Sunday, December 22, 2013

Led Zeppelin - Achilles Last Stand

I discovered Led Zeppelin when I was very young, even then it was much later in life than it needed to be. I grew up liking Meat Loaf, The Doors and The Beatles, but for some reason no one bothered to introduce me to the rest of classic rock until I was about twelve years old, which is far too long to go without. Once my father learned that my big brother and I were into Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd he stepped in and made sure we had CDs by both bands. In some ways my dad was awesome. I spent almost every night falling asleep listening to Led Zeppelin between ages twelve and sixteen.

I hated reading when I was a kid. The subject matter of all the books I was told I could read in school I found demeaning to my intelligence. This is not to say I was some super genius child, for my reading comprehension level was only ever slightly above average, but the subject matter of the books made available to me were just so immature. Adventures of a boy with his dog, or teenage detectives, or some other such uneventful books made me cringe. It was not until I discovered “The Lord of The Rings” in fifth grade that I started to enjoy reading, and it was not until after I somehow finished “The Lord of The Rings” at that age that my mother finally decided to step in and introduce me to books that were actually about things. I remember my mom reading me books about the adventures of Hercules and Perseus when I was just a child, we also used to watch “Hercules The Adventures Continue” and “Xena Warrior Princess” together, so she thought I might enjoy Homer’s epics, which led her to purchase “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” for me. In some ways my mom was awesome.

I spent a lot of time reading and listening to Led Zeppelin after that. You can imagine my excitement, while reading the first few pages of “The Iliad” and discovering Achilles for the first time and listening to “Achilles’ Last Stand” at the same time.

At the time I did not even know. I did not make the connection right away. I did not know Achilles was the famous Greek warrior or that Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ Last Stand” might be about him. I would later come to notice all the Tolkien references in various Zeppelin songs, so this was the first time, for me, when music I loved and a book I loved overlapped, and I was pumped.

Led Zeppelin was never a blunt band when it came to lyrically content. Robert Plant always offered up some sense of mysterious poetry to everything he wrote. This in turn made their songs more universal and easier for a variety of people to relate to because the room for interpretation was so very open. Look no further to “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin’s most famous song to find a huge variety of wildly different interpretations. I mentioned as much when I talked about Stairway back in May of 2011:

This same holds true for “Achilles Last Stand.” Unlike rock operas like Manowar’s “Achilles Agony and Ecstasy” or Symphony X’s “The Odyssey” which more or less directly retell the passing of events that take place in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” respectively, Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” is far more cryptic. In fact there is good reason to think there are no verses in “Achilles Last Stand” that are explicitly about Achilles, or his death.

Statue of Achilles by Ernst Herter on the Greek Island of Corfu.
We could easily interpret the opening lyrics as belonging to those of a Greek warriors preparing for the voyage to Troy, ready and eager for war.

“It was an April morning,
When they told us we should go.
As I turned to you,
You smiled at me.
How could we say no?

With all the fun to have,
To live the dreams we always had.
Woa the songs to sing,
When we at last return again.”

And there are verses that could be interpreted as belonging to Odysseus during his long journey home:

“To seek the man whose pointing hand,
The giant step unfolds,
With guidance from the curving path,
That churns up into stone.

If one bell should ring,
In celebration for a king,
So fast the heart should beat,
As proud the head with heavy feet, yeah!”

And I always thought this verse was probably about Persephone and her mother Demeter:

“Days went by when you and I,
Made an eternal summers glow.
As far away and distant,
Our mutual time to grow,
Oh, the sweet refrain,
Soothes the soul and calms the pain.
Oh, Albion remains, sleeping now to rise again.”

The ancient Greeks explained the passing of seasons by Persephone’s unusual relationship with her mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, and her husband Hades, god of the earth (and also the dead). Persephone would spend half the year with her mother nurturing the fields and gardens of the world, and the other half of the year she would spend with her husband Hades in the underworld and when this happens Demeter would allow a cold spell to fall upon the earth to spite of her son in law.

Interesting side note Albion is a reference to Britain. The old Celtic names for the British Isles included Avalon where King Arthur is suppose to be resting until Britain needs him again and Albion which refers to the primary island. Additional interesting side note, Robin Hood’s sword was called “Albion,” get it, because Robin Hood fought with/for Britain. What does Albion have to do with Greek mythology or Achilles last stand? I have no idea.

Perhaps most easily identifiable is this mention of Atlas the titan who holds up the word:

“Wondering and wondering,
What place to rest the search.
The mighty arms of Atlas,
Hold the heavens from the earth.”

Though I once again think of Odysseus with the bridge:

“I know the way, know the way, know the way, know the way.”

There are many possible inspirations from Greek Mythology in “Achilles Last Stand” but none of them seem to have anything to do with Achilles. There is a healthy hodgepodge of mythological reference throughout but nothing ever fixed to one specific event. Nonetheless these are great lyrics.

Jimmy Page and
Jon Paul Jones were
among the first notable
musicians to use
multi-necked guitars.
More important than the lyrical content of “Achilles Last Stand” is the guitar work. I remember it being rumoured that there was twenty six different guitars Jimmy Page used for the studio recording of “Achilles Last Stand” and while I was able to confirm the rumour of multiple guitars, the number of guitars that were used remains uncertain, I heard twelve being the lowest number ever mentioned while twenty six remaining the highest. Given the variety of sounds within I have always been tempted to believe it was true that Page used multiple guitars tuned differently to create “Achilles Last Stand.” I have seen John Paul Jones plays an eight string bass guitar and Jimmy Page on a triple neck guitar performing this song live, which would fit with the theory of complexity, however most performances by Led Zeppelin have Paul Jones playing a four string bass and Page on a regular six string Les Paul, and they manage just fine:

Achilles Last Stand Live Knebworth 1979

The speed at which Page plays guitar is among one of the single most impressive things ever in all music history. The way this man’s fingers moved is nothing shy of super human. Out of the impressive repertoire songs and guitar solos produced by Led Zeppelin I believe “Achilles Last Stand” to be Page’s single greatest performance. The guitar work is so intricate and fast that theories about multiple guitars being needed have always seemed warranted, and performing this song live is something of legend in just how difficult it must be. The adventures and heroes of ancient Greece deserve as much if you ask me, the greatest stories ever being expressed to us by the greatest guitarist ever in a supersonic display of fantastic music. Easily one of Led Zeppelin’s best songs and one that never seems to receive the praise it deserves.

Until next month, keep on rocking in the free world.

- King of Braves

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