When you look back at the rise and fall of Led Zeppelin, you see a clear point that marked the start of the decline. It didn’t follow a maniacal rage of John Bonham or another night of Jimmy Page living on the edge. Instead, it began with an accident.
While vacationing on the Greek island of Rhodes, Robert Plant and his family got into a horrific car wreck. At first, Plant didn’t think his wife would survive the crash. And without the money Zeppelin had socked away, she wouldn’t have.
Thanks to some quick movements by Zep’s road manager, a private plane with doctors aboard arrived in time to transport Mrs. Plant to a hospital and save her life. But the accident also left Plant in terrible shape.
Confined to a wheelchair for the following months, Plant fought his way through by composing Zep’s next album with Page. When he wrote the lyrics for “Achilles Last Stand,” Plant was issuing his battle cry from a wheelchair.
Plant fought through the pain with ‘Achilles Last Stand’
In Robert Plant’s Digging Deep podcast, you hear him reference the period in which he wrote “Achilles Last Stand.” The story really began with the members of Led Zeppelin seeking a tax haven from mid-1975 until the same time the following year.
So Plant and his family planned a long trip to Morocco (and points east and south). Indeed, the journey began that spring (“an April morn”) when “they told us we should go.” And Plant and his wife resolved to enjoy it, “to live the dreams we always had.”
You can feel Plant looking ahead to these times in the following verses. (“Oh, to sail away / To sandy lands and other days,” he sings.) But this wasn’t only a story about a family trying to escape high taxes. Plant also sang about epic heroes from ancient times, beginning with Trojan War hero Achilles.
Somewhere along the way, he connects his energy trying to recuperate in a wheelchair (by then in California) and get back with the legend of Albion (England) “sleeping now to rise again.” Most importantly (as always in Zep’s music), the energy Plant brings is that of a man ready to fight once again.
Plant nearly crippled himself during the recording of ‘Achilles’
By November, Page and Plant had finished the songs for their new record, Presence. After they’d met with John Paul Jones and Bonham to rehearse, they left for Munich to start recording. And the world’s biggest rock band only managed to get two weeks of studio time to do so.
With Page working like a madman on the record’s production — not to mention his elaborate guitar parts — on tracks like “Achilles Last Stand,” Plant channeled his sorrows and angst for the song’s breathtaking vocal. But a studio accident nearly ended these recording dates.
Forgetting that he was still nursing a badly damaged ankle, Plant jumped up at one point to go hear a playback in the control room. When his lower leg crumpled underneath him, Page had to pull him up and rush him to a hospital. (Plant luckily made it through, again.)
Less than three weeks after they’d started, Zep somehow finished Presence. For Led Zeppelin, it marked the band’s last great statement, with “Achilles” as the album’s centerpiece.
“Achilles” also became a signature live track for the band. If you have 10 minutes to spare, hear Zep play it at Knebworth in 1979. It might be as close as a band ever got to epic poetry.