The drum intro from Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” is the perfect embodiment of The Awesome Majesty Of Rock.
What makes John Bonham’s drums on this track so staggeringly heavy? Partially it’s his playing, and partially it’s the innovative production. Bonham’s performance was recorded by engineer Andy Johns in Headley Grange, a Victorian-era poorhouse in England. Bonham played a brand new drum kit at the bottom of a big stairwell. The microphones were placed at the top of the stairs three stories above. The stairwell created a huge natural reverb, making the sound both big and powerful, and oddly diffuse and distant. To make the drums sound even more humungous, the band slowed the tape down a little, lowering the pitch and giving the track a thick, sludgy quality.
Zeppelin only ever played “When The Levee Breaks” live a couple of times. On the recording, the tempo is seventy beats per minute, which is a tempo more usually associated with ballads. It’s very hard to maintain a heavy groove when you’re playing that slow. Also, it’s impossible to replicate the timbre of the pitch-shifted drums acoustically. It’s as if “Levee” was meant to live purely in the electronic realm.
The drum intro to “Levee” has been irresistible to samplers. It’s easy to grab it, loop it and put your own sounds on top. Hip-hop producers have been the main users of the loop, but it pops up in other genres too. So, for instance, there’s a song called “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” by Sophie B Hawkins. It’s glassy nineties alternapop, a style that I generally don’t have much use for, but it does have a nice groove. I found myself doing the white man’s overbite to it in line at the coffee shop one day. I looked it up and was delighted to find out that the beat is a sped-up sample of “Levee.” The sample also appears in “Army Of Me” by Björk, “Lyrical Gangbang” by Dr Dre, two Depeche Mode songs, three Beastie Boys songs, and dozens of others.
It’s fitting that the “Levee” break has been so widely appropriated, since the Zeppelin song is itself appropriated from an older work. Like so many British rock songs of the period, it’s an adaptation of an old Delta blues tune. “Levee” was written and first recorded by Memphis Minnie in 1929.
The song is about the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which destroyed many homes and crippled the agricultural economy of the Mississippi Basin. Farm workers were forced to flee to the cities of the Midwest in search of work, part of the large-scale black urban migration of the first half of the twentieth century. “When The Levee Breaks” is one of many blues songs written about the flood. It focuses on the evacuation of more than thirteen thousand black plantation workers from Greenville, Mississippi. They were moved to a nearby unbroken levee and forced to pile sandbags on it at gunpoint. After the levee breached, the workers weren’t allowed to leave the area. Instead, they were forced to work in the relief and cleanup effort, living in camps with limited access to supplies. Are you getting a Katrina tingle?
Zeppelin’s version is very different from the Memphis Minnie original, musically and lyrically. Still, it’s recognizably derivative. A big chunk of Zep’s early catalog bites from American blues musicians. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant complain bitterly about all the unauthorized sampling of their stuff, which I think is hilarious. Maybe they should just call it even.
Update: see a blog post on how to program this break on a drum machine.