How to Compose the World’s Greatest Rock Song:
Begin with drums, scary drums, drums that make you understand why the Norsemen thought thunder was Thor’s hammer. The greatest works of art erupt from the gut, our animal part, the ancient seat of our worst fears and most heaving desires, and so for a song that seeks to emerge from these primeval urges, the appropriate overture is wood pounding on animal skins. The walloping heartbeat of a blue whale with arrhythmia. Doom from above, doom from below. Fear death by water.
To achieve this sound, you’ll need space, deep caverns of air and darkness. So set John Bonham and his drum kit at the bottom of a three-story stairwell at Headley Grange, an eighteenth century poorhouse straight from Merchant Ivory central casting. Then hang a pair of very high end German-made mikes from the ceiling to capture the tectonic reverberations.
Then come the guitars, as they must. With a syncopated lurch, Jimmy Page’s trio breaks in like Cerberus on the prowl – what the original Rolling Stone review described as “one honey of a chord progression” – but the three guitars are only undergirding for Robert Plant’s harmonica. Yowling and slutty, Plant’s mouth organ part was mixed using backward echo, with Page recording the echo of the original, then switching the two so that a ghost of sound precedes the played notes: this is why the song seems not just looped, but looped backwards. Like so many other elements of “When the Levee Breaks,” it demands to be heard through headphones.
The alchemical gold that is rock ‘n’ roll was begotten in a crucible that contained hillbilly bop, cowboy yodeling, scatty ragtime, and most of all, delta blues – all genres that ascribe to a special brand of low-rent old time religion in which women are fickle, money is scarce, nature is cruel, and God, if he exists, does not approve of you. As such, when you set out to create the world’s greatest rock song, pick a blues standard from the Depression, the lowest-rent epoch in American history, but not just any my-woman-left-me-so-I’m-sad-and-might-kill-her lament. What you’re about to do here is akin to the evil government doctors in the comic books who kidnap a normal enough human specimen then jack him up with chemicals, sturdy rust-resistant alloys, and other gizmos, so pick a song with a strong, pliable skeleton that you can then shove all of earth’s sadness and hell’s fury into. Like a tune written about one of the worst natural disasters in American history, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (in which a quarter of a million refugees were displaced and the river south of Memphis swelled to sixty miles in width), but season it with enough ambiguity that it could be about anything: God’s indifference, the difficulties of urbanization, the yearning for oral sex, a girlfriend on the rag, the travails of infidelity, and all other imaginable manner of sexual frustration.
When a melancholy Plant begins warning that if it keeps on raining, the levee’s going to break, he sings like he was there pouring sand into burlap bags in 1927, all the soul of a shoeless blues man channeled into a set of pipes that almost single-handedly sired hard rock, heavy metal, prog rock, and a unlikely interest in the fiction of Tolkein among the punked out longhairs of the late 70s. All the while Bonham’s deep space drums continue to crash like waves into the levee wall and Page’s guitar hooks flash like unrelenting bolts of lightning. To fashion the greatest rock song ever, the typical verse-chorus-verse structure is insufficient, too benign and immobile in its cycles: what you need to achieve an effect that’s both bone-chilling and sexually electric is the lyrics’ narrative drive coupled with music that lassos chaos and stasis at the same time. Thus Plant hopes against hope that the levee will hold, while the instruments, like nature itself, drive on. Something’s got to give.
And it does. For a moment everything cuts out but Page’s guitar, which inches ever higher until rejoined by Bonham’s devastating drums. Then all hell breaks loose as Plant switches character from the plaintive Mississippi sharecropper to the pitiless, howling voice of the storm. “Don’t it make you feel bad / When you’re trying to find your way home / You don’t know which way to go,” he keens, a scornful destroyer from a pre-Christian pantheon, “If you’re going to down south / They got no work to do / If you don’t know aboutChicago.” Then, as though language could not contain the storm’s malevolence, Plant caterwauls for a few bars, but being Robert Plant, even his shrieking is on key. He’s the ideal frontman for the raging gale, the north country boy with Viking in his blood speaking for cold water and piercing winds as they lay waste to great swaths of earth in the deep heat of the American South.
Besides its virtuosity, what keeps your heavily vamped seven-minute song from growing tiresome is that each verse was mixed using a different set of studio effects. After the remorse and fear of the first few lines and the roaring, talon-sharp bloodlust of the second verse, Page dickers with his frontman’s voice yet again, modulating it into a cough syrup trip, so that when Plant warns that crying won’t help you and praying won’t do you no good, it sounds like he’s singing through a sheet of water from a hundred yards away. And because he is the original rock and roll sex demon, there must be a reference to thinking about his baby and moaning. Imagine Plant panthering atop the levee, eying the swelling water, torn apart by lust, undone by fear. After the levee breaks comes the story’s clincher: with his cropland ten feet under, our benighted sharecropper has no choice but to leave home for the chill of the Windy City.
But the boys from Britain aren’t done quite yet. The song’s last minute encapsulates all of its pain and rage and yearning with two small words, repeated over and over: “Going down,” while the instruments swirl toward a musical black hole. As Page once said in an interview, “At 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.” Or, as the original Rolling Stone reviewer wrote, “the group constructs an air of tunnel-long depth, full of stunning resolves and a majesty that sets up as a perfect climax.”
The greatest rock songs are all based around the eternal themes: “Imagine” (man and society); “Hotel California” (man and the afterlife); “Respect” (woman and man); “With or Without You” (man and God/a lover/Bono’s sunglasses manufacturer); “Stairway to Heaven” (man and ?). “When the Levee Breaks” takes up the tried and true Faulknerian trope of man and nature, with a few slices of juicy sex and oblique references to the divine thrown in for good measure. It is a song that understands that deeper than promises of love and wails of heartache lie the primordial drive toward life itself, the baseline yoking of sex and survival – go forth and fill the earth and subdue it, and all that – and that deeper still, at the bedrock of everything, is bedrock, a world that existed long before we were here and will exist long after we’re gone.