Meaning Behind the Complex, Canine-Inspired Led Zeppelin Rocker “Black Dog”

To create its 1970 album Led Zeppelin III and the follow-up, Led Zeppelin IV, the next year, the seminal British-born rock band, Led Zeppelin, traveled to Headley Grange, a pastoral plot of land in England where the band lived, wrote, and played music. One of the songs that came during the sessions for the Led Zeppelin IV LP was the track “Black Dog,” which was influenced by a canine on the premises.

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This is the story of that classic tune, from its creation to its meaning.

Led Zeppelin IV

Released on November 8. 1971, the album, which also contains the classic “Stairway to Heaven” was executive produced by the band’s guitarist Jimmy Page. To write the album, the foursome returned to Headley Grange, where they worked on the previous record. Led Zeppelin liked to get away to do its work, which is why other locations like the Welsh country home, Bron-Yr-Aur, where the rockers visited for Led Zeppelin III, were fancied by the musicians.

At Headley Grange, Led Zeppelin used The Rolling Stones’ then-famed mobile recording studio onsite to track demos. The band was assisted by engineers Andy Johns, who had worked on Sticky Fingers, and Ian Stewart.

“We needed the sort of facilities where we could have a cup of tea and wander around the garden and go in and do what we had to do,” said Page of the setup in the 1990 book, Led Zeppelin: A Celebration, by Dave Lewis,

When the band had written all of its songs, it went into the studio to record. The first song the group cut for Led Zeppelin IV was “Black Dog,” a track inspired by, well, a nameless black lab that ran around unsupervised on the Headley Grange grounds.

Fleetwood Mac and Muddy Waters

For the music on “Black Dog,” Led Zeppelin took advantage of a riff written by bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones. And for the lyrical performance, according to author Lewis, the band was inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s 1969 song “Oh Well,” which incorporated a call-and-response style.

For the song’s central riff, Jones said he was inspired by Waters’ 1968 album, Electric Mud. As listeners know, the riff is long and complex and it provided a bit of trouble for Led Zeppelin, particularly drummer John Bonham, who had to figure out the song’s intricate turnaround. To solve the problem, Bonham didn’t write anything new, instead, he discovered that if he played straight through, the song resolved in time, despite the elaborate guitar and bass lines.

“Black Dog”

Since its recording, the track has become one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs. It became a staple of their live shows until the band dissolved in 1980 after Bonham’s untimely death. It is one of the band’s most beloved and recognizable tracks, as singer Robert Plant opens the song a cappella, singing, Hey hey mama said the way you move / Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove before the band comes in with its big percussion and those slinky, complex guitar riffs.

Then Plant hits it again, singing, Ah, ah, child, way you shake that thing / Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting. And the pattern continues. The song is the opening track on Led Zeppelin IV, a perfect beginning given Plant’s striking vocals.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the song is two things: a boasting and an invitation. Sings Plant to conclude the track, Need a woman gonna hold my hand / Tell me no lies, make me a happy man / Ah ah, ah ah, ah ah, ah ah, ah ah, ah ah, ahhh. / Ah, yeah!

Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns

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