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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 265
Mon. Dec 2, 2013

“Four Sticks”
Led Zeppelin

1971

“♫ When
the river
runs dry
baby how
do you
feel?
♫”

You can see why Led Zeppelin rarely played “Four Sticks” in concert; one of the songs that almost didn’t make it on Zeppelin’s IV because of the trouble the band was having getting it right in the studio. Zeppelin almost gave up on “Four Sticks,” which according to Mick Wall, was “based on Page’s idea of creating a riff-based song based on a trance-like raga, fluctuating between five- and six-beat meters, the band simply could nail.”

John Paul Jones remembers how much difficulty the band had getting “Four Sticks” right as he explained to Chris Welch and Geoff Nicholls in John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums, “And it took him ages to get ‘Four Sticks.’ I seemed to be the only one who could actually count things in. Page would play something and [John would] say, ‘That’s great. Where’s the first beat? You know it, but you gotta tell us…’ He couldn’t actually count what he was playing. It would be a great phrase, but you couldn’t relate it to a count. If you think of ‘one’ being in the wrong place, you are completely screwed.” What if Zeppelin had given up on “Four Sticks?” If Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones hadn’t finished “Four Sticks,” “Rock & Roll” might have also remained unfinished. “Four Sticks” showed how Zeppelin was more than just Page and Plant, John Bonham is often overlooked with the credit of bringing out the eternal sound we love so much that Zeppelin created in the studio.

I remember ‘four sticks’ was obviously in 5/4 but I couldn’t work it out where the first beat was, and he couldn’t tell us. But somehow we all did it—and foxed each other.” Paul Jones said in Welch and Nicholls book. Although, John believed that Zeppelin never attempted “Sticks” live there is a recording from Copenhagen that exists that I believe trumps the final studio version recorded for Led Zeppelin IV. I actually prefer this low-fi recording to the LP mix. Bonham’s drumming is out of this world sounding like he’s a possessed locomotive furiously beating down the tracks.


Jimmy Page told Mick Wall in his book When Giants Walked The Earth, how “Four Sticks” got its name when Zeppelin’s guitarist explained, “We tried the number and [Bonham] had been playing it in a regular pattern. But we were going to re-cut it [and] have another go at it. [Bonzo] had been to see Ginger Baker’s Airforce and he came in and he was really hyped about it. He liked Ginger Baker but he was like, “I’ll show him!” And he came in and he picked up the four sticks and that’s it, we just did two takes of it. because that’s all we could sort of manage. But it’s astounding what he’s doing… He’d never employed that style of playing before. I can’t even remember what it was called, what the working title was. But it was sure as hell ‘Four Sticks” after that. Bonzo just took it into another stratosphere.”

This wasn’t the first time Bonzo’s genius shaped and drove the essential take of a Zeppelin song as John Paul Jones explained in Chris Welch and Geoff Nicholls book, John Bonham: A Thunder of Drums, “[Bonham] has a lot of input into the riffs we played, more than he was credited for, I’d say. He would change the whole flavor of a piece, and lots of numbers would start out with a drum pattern. We’d built the riff around the drums. He would play a pattern that would suggest something.”

One example of this came when Zeppelin was trying to nail down “Four Sticks.” But with Bonham’s inspirational drum genius, birthed a new song that became of the highlights of Led Zeppelin Four as Page said in Tim Morse’s Classic Rock Stories, “We were attempting “Four Sticks” and it wasn’t happening and Bonzo started the drum into to “Keep a Knocking” [by Little Richard] while the tape was still running and I played the riff automatically, that was “Rock and Roll” and we got through the whole first verse. We said this is great, forget “Four Sticks” let’s work on this and things were coming out like that. [It] was a spontaneous combustion.”

I like to believe that “Four Sticks” was ready to be born fully and from the remnants of those outtakes came another Zeppelin song. This was nothing new for the band, as Jimmy explained to Brad Tolinski in Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, “That’s how it was going back then. If something felt right we didn’t question it. If something really magical is coming through, then you follow it. It was all part of the process. We had to explore, we had to delve. We tried to take advantage of everything that was being offered to us.”

After finishing “Rock & Roll” gave Page, Planet, Bonham and Paul Jones the confidence to take another crack at finishing the recording of “Four Sticks” as Page told Dave Lewis in Led Zeppelin: The ‘Tight But Loose’ Files, “We tried different ways of approaching it. The idea was to get an abstract feeling. We tried it a few times and it didn’t come off until the day Bonzo had a Double Diamond beer, picked up two sets of sticks and went for it. It was magic.”

Speaking of magic, when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant reunited in 1994 for their Unledded/No Quarter shows, one of the songs they wanted to attempt was “Four Sticks.” Originally Page and Plant wanted to record this Led Zeppelin IV rock raga with the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1972 as Page explained; “We went to Bombay in 1972, and recorded ‘Friends’ and ‘Four Sticks” with Indian musicians there/ The nature of how good we were is in the riffs. We had all these multi-faceted diamonds. There should never have been any boundaries. And we made sure there weren’t.”

Even though the results were promising it took twenty-two years for Page and Plant to get their otherworldly renditions of “Four Sticks” to come to fruition. Plant described how finally “Four Sticks” circa 1994 developed from idea to reality when he said, “We did a lot of work developing the music before going to Morocco and it was so strong and powerful it almost begged the question whether we needed to do any of the MTV stuff and whether it might be nice to just make a record and be counted along with everybody else in a totally contemporary form without using the past and reiterating it. But, of course, the lure was working with the Egyptians and making ‘Kashmir,’ ‘Four Sticks’ and ‘Friends’ the way we’d always dreamed of.”
click on link to experience Page/Plant‘s 1994 re-imagining of “Four Sticks”

The success of “Four Sticks” from Led Zeppelin IV, the rarely heard live version from Copenhagen and Page & Plant’s dynamic re-imagining of this 1971 rock raga comes from as Keith Shadwick wrote in Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music: 1968-1980, “The whole structure of ‘Sticks” hangs on the flair of the drummer.” Bonham is the star of “Four Sticks,” without him, John’s patience and his intuitive genius most of Zeppelin’s songs would have remained an idea without the spark to bring the music to light. Bonham rarely gets the praise for his contribution to the arrangement and overall Led Zeppelin’s sound.

John Bonham often gets overshadowed by Page’s electric mastery of his guitar and Plant’s golden God like voice but everybody knows, after his unfortunate passing in 1980, Zeppelin couldn’t continue without their genius pounding masterpiece maker wielding his Four Sticks behind the kits. Now you realize how much John Bonham meant to Zeppelin. You know, Page, Plant and Paul Jones still miss their best friend and drummer but at least his masterstrokes are immortalized in songs like “Four Sticks” for us to sit back and amaze at his brilliance on the drums. Fortunately, like a relentless heart, Bonham’s rhythm will keep beating eternally on wax creations like “Four Sticks.”

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