If you think of Jimmy Page mostly as the guitar god behind some of rock’s greatest riffs and solos, we don’t blame you. His work on Led Zeppelin tracks such as “Stairway to Heaven,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Achilles Last Stand” cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of guitarists.
But anyone who ignores Page’s work as a composer and producer misses his full impact on music. On the Physical Graffiti (1975) track “Ten Years Gone,” Page delivered one of his timeless compositions, constructed with his method of layering and orchestrating guitars.
Meanwhile, his production on “When the Levee Breaks” highlighted his ability to think beyond the limitations of recording studios. Page did it all with Zeppelin, and by the early ’70s he’d gained confidence in his ability as a composer.
So when former Beatles guitarist George Harrison saw a Zep show and wondered where the ballads were, Page took it as a challenge. While composing “The Rain Song,” he gave Harrison his ballad, and even quoted chords from the guitarist’s most famous Beatles track in it.
George Harrison asked John Bonham why Led Zeppelin didn’t do ballads
After seeing Zeppelin perform in Los Angeles, Harrison was reportedly wowed by the band’s endurance. Zep could play three-hour sets on any given night. Compared to the brisk (30-minute) Beatles shows of the mid-’60s, it was a different world. But Harrison took issue with the lack of Zep ballads.
In Light and Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page, Zep’s mastermind recalled Harrison bringing it up with drummer John Bonham. “George was talking to Bonzo one evening and said, ‘The problem with you guys is that you never do ballads,'” Page recalled.
When Page heard the anecdote from Bonham, he took it as a personal challenge. “I said, ‘I’ll give [Harrison] a ballad.'” And Page started work on a new track for the next Zep album, Houses of the Holy (1975).
After the expertly designed opener, “The Song Remains the Same,” Houses takes a turn into “The Rain Song.” That second track was the result of Page’s effort to deliver a ballad for Harrison. And he included a message for the Beatles guitarist.
Jimmy Page quoted the ‘Something’ chords at the start of ‘The Rain Song’
Clearly, Page felt like he was at the top of his game in this period (1972), and the musical nod he included to Harrison in “The Rain Song” reflected that. “You’ll notice I even quote ‘Something’ in the [‘Rain Song’s’] first two chords,” he said in Light and Shade.
On the 1973 tour (immortalized in the Song Remains the Same film), Led Zeppelin would play these first two tracks to Houses of the Holy without a break in between. It was one of the highlights of those shows, and helps explain why Zep broke attendance records set by The Beatles during that run.
Indeed, Zeppelin as a band was at the top of its game in the first half of the ’70s. On “The Rain Song,” John Paul Jones got to show off his arranging skills with his mellotron work. The soaring Robert Plant vocal, Bonham drum work, and Page’s stirring guitar pushed it over the top. Zeppelin at its peak was something to behold.