Sure, everyone knows “Stairway To Heaven”, but “Achilles Last Stand” may be Jimmy Page’s greatest masterpiece. Layers of guitars intertwined & augmenting each other in a virtual guitar orchestra, with stellar performances from the rest of the band. In this episode, we take a closer look at this underrated classic.
“Achilles Last Stand” (Jimmy Page & Robert Plant) Copyright 1976 Flames Of Albion Music, Administered by WB Music Group (ASCAP)
Good times, bad times you know I’ve had my share– but it’s all good here on the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, one of the many great shows on the Pantheon Podcast Network. Thanks for being here. On this episode, we’re exploring an extremely ambitious track called “Achilles Last Stand” by a little band named Led Zeppelin. Maybe you’ve heard of them…
After Led Zeppelin wrapped up their 1975 tour, the four members of the band, along with their manager Peter Grant, were planning to leave England to avoid the high taxes. There they were doing what other rock stars had done before them, including the Rolling Stones. They would be tax exiles.
Vocalist Robert Plant was on vacation in Greece with his wife and two children when, on August 4, they had a terrible car accident. The kids were okay, thankfully, but Robert’s wife Maureen, who was behind the wheel, was knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured skull and broken pelvis. Robert had multiple fractures in his right leg and elbow. The doctors said he wouldn’t walk again for six months, maybe more.
An American tour had been planned for that summer, but after Robert’s accident, that was never going to happen. Which meant that all that money they were counting on from that tour wasn’t going to happen either. The only way to make up for that loss of income was to make another album. Luckily, guitarist Jimmy Page had a bunch of ideas for new material and Robert wanted to get back to work to do… something. Anything was better than sitting around feeling miserable.
So in September of 1975, Robert Plant, still in a wheelchair, joined Jimmy Page in Southern California to write some new songs. Bass player John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham would join them not long after. Once they finished rehearsing most of the material in California, the band then relocated to Musicland studios in Munich, Germany, to record the album in November. The challenge was that the Rolling Stones had already booked the same studio for December, which left Led Zeppelin with about two weeks to record the whole album.
Jimmy Page, who not only played all of the guitar parts, but also wrote virtually all of the music and produced the album, was working 18 to 20 hours a day on it. In the end, they ran out of time, and Jimmy had to ask Mick Jagger for two more days in the studio to finish up. Jagger gave him the two days, and Jimmy Page, almost by himself, recorded all of the overdubs seven songs worth in one single night. And then Jimmy and engineer Keith Harwood mixed the whole album the next day.
The album would be named “Presence”, and it was released in March of 1976. Robert Plant described the struggle to make the “Presence” album as “our stand against everything, our stand against the elements, against chance. We were literally fighting against existence itself.”
Unlike every other Led zeppelin album, there are almost no acoustic instruments on “Presence” at all. No keyboards, no mandolins or recorders, no acoustic ballads. This is an album dominated by Jimmy Page’s electric guitar wizardry. And “Achilles Last Stand” may be the pinnacle of his guitar playing and arranging genius.
“Achilles Last Stand” is the first track on the album, opening the record with a slow fade in on Jimmy Page’s guitar played on his legendary Gibson Les Paul, nicknamed number one. The part is doubled and then panned left and right.
Almost imperceptibly in the background there, you can hear John Bonham hit a few notes on a cymbal. And with one hit of a snare drum, we’re into the song. Essential to the driving force of this track is John Paul Jones’ bass part, played on an eight string bass. He’s using a Becvar Series Two Triple Omega Bass. This is the first time on any Led Zeppelin track that an 8 string bass is used. He’s playing it with a pick, too, which gives it an extra attack and a little bite to the high end. Listen to how John Bonham uses his snare drum to reinforce Jimmy Page’s guitar riff. Here comes the first verse.
Robert Plant doubles his vocal only on the second half of each line.
Let’s listen to that drum fill.
And notice how the reverb swells up when Robert sings about the devil in his hole.
Now, here’s a new riff introduced into the song. It’s a pretty classic Jimmy Page riff. Let’s listen to that guitar part. And that riff is immediately followed by an ascending guitar part. Two guitar tracks playing in harmony. One has some heavy effects on it. Sounds like some modulation and effect and maybe some phasing too. Let’s hear all those parts together.
Here’s another doubled and harmonized guitar part.
This is another point where they crank up the reverb on the vocal
And here’s a classic Robert Plant moan, saturated in reverb. Next up is Jimmy Page’s guitar solo, and it’s a great one. He rated it himself as one of his best, right up there with his “Stairway to Heaven” solo. And I agree, it’s one of his greatest. It’s full of his unique bends and phrasing that make him one of the most identifiable and unique guitarists.
More doubled and harmonized guitars.
And I love this layered guitar part here.
All right, let’s break this section down. The bass and the drums are totally in sync here, each part reinforcing the other, while Jimmy Page weaves one of his mysterious guitar parts around the others. The unique sound of the 8-string bass is particularly noticeable here.
Robert sings a very haunting vocal refrain, thick with reverb. After a couple of times through, he layers another vocal part over that. Let’s hear that all together.
And here, Jimmy Page combines two different sections into one. Beneath that section, Jimmy Page is now playing slide guitars in harmony. Let’s go back and listen to that drum fill there. And let’s bring Jimmy Page’s guitar part. It’s a great one.
They just keep building it up. Let’s listen to his slide guitar, Here’s multiple parts playing off of and intertwining with each other. Notice how Robert’s vocals move back and forth across the sound field.
Listen to Robert’s vocal here. And so the song ends as it began, with a slow fade on Jimmy Page’s guitar.
“Achilles Last Stand” – Led Zeppelin
After all the blood, sweat and tears—literally– that went into making the album. “Presence” would be Led Zeppelin’s least commercially successful record. Although it’s often ranked towards the bottom of their catalog, I think this album is a triumph, both musically and under the conditions that it was made. And you don’t have to look any further than “Achilles Last Stand” to hear the genius of this band, with each member playing to perfection.
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We’ll return in two weeks with a new episode. Thanks for joining us this time for our exploration of “Achilles Last Stand” by Led Zeppelin. (To listen to the song again in its entirety, stream it, download it, or buy it from wherever fine music is sold.)