Breaks With Tradition

Breaks With Tradition: “When The Levee Breaks”

Fifty years ago this week, Led Zeppelin released their self-titled debut album, and — well, it’s Led Zeppelin, you know the deal. Revolutionized hard rock, brought it into the arenas, reinvented ’60s psychedelia as ’70s heavy metal, so on, so forth. I figure most of us have opinions on the Zep and what it means to Get The Led Out; mine is that I still like revisiting their stuff even if I memorized almost all of it in high school, that “In the Evening” might actually be their best song, and that they were a gateway for me into even wilder, more genre-bending, somehow heavier stuff, which I’d owe ‘em for even if I “outgrew” them. (I haven’t.)

But you’re reading a Breaks With Tradition column, so let’s cut to the chase: John Henry goddamned Bonham. Over 400 songs have sampled Led Zeppelin, and Bonzo’s the main reason why. As their drummer, his backbone was what was worth really zooming in and focusing on once all Jimmy Page’s guitar maelstroms had finished wowing you. And every aspiring young stoner, used LP hoarder, Cool-Older-Sibling-haver, child to a Weed Dad, ironic-appreciator-turned-grudging-enthusiast, and Rolling Stone subscriber between 1971 and infinity found that out in its purest form when the band’s untitled fourth album — AKA Led Zeppelin IV, ZoSo, the runes album, and “the song’s called ‘Four Sticks’ but that old guy on the cover’s carrying at least 10 of them” — hit its last track.

“When the Levee Breaks” has been sampled over 100 times — not quite “Funky Drummer” turf, but a lot — and it might have a higher batting average of great tracks than anything I’ve covered to date. There are only so many slots to fill in this column, so I’d be remiss not to mention, for instance, Coldcut’s “Beats & Pieces,” Dr. Dre’s “Lyrical Gangbang,” Enigma’s “Return To Innocence,” Massive Attack’s “Man Next Door,” Eminem’s “Kim,” Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor Or Humanity,” and Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” but that still leaves us with a lot to cover.

The Original: Led Zeppelin, “When the Levee Breaks” (from Led Zeppelin IV, Atlantic, 1971)

So: ever heard the original early take of this song? It’s weird. All the parts are there, more or less, but besides the fact that Robert Plant’s vocal isn’t really there yet, the thing that throws me off is the mix. The bass is noticeably higher up in there, but the drums are just … drums, and not the striding march of a giant made of storm clouds and limestone. This is why there’s such a thing as a second draft. Besides some additional studio trickery that’d do a young King Tubby proud (backwards echo on the harmonica, tempo-shifting individual tracks, that absolutely batshit back-and-forth panning of everything but Plant’s voice at the end), they really nailed down the colossus-scale sound of it all when engineer Andy Johns got himself a bright idea.

While the rest of the band was out getting lit, Johns dragged Bonham’s Ludwig bass drum into the lobby of haggard stone house/recording studio Headley Grange. He hung a pair of microphones from the stairs, used a high-end if temperamental Italian delay unit (the Binson Echorec, which you can see David Gilmour futzing with in Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii), and wrangled that famous beat out of a combination of the gigantic stairwell’s acoustics, the Echorec’s effects, and Bonzo’s own groove. People have tried tweaking it and manipulating it ever since — one YouTube blasphemer actually reengineered it to sound more like the Physical Graffiti sessions, which loses just enough oomph to feel disorienting — but once beatmakers got ahold of it, it proved far more versatile than any beat that iconic deserves to be.

The First Sample: Beastie Boys, “Rhymin & Stealin” (from Licensed To Ill, Def Jam, 1986)

Before we get to the whole unholy punk/rap/stoner rock trinity that kicked off the first beat on the Beastie Boys’ debut album, let’s talk about the lyrics: They’re fucking stupid. I mean this with both criticism and affection, the former aimed at the gratuitous and since-rescinded gay-bashing language, and the latter pointed squarely at how far the Beasties’ pirate-hijinks theme goes off the rails. Mutiny On The Bounty and “16 men on a dead man’s chest” and deep-cut references to the Sex Pistols’ horny-on-the-high-seas “Friggin’ In The Riggin'”? Sure, go for it. Murdering food spokespersons (“Pistol is loaded/ And I shot Betty Crocker/ Delivered Colonel Sanders down to Davy Jones’ Locker”)? Shit, I’d watch those dopey Johnny Depp movies if I got a promise that’d happen. Also: “ALI BABA AND THE 40 THIEVES” over and over and over.

But that beat, holy hell. Adam Horovitz recalls its origin in Beastie Boys Book, after stopping in at Adam Yauch’s apartment:

I get there and Yauch has a tape deck up on the counter in the kitchen. Not a cassette deck, but a quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape deck. I didn’t even know he had one. He’d pulled the tape out of the machine and wound it around a mic stand and a wooden chair close to the reel-to-reel … He had the intro drumbeat to Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” going around and around his kitchen. The sound and the visual were so magical to me. It was like he was on some Doug Henning shit. He said that he recorded the intro part of the record onto the tape, and then edited just that intro part, and wanted it to keep going around and around like what a DJ would do with breakbeats … He told me that he’d heard about Hendrix and Sly Stone doing tape loops and he wanted to try it.

It’s pretty straightforward as drum loops go, and nowhere near as elastic and funky as what the Bomb Squad would do with similar tape-manipulating means a year later, but damn if it still doesn’t sound 50 stories tall. All that was left was to re-record the guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” over it, and the rest was obnoxious, amazing, fried-chicken-magnate-gangplank-walking history. (BONUS TRIVIA POSTSCRIPT: Paul’s Boutique cut “High Plains Drifter” references “Ballantine quarts with the puzzle on the cap” — that’s the brand of beer whose three-ring logo bears a certain inverted resemblance to the rune symbol on John Bonham’s kick drum.)

The Early Sample: Saint Etienne, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” (12″, Heavenly, 1990; also released on Foxbase Alpha, 1991)

For the most part, “When The Levee Breaks” was and always has been the kind of break you use if you want subwoofers to crack concrete and your rhythms to act like blunt-force clobbering. Have you ever tried to dance to that break? It’s a motherfucker of a head-nodder, but it doesn’t make your hips do much. That’s why Saint Etienne dropping it in their debut single and Neil Young cover is a slick move in an already paradigm-flipping cover: if they can make a song that elegiac and vulnerable and wide-open-spaced into something you can uprock to, pretty much anything is possible. Bonzo doesn’t show up until around the bridge halfway through, at which point you get an easy lesson in how ramping up the tempo is just about enough to turn one of his more lead-weighted impact-first grooves into Jabo Starks.

The Breakthrough Sample: Björk, “Army Of Me” (from Post, One Little Indian, 1995)

Of course, this is a famous and straightforward usage of the loop, I thought when I put this list together, but wouldn’t you know it: I had to go and listen to it again, and remembered it’s something else entirely. When Björk and Graham Massey came together to assemble this track, they actually gave that break a bit of additional pressure and drive by cutting it in half, boom bap without the follow-up boom ba ba bap. It’s not the most complicated decision to make behind the boards, but it adds just that additional frisson and momentum to the track that its hyperventilating synths complete magnificently. It’s that riff that actually completes the dynamics of tension and release that the beat used to have before it was amputated.

The Weirdo Sample: Russell Velázquez, “Pokémon World” (single, Koch Records, 2000)

I’m too young to be peak Gen X because I don’t actually remember the ’70s, but I’m too old to be a millennial because I don’t give a fuck about Pokémon and never have. But generations are bullshit, so hey. Anyhow, I picked this track for the Weirdo slot for a distinct reason, and not just to see if I can anger as many people as possible with an admission of disinterest in a piece of Compulsory Entertainment. I have to give this track the nod because its “Levee” break is so staggeringly obvious (even modestly sped-up to decade-late New Jack Swing tempo) that there has to be at least a 50/50 chance that some random person who is currently in their twenties will have heard this long before they heard anything by Led Zeppelin, and when they did somehow hear “When The Levee Breaks” for the first time later on, they lost their fucking mind.

The Recent Sample: Homeboy Sandman, “Consumption” (from Veins, Stones Throw, 2017)

Homeboy Sandman is the best MC that never gets talked about because people are too busy debating whether SoundCloud rap is any good or not, so any opportunity to give him his due is an opportunity I’m gonna take. He’s got kind of an East Coast Madlib stop-start flow on this track, which is enough to juke you timing-wise but doesn’t fight the beat enough to be jarring. Props to Sam “BPAD” Borrello of Philadelphia’s Ill Doots for supplying the beat — a slick blend of that Bonham boom-bap and a lighter Fender Rhodes countermeasure of a melody — though I gotta wonder (and hope): Does Stones Throw have Led Zeppelin Sample Clearance Money? It sure went to better use than in Vinyl, at least.