your face. Initially, what makes this sound unique is, the distinct sound balance of drum parts -on contrary to common belief, it is a skill of a drummer- considering it has been recorded at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grunge studios in beloved UK by using two hypercardioid ribbon mics placed at the top of the stairwell. Later, the tracks were compressed by innovative sound engineer Andy Johns, and has been added echo from Mr. Page’s echo unit, to give its unique, rich and signature sound. Fun trivia is, the tempo has been slowed down at the mixing stage to create the whirlwind effect following the harmonica and the guitar solos.
For the year 1971, the sound in this song is something conventional ears wouldn’ be used to. Also, when I listened to the Kansas Joe McCoy version of the song, I was fairly surprised with the continuum of the riff and liveliness of vocals. With respect to its origin, I want to say the reason why this song is still popular is what Zeppelin transformed it into. The darker musical mood, intense monotony of the guitar riffs, revolving harmonica, distant drums, and they all swirl around Mr. Plant’s unique vocal, as if all he wanted to do is finish the song and go out keep building his levee.
Of course there is a whole different side to this song, which tells the desperation of people suffering from the great Mississippi flood in 1927, which has been subject to many songs and movies. Anyone interested with the story should see the documentary; When the Levees Broke.
To conclude, with confidence I can say, techniques used and innovations made to record this song is revolutionary. Apparently there is a reason why Zeppelin didn’t play this song live.
“If it keeps on rainin’, the levee’s goin’ to break”