In the hands of a force like Led Zeppelin, a tribute to the golden age of rock music will inevitably sound thoroughly '70s -- wantonly libidinous and bone-crushingly heavy.
Not long after “Black Dog” fades into the ether on the Led Zeppelin IV tracklist does John Bonham come roaring back, making a tremendous racket on his drumkit to lead listeners into “Rock and Roll”, Zep’s ode to the genre’s golden age. The song emerged during a stalled attempt to record another track for the album; blowing off steam between takes, Bonham started playing the opening beat to Little Richard’s "Keep A' Knockin'", which Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page instantly augmented with a ‘50s-style boogie riff that he wrote on the spot. Singer Robert Plant added to the time-warp fun by throwing in references to the Diamonds, the Drifters, and the Monotones in his lyrics.
Despite its origins, “Rock and Roll” is no by-the-numbers retrofest. The introductory drum part from “Keep A-Knockin’” is retained for the song, but in Bonham’s meaty mitts, the fill was transformed into the fitful starting rumble of a relentless steamroller that plows onward, with John Paul Jones gamely keeping pace as he pummels out his chugging eighth-note bassline. Coming in on an off-beat instead of right on the downbeat, Page’s riff swings and thrashes around, inevitably allowing for showy chord crashes that were suited to the arenas Led Zep would soon make its home in. Plant’s distinctive wail as always is unmistakable, his preening croon of the line “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled” owning more to his rowdy blues inspirations than any Elvis Presley or Little Richard imitation.
Essentially, what Led Zeppelin did on “Rock and Roll” was what it did for the blues on previous LPs: amped it up to supersized proportions, imbuing the form it tackled with overwhelming brute force and a raging libido that could not be disguised by wordplay. It can actually be easy to overlook how closely Zep follows the ‘50s rock ‘n' roll template on the track since it sounds so quintessentially ‘70s in its execution. Dial back the distortion, pull back the attack, and throw plenty of cold water on Plant, and the song’s grounding in comparatively-quaint early rock singles from 15 years prior becomes much more clearer.
Personally, though, I’ve never warmed up to “Rock and Roll” as a lot of others have (for starters, it was one of four Zeppelin tunes to make VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of Rock & Roll” countdown in the late 1990s). To me, “Rock and Roll” has always felt like a means to keep the momentum inaugurated by “Black Dog” going rather than a proper song in its own right. Though every member of the band turns in a stellar performance from a technical standpoint, it’s the attitude that makes the track. By extension, that has always left me with the feeling that the group could have been dabbling in any other form at that point on the record as long as it was approaching it with similar gusto.
Regardless, it’s hard to quibble when a band such as Led Zep -- at the height of its powers on this album -- is clearly having a ball running through a beloved style that inspired its members during their formative years. That's as good explanation as any as to why "Rock and Roll" is so highly regarded in the Zeppelin mythos.