The meaning behind Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” is just that, a song about a woman who is careless with someone else’s affections. However, the roaring rock tune doesn’t dwell in the heartache. It instead takes back the power in a barrage of bloodied bass, battered drums, and assaulting guitar. “Heartbreaker” goes to war in defense of the old ticker and comes out on top with not much to show for it except one of rock’s most memorable compositions.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
“Heartbreaker” begins with frontman Robert Plant’s commanding vocals. Hey fellas, have you heard the news? he asks, his voice piercing the song’s smokey arrangement. You know that Annie’s back in town / It won’t take long, just watch and see / How the fellas lay their money down.
Annie is back in town. The prodigal heartbreaker has returned. Her style is new, but the face the same / As it was so long ago / But from her eyes, a different smile / Like that of one who knows, the next verse plays, lyrics suggesting men should proceed with caution.
Well, it’s been ten years or maybe more / Since I first set eyes on you / The best years of my life gone by / Here I am alone and blue, the song gives a little back story to Annie’s past heartbreaking antics. She has left the song’s narrator wounded in the past, but it’s nothing that hasn’t healed.
Some people cry and some people die / By the wicked ways of love / But I’ll just keep on rolling along / With the grace of the Lord above, the song continues, the narrator seemingly unfazed by the number Annie once did on him. People talking all around / About the way you left me flat / I don’t care what the people say / I know where their jive is at.
However, there is one thing that he admits has been on his mind: If you can clarify, please do / It’s the way you call me by another guy’s name / When I try to make love to you…
I try to make love but it ain’t no use, the song continues, Work so hard I couldn’t unwind / Get some money saved / Abuse my love a thousand times / However hard I tried. The narrator is fed up with being toyed with and finally cries out, Heartbreaker, your time has come / Can’t take your evil way / Go away, heartbreaker / Heartbreaker!
The lyrics to “Heartbreaker” sting, but the song could have no words and it would still bite. Without Plant wailing out a line, the same bitterness can be heard in the treacherous rhythm from bassist John Paul Jones; the brutality can be felt in John Bonham’s intense drumbeats; the cruelty screams back in Jimmy Page’s ripping riffs.
Page’s guitar chops were no doubt the secret sauce to all of Led Zeppelin’s recordings, but the riff that punctuates “Heartbreaker,” along with the solo that follows, is arguably Page’s magnum opus – his Mona Lisa of head-swimming licks and piercing strings.
Page’s performance of the song captivated a younger generation of soon-to-be guitar virtuosos like Steve Vai and Eddie Van Halen.
In conversation with Guitar.com, Vai opened up about how the 1969 album Led Zeppelin II sparked his guitar journey. However, it was the record’s track, “Heartbreaker,” that inspired him the most. “Once I heard it, and I already had a love affair with the guitar going,” Vai explained. “It was the meanest, coolest, most refreshing, alive, vibrant, visceral attack on the strings that I had ever heard. And it just lit me up. And that was it.”
Van Halen was also struck by “Heartbreaker” in his youth. He claimed it was the song’s solo that shaped his own technique, a style called “tapping” that he largely popularized.
“I think I got the idea of tapping watching Jimmy Page do his “Heartbreaker” solo back in 1971,” Van Halen told Guitar World in a 2008 interview. “He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought wait a minute, open string … pull off. I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around? I just kind of took it and ran with it.”
The solo sounds otherworldly, unattached to the rest of the song, and there’s a reason for that. The “Heartbreaker” guitar solo was recorded separately, in a different studio, and at a slightly higher pitch than the surrounding arrangement.
“The interesting thing about the solo is that it was recorded after we had already finished ‘Heartbreaker’ – it was an afterthought,” the guitar legend has since explained to Guitar World. “That whole section was recorded in a different studio and it was sort of slotted in the middle.”
The solo – tacked onto the recording with no accompaniment from his bandmates – delivers undeniable, unbridled Page power.
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