Significant Form Traces Pleasure and Pain: Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)

By Andrew Goodwin

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
—William Blake

The goal was synaesthesia, creating pictures with sound.
—Jimmy Page[1]

It begins with a chuckle, good-natured, playful (yes, in a sexy way), and then you might wonder if the joke is on you and maybe this isn’t quite the raunchy cock-strut stroll down the road to excess that you had in mind, since the palace of wisdom when it shows up appears to be haunted, perhaps by the ghosts from whom the song was stolen. After the chuckle, the crunch. After five and a half minutes, a completed shaping of tune, riff, texture, and lyric:  an ultimate hook of structural form.

It is “Whole Lotta Love” that leads classical music critic Alex Ross (of the New Yorker) to congratulate and accuse Led Zeppelin of being “closet sophisticates” (due to its tri-partite/non-standardized structure). What first appears as a compliment is not without the implication that a band like Led Zeppelin would after all be well advised to keep their cultural capital if not under the mattress then at least somewhere towards the back of a musty old wardrobe. Robert Pattison, in his splendid book The Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music In The Mirror Of Romanticism, sees subtlety in the authentic blues but only rabid excess in the newly democratic sounds of rock.[3] What does Pattison hear? “Intensity replaces detachment.” Where does this take his mind? “Both rock and blues lyrics have a sense of humor, but the white version depends on the overstatement of slapstick, the black on detached amusement of irony.” What does he conclude? “When white rockers sing about sex, the lyrics are more salacious than amusing.” Good. Because I think the most obscene song in the history of rock and roll is “My Ding-a-Ling.” Pattison then goes on: “Rock stands or falls not on its putative fidelity to the blues tradition but on the strength of its own vulgarity.” By this measure, Led Zeppelin are still standing, but for the wrong reason. Lacking an adequate theory of genre, Led Zeppelin’s detractors listen to “Whole Lotta Love” and what they hear is:  boastful groaning, macho chest beating, patriarchy gone ape shit, the sound of an airport security alarm set off by a cucumber wrapped in aluminum foil.

What is it really?

“Whole Lotta Love” bears little resemblance to “You Need Love” as recorded in 1962 by Muddy Waters and owned by Willie Dixon (now by his estate). The track is, however, closely related to The Small Faces’ 1966 song “You Need Loving” (which is based on the same Muddy Waters track that was owned by Willie Dixon). This is fortunate for Willie Dixon’s heirs (let us say so and be glad about it) because what is important about WLL is not the riff; as rendered in the Muddy Waters or Small Faces versions you would not recognize Zeppelin’s WLL.  But it isn’t the lyrics either (trite on the Muddy Waters original as if he feared sounding not too black but too lustful; unconvincingly lustful on the Small Faces cover as if they feared sounding not too lustful but insufficiently pop).  No, it is the structure and the groove that matter (by which I mean the arrangement, stereo-image, dynamics, elasticity of beat and relation of guitar and drums).

Structure:  a dual example of significant form

Firstly, the tripartite structure of WLL sets up an initial musical/lyrical equilibrium (sexual anxiety expressed through words, intonation, and via musical repetition and timbral stress—a crunchiness in the guitar lines). This brief state of tension rapidly and surprisingly implodes; it does so far sooner than we expect and it does so to a far greater degree than any listener might have imagined, since the entire structure of the track collapses at this point, giving way not to a middle-eight or a solo but to seeming psycho-bodily chaos, with only the tempo and some parts of the instrumentation remaining a constant from the first section. New sounds—notably the theremin, percussion and tape samples—are now introduced, widening the timbral palette, pulling us farther away from the familiar and therefore towards something unpredictable.

Much has been made of the orgasmic sounds in the middle section of WLL. Much has been made of the stories concerning the sounds of war in this section. And so naturally a very great deal has been made about the combining of sex and war in a song that so aggressively asserts (or does it?) a male desire to satisfy a woman and, in so doing, satisfy his ego. That sex does in fact express and release aggression might suggest that this section is an exercise in emotional realism.

Having dealt with this digression we can now consider the meaning of the structure of “Whole Lotta Love.” Part 1:  sexual tension/anxiety explored (using what Andrew Chester would term intensional form).[4]

“Whole Lotta Love” Part 1

Part 2:  sexual tension/anxiety unleashed (using what Chester would term extensional form).

“Whole Lotta Love” Part 2

Part 3 then not so much resolves but ties together without full resolution what seem like two quite different pieces of music. The key to establishing the musical logic of this shift while keeping the listener in touch with parts 1 and 2 of the track lies in the guitar solo that follows the middle section of the track.

“Whole Lotta Love” Part 3

Albin Zak’s brilliant analysis of WLL’s acoustic space in The Poetics Of Rock is indispensable:

The stereo spectrum… can be employed quite literally as a dramatic stage on which a character’s movements are choreographed and woven into the dramatic scheme. Consider the stereo spectacular of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (1969). The setup for the guitar solo, which involves preparing and reserving a special place on the stage, is especially interesting. The track begins with a left-to-right movement that casts a shadow to the back far right of the stage. This is accomplished by placing the primary guitar riff on the left and its delayed ambient image on the right… When the rest of the band enters, the far right remains unfilled except for the guitar ambience, whose prominence now recedes further… At the beginning of the break after the second chorus, the right side begins to open up, first with slowed-down guitar glissando… At this point the song structure is suspended, and with it, the track’s spatial theme… When the freely panning sound collage comes to an end, however, the original stereo picture drops back into place as the bass and the guitar resume their places. But now a new character is introduced. A solo guitar boldly steps forth at the right side of the soundstage, emerging, as it were, from the ambient shadow that has hovered there since the beginning of the track. It is the only time in the piece that there is an electric guitar in this position, and clearly the space has been reserved to heighten its dramatic entrance.[5]

This entrance is effective not only in bolstering the power of the guitar solo but also in bringing a modernist sense of unity to a track whose structure is something like:  A+B=A/b. “Whole Lotta Love” is thus sophisticated in purely musical terms, structured in such a way as to tell a story about lust, anxiety, satisfaction and suffering.  It would not do any harm for us to reconsider the ideas of critics like Clive Bell, whose work on “significant form” in visual art suggests a parallel for those of us who see how WLL sets up a thesis, then seems to annihilate that thesis, and then in the third part reveals that it has not done this at all (although it has left you with something to think about).[6] For there is a real connection across this five-a-half-minute track (arguably the briefest of Zeppelin’s “epic” tracks)[7] between the three parts and between the three different interpretations of these parts—formal, social/erotic, or both.[8] Part 3 of WLL resolves the relationship between Parts 1 and 2 by returning to the riff of the first section but combining this intensional device with the extensional filigrees introduced in the second.

Groove:  a pulse holding all three sections together

The hi-hat has two crucial functions on “Whole Lotta Love.” First, the opening hi-hat that is keeping time during some of the middle section continues through the guitar solo that introduces part three, providing the sections with both timbral and temporal continuity. Second, Bonham’s extraordinary use of a flam technique (possibly with the aid of a reverb unit) on the closed hi-hat during sections one and three creates an astonishing degree of syncopation (this hi-hat allowing all the experimentation in the middle, for it constantly promises that the funk and groove will return); this can be heard especially clearly on studio outtakes from the Led Zeppelin II recordings where the snare drum and hi-hat are relatively isolated and the degree to which Bonham is using the hi-hat and snare to push the pulse of the riff along with the guitar (leaving John Paul Jones to keep some sense of where strict time might be) is truly startling. Notice, however, that while this final third section delivers enormous excitement and a sense of completion through its return to and deepening of the opening two-chord riff,[9] it also becomes disorienting again (as in the middle section) and fades out via a lack of resolution that threatens hysteria.

The road of excess does not always lead to the palace of wisdom, as we all know. But sometimes it does, and in this respect we might consider “Whole Lotta Love” to be the very model of a rock track that delivers a significant non-linguistic cognition of the pleasures and perils of sexual attraction.


[1] Quoted by Mick Wall in A Biography of Led Zeppelin: When Giants Walked The Earth (New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2008), p. 151.

[2] As if to prove the point, Lez Zeppelin hired Eddie Kramer, who engineered the original, to help them re-create (with impressive accuracy) the entire middle section of “Whole Lotta Love” for their 2007 LP Lez Zeppelin.

[3] Robert Pattison, The Triumph Of Vulgarity: Rock Music In The Mirror Of Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1987), pp. 58-61.

[4] Andrew Chester, “Second Thoughts on a Rock Aesthetic: The Band.” In Simon Frith & Andrew Goodwin, eds., On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

[5] Albin J. Zak III, The Poetics Of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 2001), pp.147-148. Notice, however, that even in this most dramatic of moments the drums continue, in the form of John Bonham’s all-important hi-hat part.

[6] See Clive Bell, Art (1913) – now public domain: .

[7] Susan Fast, In The Houses Of The Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music (Oxford:   Oxford U. Press, 2001).

[8] Cultural studies has sometimes presented us with a false choice between art as knowledge and art as pleasure; that both approaches have weaknesses suggests to me that we need both.  If aesthetic cognitivism—whatever its defects—may be harnessed to this of all tracks, there may be life in the old theory yet. In any case, this kind of inquiry can do us no more harm than the idiotic and condescending assumption that WLL represents a failure of erotic sublimation. For a critique of aesthetic cognitivism see David Woodruff on Gordon Graham:

[9] During some live performances (see first show at Knebworth, August 4th 1979), Led Zeppelin’s extended encore of this track turned the bar structure inside out, added funk chords to the main riff, and introduced a new riff, which further worked to suggest that the third section of the piece is the “answer” to the first two. This made it all the more of a shame that the band were unable to play the middle section, as that would have extended the track into something close to half an hour. In my opinion, given the intensional and extensional possibilities made available by the experimental section in the middle, that is about the correct length for this composition in order for it to realize its full musical logic. It should be clear from this analysis that it is Led Zeppelin who are the authors of this track (“Whole Lotta Love”), whoever may own the earlier intensional composition (“You Need Love”, “You Need Loving”) on which it is based.

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One Response to Significant Form Traces Pleasure and Pain: Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)

  1. Pingback: The Leapfrog Hook: Led Zeppelin, “Heartbreaker” live (1972) |

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