Get Out the Led


That hum you hear is the sound of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” being played an estimated 4,000 times a year on AM radio stations—one of them in your head. Andy Fyfe’s entertaining When the Levee Breaks tells the story of how Led Zeppelin turned the hum in their heads into Led Zeppelin IV, one of the bestselling and most influential albums of all time. From humble origins—John Bonham taught himself to play drums on a “coffee tin with a loose wire attached to get a snare sound” and joined Robert Plant’s Crawling King Snakes only to find the band often lacked gas money to fetch their drummer for their gigs—Fyfe attributes Zeppelin’s early commercial success (and lead-balloon reception with critics who resented this success) to their manager-cum-bouncer Peter Grant negotiating complete artistic freedom for the band—freedom which let them blend “dark and light” and “hard and soft” to become rock warlocks with one foot on the amp pedal and one in the Middle Ages.

Fittingly, their greatest work comes when they retreat from their fans and critics and nonstop touring to the cold and damp Headley Grange, a manor with “no furniture, no pool table, no pub nearby.” Here Bonham captures the true sound of the drums he hears in his head, and not the “biscuit tin” sound of drumming in a studio, by moving the microphones away from his kit so that “what you hear on ‘When the Levee Breaks’ is not just the sound of Bonham’s drumming, but the way in which the drums react to the acoustics of the room they were in.” Backward echoes are put on Plant’s harmonica and Jimmy Page’s guitar, and on Fyfe’s word processor as he describes Memphis Minnie singing and the Beastie Boys sampling “Levee” in such a way that you hear all three versions at once—a fitting tribute to the song and to this spellbinding book.