Looking back on the Led Zeppelin Ragnarok anthem for the ages
Fifty years later, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” stands as one of rock’s loudest, mystical, most enduring and genre-defining anthems.
It’s arena rock’s stampeding herd. Other acts — Kiss, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith — all frequently blended noise with a groove to add a seductive danger to their appeal. Instead, Zeppelin — especially on 1970’s “Immigrant Song” — assaulted rock and roll with equal parts razor-sharp guitar chords, soaring, theatrical vocals, and John Bonham’s ham-fisted bludgeoning on drums. Mix this with Norse mythology, and the fact that most of the other standouts on Led Zeppelin III are laced with acoustic psychedelia (“Since I’ve Been Loving You,” “Celebration Day,” and “Tangerine”), and it stands out even further, adding to its continued appeal.
There’s an argument saying that “Immigrant Song” excels because it’s a song less inspired by honkytonk boogie, and instead feels like a hard-rocking, proto-metal missile to the cerebellum. Muddy Waters’ blues hit “You Need Love” inspired the band’s 1969 breakout single “Whole Lotta Love.” Intriguingly, the desire to push past the blues and into other sonic directions comes from a fundamental split between the band’s iconic tandem of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Plant notes in the 2006 book Led Zeppelin IV, “I think when Willie Dixon turned on the radio in Chicago twenty years after he wrote his blues, he thought, ‘That’s my song [Whole Lotta Love].’ When we ripped it off, I said to Jimmy, ‘Hey, that’s not our song.’ And he said, ‘Shut up and keep walking.’”
One year and two albums later, the band has shed those stolen inspirations. Now, they were soldiering forth as guided by more personal notions. To wit, “Immigrant Song,” like most of Led Zeppelin III, was also the first of the band’s four consecutive albums recorded at Headley Grange. The nearly 200-year old castle in Southern England blends well with Plant’s interest in traditional English folk songs, plus Jimmy Page’s surging interests in both Norse mythology and Alestair Crowley’s ritualistic pagan mysticism.
“We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission,” Robert Plant notes about the writing of “Immigrant Song.” “It was written about that trip, and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different,” he continues. Most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog is built upon songs that are as heavy as they are hard, and thus, inspire virtuoso-level solos and intriguing interpretations. However, “Immigrant Song” is unquestionably “different.”
The track has a direct, driving rhythm highlighted by Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones’ repetitious staccato guitar riffs. As well, John Bonham’s manic skin-pounding is notable here, too. Though similar in energy to Led Zeppelin’s previous hits, its focus — more rock, less blues — is, as noted by Plant, what makes the track “different.”
In many cases in rock history, different — say, Bob Dylan playing an electric guitar set at the Newport Folk Festival — is considered bad. However, Zeppelin disassociating the sound from rock’s primarily blues, jazz, folk and country inspirations was good for the proto-metal movement. Opening the door to riffage over rhythm created the space for metal, punk, and every noise-addicted musical direction since. From Iron Maiden to hair metal, and Anthrax to nu-metal and more, there’s a bit of “Immigrant Song’s disassociative legacy present.
In his Rolling Stone-published 1970 review of Led Zeppelin III, Lester Bangs called “Immigrant Song,” “a cannibal chorus wailing in the infernal light of a savage fertility rite.” This statement comes after referring to their previous hit “Whole Lotta Love” as a “cum-wheezing guitar freak-out.” Rather ribaldly, the two ideas denote the evident change in direction for Led Zeppelin that “Immigrant Song” represents.
Identifying “Immigrant Song” as the tipping point of Led Zeppelin’s growth from stars to icons involves noting the fundamental switch in their creative identity as being the moment that the band’s half-century-long legacy is created. In evolving from bluesy seducers into swashbuckling metal pirates wielding Thor’s hammer, their future direction as a band — listen to everything from 1972’s “Rock and Roll” and “Stairway to Heaven” to 1979’s “Fool In The Rain” as proof — and nascent metal as a rock subgenre, were directly influenced. Ultimately, in switching from not fooling about schooling on cooling to “sweeping with threshing oar” on a quest for “the western shore,” the face of Zeppelin, and rock, were changed forever.
VIDEO: Led Zeppelin “Immigrant Song” (Thor Ragnarok edition)