Transcendent Rock & Roll Moment #9: “Over the Hills and Far Away”

Of all the entries on the considerable list of Jimmy Page’s contributions to rock music (acoustic songs that build to electric fury; how to rock Eastern-style; guitar as orchestra), the one that’s most overlooked is his influence on how drums were recorded.  Listen to recordings of the great rock drummers of the 1960’s: Ginger Baker, Charlie Watts, Ringo Starr.  They sound like they’re playing cardboard boxes and trash can lids; flat and dead.

Then listen to Zeppelin on “Stairway” or “When the Levee Breaks.”  John Bonham’s drums sound so DYNAMIC, so ALIVE. Part of the equation was Bonham himself.  He was an amazing, powerful, fluid drummer.  (Listen to him pounce like a panther in the opening of “How Many More Times,” Zeppelin’s best recorded performance AFAIC.)  The other part of the equation is Page’s approach to recording drums.  On most pop recordings of the era, drums were muffled with tape and other batting and recorded up close, with microphones directly above (or under) the drum heads.  Page had Bonham remove most of the muffling from his drums.  He placed the drum set in large rooms with stone floors and walls, and set up microphones in distant corners  or aimed away from the drums themselves, and then mixed the distant mikes with close-up microphones.  The combination: Bonham’s touch + wide open drums + a blend of close and ambient microphones = the quintessential hard rock drum sound.  As early as 1968 (“How Many More Times,” “Good Times, Bad Times”), Page was producing drum sounds that people are still trying to capture today.

“Over the Hills and Far Away” is a classic rock staple, perhaps the closest thing Zep ever had to a hit single.  Listen to it build in intensity, until (at 1.26) it explodes, as Bonham kicks the thing into flight.

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