What is it about this band? It’s no great mystery that which makes for an exceptional musical group: talent (of course), cohesion among the members, time and place, a good producer, et cetera. Led Zeppelin had all these in spades, but it seems there’s something more, something almost ineffable about the group. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s no question that the confluence of all these qualities helped create what became arguably the greatest rock group of all time. It’s not just that they oozed talent, but I think it’s this: that they oozed talent effortlessly.
They were also literary. And they paid homage to their blues forebears. And they often experimented with instrumentation outside the domain of rock music. Sure, sometimes Page/Plant could get a little wordy with lyrics; Carouselambra reads like an epic poem, but it’s still a musical tour de force. However, there’s one song that combines not only the best in each band member, but is a masterful amalgam of all the best anything: The Rain Song. This number has it all. It’s got strings, including a heart-wrenching cello part. It has a plinking piano track that evokes, you guessed it, rain. It features achingly beautiful lyrics, and it has a double climax. Everyone loves double climaxes.
A plaintive half-step drop on the guitar establishes the main musical motif; it’s not exactly uplifting, but not altogether sad either. What it is is perfect. A second acoustic guitar is strummed almost wetly in the background. When the strings come in around 1:37, The Rain Song becomes this towering thing, anchored by the brooding cello track. Just listen to the interplay of the piano, strings, and guitars during the stretch between the two main verses, capped by Bonham’s gently urgent percussion until the 3:50 mark.
And that second verse! “Speak to me only with your eyes.” I melt at this stuff. But the climax at 5:01 is downright heroic. Page’s guitar riff at 5:11 is subtle, but it’s also the sound of triumph made melody, as Plant sings “(Hey!) I felt the coldness of my winter…” and two-note piano chords stack joyously upward. This is about the time I’m pumping my fists in solidarity with musical perfection.
And there’s more. A second, more subdued climax happens at 6:16 when Plant really gets to the point: Upon us all a little rain must fall.
So…writing about the details of a song is a fool’s errand. I can’t pretend to adequately express what it is that makes a musical work so enjoyable and moving. You just have to listen for yourself, but hopefully you’ll take notice of the high points I’ve mentioned here.