At the end of Led Zeppelin's masterpiece lies a doomy, bottom-heavy monster that connects the dots between the blues and heavy metal--and provided dozens of hip-hop artists with the perfect drum track to sample.
It really is rare that a classic album ends with one of its finest tracks. Most albums are front-loaded (in the days when the vinyl LP were the primary product format, this meant both sides would kick off with a bang, meaning many full-lengths from days past boast a mid-point second wind on CD pressings), so with all the top material already exhausted, the dregs are often shoved into the closing minutes in the hopes that spent listeners will be too worn out to notice. This is definitely not the case when it comes to Led Zeppelin IV. The British rock legends’ impeccable fourth album ends with the seven-minute “When the Levee Breaks”, a standout that’s amassed acclaim to rival any other offering from the record bar the unconquerable “Stairway to Heaven”.
Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” is a heavy (both figurative and literal) reworking of the 1929 song by Memphis Minnie song and Joe McCoy, about the massive flood that devastated the state of Mississippi in 1927. Only Minnie receives a credit on Led Zeppelin IV--which is a definite improvement today, since original the album didn’t credit anyone outside of the band at all. Like with Willie Dixon’s songwriting credit on “Whole Lotta Love” from Led Zeppelin II (1969), recognition of Minnie McCoy came after the fact, and is just another example of the group’s problematic relationship in regards to properly acknowledge the source material it derived (primarily, but not exclusively) words from on its earlier compositions.
Not that Led Zeppelin’s rendition has much in common with the original. The lyrics are the most recognizable component, hence the joint credit with Memphis Minnie but not her husband. On the album, Zeppelin stretched out and reimagined what was originally a jaunty acoustic blues number as a hypnotic portent of doom, intended to bewitch and mesmerize awestruck listeners. Page contributed to the vibe by purposely slowing the tune down and playing a 12-string guitar in an open G tuning to give it the appropriate cavernous element he was aiming for. But from the second the track begins, it’s obvious that it’s the earth-shaking drums of John Bonham that elevate the song to greatness. Already a notoriously hard-hitting stickman, the sound of Bonham’s beat was achieved by placing his kit at the head of the staircase in the entrance hall of the Headley Grange manor where the album was recorded. The acoustics in the hall were so favorable that Bonzo’s kick drum didn’t need to be directly micced—microphones were merely hung from the second floor. Bonham’s weighty groove is justifiably seminal: no matter how foreboding Page’s slide guitar is or how much singer Robert Plant wails, it’s Bonham who really has the final word on Led Zeppelin IV.
It’s appropriate that one of the greatest heavy metal records of all time (even if every track isn’t a power chord-laden skull crusher) ends with such an immense track. Heavy metal was essentially birthed by white Britons playing overamplified blues, and on “When the Levee Breaks”, Zeppelin provides a clear demonstration of the links between the source material and the future of rock ‘n roll, links which are overlooked by the “Black Sabbath invented the genre out of whole cloth” myth that’s become more and more pervasive in the last decade. The birth of metal wasn’t a sudden epiphany; it was a logical evolution of developments in rock music stretching from the 1960s into the 1970s. And Led Zeppelin was right there at that transition point, standing on the crossroads, tying various musical strains together into a greater whole. While “When the Levee Breaks” is the bluesiest cut from Led Zeppelin IV, it is blues as played in the postindustrial rock ‘n roll age, where superstar bands are intercontinental conquering heroes who wield amplified guitars instead of swords or guns.
Though Led Zeppelin IV has had an undoubtedly large influence on rock music in the past 40 years, it has a sizable legacy in hip-hop and electronic music as well, due to numerous artists sampling the beat to “When the Levee Breaks”, including the Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre, and Massive Attack. There’s no great mystery as to why this is so: one listen and it’s plainly evident to both headbangers and B-boys that this is one ginormous-sounding drum track.