For this first part of the new Jemtunes series for 2010 – Leaps n Bands – I’m taking you through a track by track expose of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth studio album commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV. Today concludes that with side 2, track 4 – When the levee breaks.
Thus was originally a country blues song written and first recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. The lyrics reflect experiences during the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The flooding affected 26,000 square miles of the Mississippi Delta – hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands of residents were forced to evacuate.
Ethel Douglas, Minnie’s sister-in-law, recalled that Minnie was living with her family near Walls, Mississippi, when the levee broke in 1927. The song’s lyrics recount the personal toll on a man who lost his home and family.
McCoy and Minnie recorded “When the Levee Breaks” during their first session for Columbia Records in New York City on June 18, 1929. The song features McCoy on vocals and rhythm guitar. Minnie, the more accomplished guitarist of the two, provided the embellishments using a finger picked-style in a Spanish or open G tuning.
Columbia issued the song on the then-standard 78 rpm phonograph record, with “That Will Be Alright”, another vocal performance by McCoy, on the flip-side in August or June 1929.
When considering material for the group to record for their untitled 4th album, Robert Plant had suggested the Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie song and the band decided to place it as the albums’ final track. Jimmy Page developed a new guitar riff that set it apart but John Bonham’s drumming defines the characteristic of the song.
Page and John Paul Jones based their guitar and bass lines on the original. However, they did not follow its twelve-bar blues I–IV–V–I structure, but instead used a one-chord approach to give it a droning sound. Plant used many of the lyrics, but took a different melodic approach. He also added a harmonica part which as a result of the backward echo effect during the mix, the echo is heard ahead of the source.
John Bonham’s drumming, played on a Ludwig kit, was recorded in the lobby of Headley Grange using two Beyerdynamic M 160 microphones which were hung up a flight of stairs; output from these were passed to a pair of Helios F760 compressor/limiters. A Binson Echorec, a delay effects unit, was also used.
Portions of the song were recorded at a different tempo, then slowed down, explaining the “sludgy” sound, particularly on the harmonica and guitar solos. It was the only song on the album that was mixed at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, California (the rest being remixed in London).
A new “Leaps n Bands” album review starts on Jemtunes on 19 January.