Below is an excerpt from Marc Myers’ new book “Anatomy of a Song: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop” (Grove Press), which you can buy on Amazon. In it, Myers talks to Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page and collaborators about the making of one of the band’s hits that changed rock history, “Whole Lotta Love.” Released in November 1969, the song helped kick off a wave of more experimental rock on radio.
In 1968, record companies were becoming more comfortable letting unproven rock bands experiment on albums. In prior years, only seasoned musicians and proven moneymakers like the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan had that opportunity. The rest had to focus on tightly controlled singles, with albums functioning merely as collections of those short records. Starting in 1968, the album began to be viewed by a growing number of labels as a separate creative platform for rock bands, particularly those with electric guitarists who could wail on longer solos. There were two reasons for the abrupt shift. First, the rising sales of stereo systems were creating an appetite for rock albums. Second, a growing number of stereo FM radio stations were promoting rock albums as a more sophisticated and better-sounding format than pop singles.
Unveiled in the early 1930s, FM radio didn’t catch on until the early 1960s. Up till then, most U.S. radio manufacturers didn’t bother adding the FM band on their units, since consumers were perfectly content with AM radio. But when car companies began offering the FM band on the radios of new models in the early 1960s, AM stations started investing in FM operations. As FM activity picked up, the Federal Communications Commission insisted in 1964 that FM stations be devoted to original programming, not the duplication of AM broadcasts. The turning point for FM radio came in the late 1960s, when Japan began exporting inexpensive stereo components to the U.S. Among the electronics arriving in stores were solid-state integrated stereo receivers that featured both AM and FM radio bands. The availability of FM radio on many new stereo systems led to the rise of stereo stores and the proliferation of FM radio stations, particularly near college campuses. But since FM radio was so new in 1968, stations had trouble attracting advertisers, leaving a glut of airtime to fill. Many stations allowed program hosts to play whatever they wished, including long album tracks and even entire sides.
By 1969, with the consumer market for rock and soul albums expanding rapidly, record companies invested in bands that could fill the longer format imaginatively. One group that benefited from the shift was Led Zeppelin. After signing a major deal with Atlantic Records, the British band toured the U.S. in late 1968 and early ’69 before releasing Led Zeppelin, its first album. The band then embarked on two more arduous North American tours in 1969, releasing Led Zeppelin II in October. The album opened with “Whole Lotta Love,” a song that revolutionised the sound of the rock vocal and electric guitar. The album went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart for seven weeks. After “Whole Lotta Love” was released as a single in November 1969, it reached No. 4 on Billboard’s pop chart, and in 2007 it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Interviews with JIMMY PAGE (Led Zeppelin guitarist and cowriter), GEORGE CHKIANTZ (recording engineer), and EDDIE KRAMER (final-mix engineer)
JIMMY PAGE: I came up with the guitar riff for “Whole Lotta Love” in the summer of 1968, on my houseboat along the Thames in Pangbourne, England. I suppose my early love for big intros by rockabilly guitarists was an inspiration, but as soon as I developed the riff, I knew it was strong enough to drive the entire song, not just open it. When I played the riff for the band in my living room several weeks later during rehearsals for our first album, the excitement was immediate and collective. We felt the riff was addictive, like a forbidden thing.
By January 1969, we cracked America wide open with the release of our first album and our first U.S. tour. I had this avant-garde master plan for “Whole Lotta Love” and could hear the construction coming together in my head. From the start, I didn’t want “Whole Lotta Love” — or any of our songs — to be a single. I had been a session musician since the early 1960s, as had [bassist] John Paul Jones. We had recorded on hundreds of singles and hated the abbreviated, canned format. I also knew that stereo FM radio was emerging in America and playing albums. I wanted to develop our songs emotionally, beyond just lengthy solos.
Our label, Atlantic Records, got it, but there was really very little risk on their end. John Paul and I knew our way around a recording studio, so we weren’t going to waste studio time or produce something that wasn’t cohesive. More important, I wanted to expand our approach to ensure that our album wouldn’t be chopped up into singles for AM radio. To make sure that didn’t happen, I produced “Whole Lotta Love” — and our entire second album — as an uneditable expression, a work that had to be aired on stereo FM to make sense.
During the band’s rehearsals in early ’69 for our second album, “Whole Lotta Love” sounded strong enough to open it, so I wanted to record the song first. In April, we went into London’s Olympic Studios and cut “Whole Lotta Love” with engineer George Chkiantz, who had recorded Jimi Hendrix there.
GEORGE CHKIANTZ: There were two studios at Olympic — one large and one small. Management had installed our sixteen-track recorder in the small one with hopes of luring rock bands in there and away from the larger sixty-by-forty-foot space with twenty-eight-foot ceilings, where we recorded mostly classical works and film scores. But Jimmy chose the larger one — even though it had only an eight-track recorder. He wanted the extra space so the drums could be miked properly for stereo.
I was a relative novice then, and what Jimmy wanted was a stretch, given Olympic’s traditional way of miking drums. So I invented a new way. I didn’t mike the snare, since that would have reduced the size and space of the drum sound. Instead, I used a stereo mike on an eight-foot boom above the drums, along with two distant side mikes to give the tom-toms edge, and a huge AKG D30 mike positioned about two feet from the bass drum. Jimmy knew that high-end mikes didn’t have to be up against an instrument to maximise the sound.
PAGE: For the song to work as this panoramic audio experience, I needed Bonzo [drummer John Bonham] to really stand out, so that every stick stroke sounded clear and you could really feel them. If the drums were recorded just right, we could lay in everything else.
CHKIANTZ: To make the drums sound impressive, I placed them on a platform about one and a half feet off the floor. The floor at Olympic was made of wood, not cement, which meant I needed to keep any drum movement from transmitting rumble across the wood floor to other microphones. When we began taping, [lead singer] Robert Plant sang in the studio, but eventually he moved to the vocal booth to better isolate his voice. At one point, Jimmy began fooling around with a theremin [an electronic instrument] that he brought to the studio. We worked it in when the song shifted into a weird, free form.
PAGE: The theremin’s eerie sound begged for more experimentation. To get my guitar to sound surreal, I detuned it and pulled on the strings for a far-out effect. I was playing a Sunburst 1958 Les Paul Standard guitar I had bought from [James Gang guitarist] Joe Walsh in San Francisco when we were out there on tour. The Standard had this tonal versatility, allowing me to get a blistering high pitch. Robert’s vocal was just as extreme. He kept gaining confi-
dence during the session and gave it everything he had. His vocals, like my solos, were about performance. He was pushing to see what he could get out of himself. We were performing for each other, almost competitively.
When we toured the U.S. again in May and June, we took the rough-mix tapes along with us in a large trunk. In Los Angeles, we’d work at studios like Mirror, Mystic, and A&M to overdub material. In New York, we worked at Mayfair, Groove, and Juggy studios. Today, digital files are e-mailed all over the place, but back then you actually had to take your tapes if you wanted to work on the road.
When we were ready to mix all the songs for the album, I wanted Eddie Kramer to do it. Eddie had engineered several of the album’s songs from scratch in London, and he had worked with us in the American studios. He also had engineered Jimi Hendrix’s albums. But by the summer Eddie had relocated to the States, so when we were in New York in August, we called him. “Whole Lotta Love” was all there on tape, but it needed a big, polished mix for the album.
EDDIE KRAMER: The first time I heard “Whole Lotta Love” was in August ’69, when Jimmy and I started working on the album’s final mix at New York’s A&R Recording. Jimmy and I had first met in 1964, when he was playing on the Kinks’ first album [Kinks] at Pye Studios and I was the assistant engineer. I also had heard Led Zeppelin early on in ’68, when John Paul Jones played me an acetate of Led Zeppelin’s first album, before it was released. I was blown away — it sounded so hard and heavy.
In New York, the recording console at A&R was fairly primitive. It had only twelve channels, with old-fashioned rotary dials to control track levels instead of sliding faders, and there were just two pan pots [control knobs] to send the sound from left to right channels. But as Jimmy and I listened to the mix, something unexpected came up.
At the point where the song breaks and Robert slowly wails, “Way down inside . . . woman . . . you need . . . love,” Jimmy and I heard this faint voice singing the lyric before Robert did on the master vocal track. Apparently Robert had done two different vocals, recording them on two different tracks. Even when I turned the volume down all the way on the track that we didn’t want, his powerful voice was bleeding through the console and onto the master.
Some people today still think the faint voice was a pre-echo, that we added it on purpose for effect. It wasn’t — it was an accident. Once Jimmy and I realised we had to live with it on the master, I looked at Jimmy, he looked at me, and we both reached for the reverb knob at the same time and cracked up laughing. Our instincts were the same — to douse the faint, intruding voice in reverb so it sounded part of the master plan.
PAGE: I hadn’t heard anything like that before, and loved it. I was always looking for things like that when I recorded. That’s the beauty of old recording equipment. Robert’s faraway voice sounded otherworldly, like a spirit anticipating the vocal he was about to deliver.
KRAMER: By adding reverb, we made his faint voice more dynamic, and it became part of rock history. I also used the pan pots on Jimmy’s guitar solo to fling it from side to side, so it would move from one speaker to another. I loved the sonic imagery, and I like to think of my mixes as stereophonic paintings.
On the break after the first chorus, where the song gets quiet and we hear Bonzo’s cymbals and percussion and Jimmy’s distortion, Jimmy and I went nuts on the knobs. We had eight dials controlling the levels on eight individual tracks, so we rehearsed the choreography of what we were going to do to create the far-out sounds. Then we did it and printed the result onto the master stereo reel. Because Jimmy was a studio brat, he really understood how we could push the limits. When you have limitations in the studio, you go for it and stretch your imagination.
PAGE: Some people said later that “Whole Lotta Love” was based on Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love” [recorded by Muddy Waters and released in 1962] and the Small Faces’ “You Need Loving” [released in 1966]. My riff — the basis for the entire song — sounds nothing like either of them. Robert had referenced the Dixon lyrics because with my riff, they felt right. This eventually forced us to give Dixon a cocredit on our song. But if you take Robert’s vocal out, there’s no musical reference to either song.
When we were done, “Whole Lotta Love” ran 5:33, which was great since at the time it was too long to edit for a single. So Atlantic released the album version as a single. We loved that. But soon after, Atlantic cut the single down to 3:12 to satisfy AM radio. Weeks before its release, they sent me an acetate of the edit. I played it once, hated it, and never listened to the short version again.
“ANATOMY OF A SONG: The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B, and Pop” © 2016 by Marc Myers. A version of this chapter first appeared in The Wall Street Journal as part of the column “Anatomy of a Song,” 2011 — 2016. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.