When the weather turns nasty — like epically, epochally nasty — there is One Earworm Above All Others.
And I was not surprised this morning at work when it stomped implacably and metronomically into my brain and set up shop for at least an hour.
I’ve seen critics opine that — of all Led Zeppelin’s blues covers or strongly blues-influenced songs — “When The Levee Breaks” marks their finest melding of old-school blues vibe with Seventies power-rock muscle.
While I have a fondness for Physical Graffiti’s snaky version of “In My Time of Dying,” I think I have to agree.
“When The Levee Breaks” moves relentlessly and powerfully, like gray sheets of rain at daybreak, and never lets up. I see dead-eyed, haggard men tossing sandbags every time I hear it.
The song is processed in most of the ways a circa-1971 rock song can be, from the echo of John Bonham’s drums to the phased whine of the slide guitar. But a fatalistic Delta mojo is very much audible and alive underneath it all.
The song begins “If it keeps on rainin’, the levee’s gonna break.” But Robert Plant’s delivery and that ruthless backing stomp seem to turn the “if” into a “when.”
(The declaration “Goin’ to Chicago” seems like only a momentary source of solace, too. You gonna swim there, buddy?)
There are other Zep songs that are more radio-friendly, and others that better display their chops and creativity. But, along with a few sifted others, “When The Levee Breaks” may be among the most powerful arguments for why Led Zep had to exist, and why it was such a great band.
“When The Levee Breaks” is also noteworthy for its positioning at the end of Zoso, as I insist on calling the legendary fourth Zep album just ’cause I can.
One would think that “Stairway to Heaven,” with its air of mystery and melancholy, would have been an absolute gimme album-closer.
Instead, Zep opted for a different tone. There is no mystery or comfort at the end of Zoso, just the staggering sense of hope and endurance pushed to its breaking limit.
It also makes for quite a bookend to the hippie goofiness of “Misty Mountain Hop,” which kicks off Side Two of Zoso. In that 20 minutes or so, Zep takes us from flowers in the hair to turbid water rushing down Main Street.
Pretty much the only bum note in “When The Levee Breaks” lies in the songwriting credit, which famously lists “Bonham-Jones-Page-Plant-Memphis Minnie” as authors. Awful nice of the shaggy Limeys to give Memphis Minnie a one-fifth look-see, no?
But, of course, you can’t hear the writing credit when you spin the record … just Plant’s high-and-wild harmonica, and Page’s droning guitar, and Bonham’s murderous, unrelenting backbeat.
To steal a line from Tom Verlaine: Tonight I’ll be listening to the rain, but I’ll be hearing something else.