John Paul Jones has kept a relatively low profile since Led Zeppelin’s one-off reunion concert in 2007 and his brief stint in Them Crooked Vultures a couple years later, but he resurfaced last week as part of an incredible Playing for Change video where he played bass on a new rendition of “When the Levee Breaks” with musicians from all over the globe.
“I already knew the part although in a different sequence!” he told Rolling Stone in a brief email interview. “I also played the main riff an octave lower which made it fit better sonically.”
Jones first played “When the Levee Breaks” during the 1971 sessions for Led Zeppelin IV, which started at Island Studios at London and then moved to the Headley Grange estate in South East England. The song begins with an unaccompanied drum part by John Bonham, recorded in the lobby of Headley Grange to achieve an incredible echo effect, that’s been sampled on countless hip-hop records over the years.
“When the Levee Breaks” wraps up Led Zeppelin IV and became an instant fan favorite, but it was the only song from the LP that the band didn’t even attempt on their initial tour behind it. (“Four Sticks” was dropped after a single show in Copenhagen and never tried again.) It’s unclear exactly why they stayed away from it, but it’s possible they felt the sound they achieved on the master recording was a result of the unique environment at Headley Grange and recreating it would be very difficult.
They finally attempted to play “When the Levee Breaks” in January 1975 when they went on tour shortly before Physical Graffiti came out. The most likely reason seems to be that Jimmy Page broke his ring finger in a subway door and had to briefly play with just three fingers, causing them to rejigger the show a bit to accommodate him. There are five known live versions of “When the Levee Breaks” and they all come from January 1975. The band wouldn’t try the song again until they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, and they played a very long and jammy version with Neil Young that sounds very little like the original.
For the past five decades, the only available versions of the January 1975 “When the Levee Breaks” performances were found on shoddy audience tapes. But just last year, a clean soundboard of the band’s Jan. 18th, 1975, show in Bloomington, Minnesota, surfaced online. Here’s audio of “When the Levee Breaks” from that night.
Recordings like this are yet more evidence that Led Zeppelin are desperately in need of an official Bootleg Series. They are one of the best live bands in rock history, but they’ve released pathetically few concert albums. These circumstances have created a thriving market for bootlegs, but why exactly aren’t they simply doing this themselves? They’ve remastered the catalog time and time again. It’s time to break into their concert vault and start sharing it with the world.