When I was a kid, like many other guitarists and rock fans, I dreamed of being a rock star. Led Zeppelin was one of the first bands I listened to that introduced me to the concept of “rock and roll” at its most pure.
Zeppelin, comprised of four incredibly talented musicians for their era, including legendary guitar immortal Jimmy Page, was renowned for their bluesy elements, along with being one of the forefathers of hard rock and even heavy metal. However, they were also underratedly one of the more progressive bands of their era, with several influences from other genres, impressive technical playing for their era, as well as intriguing lyrics referencing paganism, history and literature. For me, their finest song was “Achilles Last Stand.”
Its intro is a sole guitar with slight reverb and echoing power. Page’s hypnotic, shifting progression from an F-Sharp minor chord to an E-Minor one lulls its listeners into a trance. Yet with the kick of a snare from all-time great John Bonham, the song picks up in pace. With a steady beat coming from bassist John Paul Jones, whose notes gallop like a war horse in battle – a fitting audial image for a song named “Achilles Last Stand” – the aggressive drums and guitar chords also bring life into the song. If the epic’s guitar intro is like the standoff between two sides in the middle of a field between two standing armies. The snare kick is like the initial war cry before both armies charge at each other.
While the song certainly is memorable for its instrumental proficiency, singer Robert Plant adds a dimension of humanity to the instrumentalists battling with and against each other. Plant cooes, wails and powerfully sings vocals with imagery both reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings” and “the Iliad.” His lyrics are a clever double entendre, simultaneously mentioning his experience touring with a broken ankle and referencing Greek mythology.
Who can forget such memorable lines like “the mighty arms of Atlas hold the heavens from the earth?” Plant beautifully narrates the symphonic ebbs and flows of the song.
So who ultimately wins the battle out of the instrumental players? In my opinion, it’s Page, whose timeless and numerous guitar solos provide the emotional power of the song and ultimately dictate its direction. Yes – Jones’ bass line acts as its pulsating heartbeat and Bonham’s time-signature changing, hard-hitting and loud movements. But Page’s guitar licks are written like a symphony: acting as the brains of the piece.
It’s weird that I dedicated a 500-word column to one song, even if it has been called by Page as his favorite song he’s played with Led Zeppelin. Yet for any fan of progressive rock, metal or music in general, it’s a must-listen: a reminder and encapsulation of great musical storytelling and art - perhaps the greatest rock song ever written.