Led Zeppelin IV was a turning point for the band. The year was 1971, and the group realized that they were interested in penning more than straight ahead rock and roll songs and long, extended blues jams. For some bands, this would have posed a problem, as there are sometimes songwriting elements in a group that are locked into a certain style and are unwilling to move in new directions. As a result of these ‘creative differences’, it was not and is still not uncommon for band members to leave and pursue their own artistic direction. Label pressure to keep on churning out the same old tried and true hits is also a heavy factor when a crossroads like this is reached.
Luckily, Led Zeppelin was far from a normal band. In fact, the group discovered that they were comfortable having multi-part rock epics share the same album side as blistering 12 bar blues rock. For Led Zeppelin Rock and Roll was their way of keeping in touch with their roots while at the same time stretching their branches to reach for the stars.
The genesis of the song lies in the simplicity of its title. While jamming in the studio, drummer John Bonham kept subjecting the band to the introductory cymbal and snare parts of the Little Richard song ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. This prompted guitarist Jimmy Page to retaliate by composing an accompaniment on the spot, and the riff for ‘Rock and Roll’ was born. The band liked the song so much that they immediately decided to record it and include it on the album.
The spontaneity of the song can definitely be felt while listening to it. The track breathes with a life of its own, and is the perfect second half of the one-two punch that opens the album, after the down and dirty blues workout of ‘Black Dog’. The basic arrangement of the track belies the power of early rock and roll, and for Led Zeppelin Rock and Roll was a way for them to give new energy to the past creations of the musical pioneers that had brought them to their current career stage.
Recorded in 15 minutes, ‘Rock and Roll’ proves that sometimes the best music is that which does not suffer from agonizing second guessing and endless overdubs. Its position on the same album side as ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in no way diminishes the song’s stature as one of classic rock’s shining moments.