If you were a Led Zeppelin fan in the early 1970s, you got thrown a few curveballs. The first arrived in ’70, with the band’s third album. On Led Zeppelin III, the group was sending the message that they wouldn’t be typecast as hard blues-rockers. (Hence the heavy dose of acoustic tracks.)
With the wildly successful Led Zeppelin IV, the band perfected its approach. Between the quality of the songwriting to the stunning performances by Jimmy Page and the other three members of the group, Zep hit one of its peaks as recording artists.
But instead of trying to do a “Led Zep IV, Part II,” Page and his bandmates again stretched their legs on Houses of the Holy. They tried a reggae track; they featured John Paul Jones’ weirdness on “No Quarter”; and they even did a James Brown tribute with “The Crunge.”
“The Crunge” wasn’t the only track that featured a tricky time signature. On “The Ocean,” the album’s final track, a killer Page riff finds itself backed by a John Bonham drumbeat in 7/8. And the lyrics by Robert Plant have mystified as many listeners as that beat.
Robert Plant wrote ‘The Ocean’ about the sea of fans he sang to
On “The Ocean,” fans will find a songwriting credit to all four members of Led Zeppelin. That’s appropriate because the song is really dedicated to the “ocean” of fans they’d been playing to since they began touring America.
Indeed, by ’73, Plant had become very familiar with “the ocean’s roar” at Zep’s marathon live performances. (That year, the band broke the Beatles’ record for concert attendance when they played to nearly 57,000 fans in Tampa.)
Beyond that, the three short verses (four lines apiece) don’t break any ground, poetically. Plant sings about the road life in the first verse (“Got no time to pack my bags”) and otherwise covers “the good things and the sun that lights the day.”
By the third verse, things take a different turn when Plant mentions “the girl who won my heart. She is only three years old and it’s a real fine way to start.” At the time he wrote the track, his daughter Carmen (born 1968) was three. So that settles that mystery.
The opening to ‘The Ocean’ features 1 of John Bonham’s drinking ‘raps’
At the start of “The Ocean,” you hear Bonham introduce the song with one of his drinking rhymes that Page once described as Bonham’s “raps.” “We’ve done four already / But now we’re steady / And then they went / One, two, three four.” As Bonham says, the band had done four takes and were going to try another (more successful) one right then.
Plant, who once ranked “The Ocean” among his favorite Zeppelin vocals, noted that at first Jones submitted lyrics for the song. In its early stages, they called it “Out on the Tiles,” which was another Bonham drinking song they recorded for Led Zeppelin III.
In the end, Plant went with his own lyrics. But most listeners remember other aspects of the track. As in so many Zeppelin songs, Jimmy Page’s riff (sampled by The Beasties Boys for “She’s Crafty”) and Bonham’s tricky drum part stand out. But mostly it’s the feel of “The Ocean” — its looseness, its reckless tangents — that make it memorable five decades later.