Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: Whole Lotta Love
Description: album track, Led Zeppelin II
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1972
Long and hard did I cogitate over which Led Zeppelin track to single out as their pinnacle for The 143. Because the band and their manager were so adamant that their albums were “indivisible” and arrogantly eschewed single releases as part of their deal with Atlantic, it seems counter-intuitive, not to mention rude, to boil them down to one song. But I have. It could have been Kashmir, or Moby Dick, or Communication Breakdown, or Custard Pie, or Good Times Bad Times, or even Stairway To Heaven. But it’s not. It’s their most recognisable song. The Top Of The Pops theme.
Actually, Whole Lotta Love was released as a single in the United States in 1969, apparently without the band’s permission and against the terms of their contract. It went to number four and helped break them in America. This is the inconvenient truth. (It was even edited down from its original 5’34” in the process.) The unifying myth of them not putting out singles elevates them from the rock and pop herd: big and principled, they defied record industry orthodoxy and did it their way. As a massive if belated fan of Led Zep’s work, I bought into this myth with my eyes wide shut. So much of the band is mythology, who wouldn’t “print the legend”?
However antithetical to the legend it may be, they also put it out as a single in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland. That’s a whole lotta Whole Lotta Love. One the most imitable and best remembered guitar riffs in all of rock – thanks to its use over the chart rundown on Top Of The Pops throughout most of the 70s – it’s actually disarming to hear in its primal form and for Robert Plant to start singing over it. But he’s got something important to say, and it’s that he’s gonna give you his love. Not only that but he’s gonna give it to you “way down inside, honey”, not just a lot of his love either, but “every inch.”
That Mr Plant also wants to be “your backdoor man” is as close as this disarmingly direct lyric gets to mystery. (Although I think we know what he’s talking about.) My friend Stuart Maconie wrote a piece for Select about the abject unsuitability of most rock and pop lyrics as chat-up lines and the illustration by the mighty Carl Flint depicted an open-shirted Robert Plant schmoozing a wench at a bar and no doubt suggesting she squeeze his lemon until the juice runs down his leg. It was understood, at sufficient ideological remove, that as long as you thought of Plant as “Percy” he could get away with offensive bawdy nonsense that was otherwise verboten. (Plant actually used the word “wench” to Stuart when interviewed by him on Radio 2; I believe it was an off-air invite to a gig in Birmingham that included a plus-one, ergo, “Bring the wench.”)
Away from the tumescent lyric (Plant later described Led Zep II as “very virile” and has spoken of the band’s “carnal approach”), there’s the riff itself, no less sexual as it pumps urgently and snakily away beneath Plant’s entreaties and guarantees in that famous intro. I looked it up, and Jimmy Page is playing a Telecaster through a Vox Super Beatle, whatever that is. It sounds amazing either way, played twice – hey, probably on a different guitar, don’t ask me. Page and Plant build to Bonzo’s lazy-sounding but laser-guided drum fill that ignites the song and we’re off. Page seems to be playing about three or four parts – and producing himself of course. Bonzo does that salt-shaker rhythm where the whole kit seems to be keeping time under his weight, nothing like as flamboyant and dangerous as the man himself, but as solid.
Yeah, it sounds like a hit single in the making. And then. Not even a minute and a half in, Whole Lotta Love stops being popular music, stops being a future TV theme toon, and starts being jazz-fusion. With every knob on the desk being fiddled by Page and engineer Eddie Kramer so we’re now told, it loops off into a prog hinterland of tickled cymbals, errant percussion, scraped strings, spectral echoes, space traffic, orgasmic monkey noises and then, at the three-minute mark, to the sound of radio station playlist managers heading for the car park, Bonzo signals the song back in, with a Page solo that’s built for the concert arena. But it’s not back on conformist track yet. Plant goes “way down inside”, deserted by all but his own cavernous echo. Further rat-a-tat from Bonzo and it’s a warm welcome back to listeners who dipped out for the heretical 3’10” “radio edit”.
I think I understand why I have chosen what seems such a first-thought-that-springs-to-mind track by Led Zeppelin: it expresses all the foot-on-floor bluesy orthodoxy and stadium-ready majesty of one of the biggest rock bands of all time. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s over the top, it’s raw and overcooked at the same time, it’s West Bromwich and the Mississippi Delta, and yet it’s a number one smash hit. Good times, bad times.
These qualities, which ought to work against each other, but in fact find sweet, filthy harmony, are “indivisible”.