Full disclosure: despite an affinity for late-‘60s/early-‘70s blues-rock, I’ve never been much for Led Zeppelin. The artistry and skill are undeniable, but the Zep’s excesses are overwhelming, and there’s a kind of glossy emptiness to their music, a lack of the gritty soul that they were clearly striving for (and that is evident in like-minded contemporaries like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Yardbirds, and Exile-era Rolling Stones). Truth be told, Led Zeppelin only produced a dozen or so really great songs. But “Trampled Under Foot,” from the 1975 album Physical Graffiti, is one of them—it is, perhaps, their finest achievement, the fullest realization of all they wanted to be, and then a push past even their own conception of what they could do.
The song begins simply, with an up-tempo clavinet intro; it calls to mind the similar sound at the top of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” but the slow build of that introduction is quickly dispensed with, as if the band doesn’t have time to fuck around with formalities. John Bonham’s snare cracks through like machine gun fire, and then Robert Plant’s lyric is right on top of it, the first in a series of short, bawdy couplets. “Greasy slicked down body, groovy leather trim/Like the way you hold the road, mama it ain’t no sin,” goes the first; the next tops that with “Trouble free transmission, helps your oils flow/ Mama let me pump your gas, mama let me do it all.”
Plant’s rough-edged delivery is bluesy, but with a leer in it—he’s all but wiggling his eyebrows, Groucho-style, as he barks out his lewd suggestions and raunchy refrains. But the dirty double-entendres aren’t what is surprising about the lyrics. It’s the refrain at the end of each verse, when he proclaims, over and over again, that he’s “Talkin’ ‘bout love!/Talkin’ bout love!”
Talkin’ ‘bout what?
Whatever Plant’s talkin’ ‘bout in “Trampled Under Foot,” he’s not talkin’ ‘bout love. To the most painfully literal-minded listener, he’s talkin’ ‘bout cars; to everybody else, he’s using the car and the lingo attached to it to talk about sex, in the best and most familiar tradition of “dirty blues” party records like Wynonie Harris’s “Keep On Churnin’” ("keep on churnin' til the butter comes/ keep on pumpin', make the butter flow/ wipe off the batter and churn some more”) and Dorothy Ellis’s “Drill Daddy Drill” ("If your drill gets rusty just grease it up again”). It’s one thing to make a naughty slab of blues; but to put across the broadest, most obvious innuendos for fast, loose sex, and then to proclaim that you’re just “talkin’ ‘bout love,” well, that’s downright subversive.
Or is it? How many rock songs that claim to be about love really just about sex anyway? A song like this one, a snappy, catchy ode to the pleasures of illicit intercourse, isn’t about love, of course, but neither is the Stones’ “Beast of Burden” (“Ain’t I rough enough,” indeed) or the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” (“Oh yeah, like I please you”) or Elvis’s “Burning Love” (“the flames are now licking my body”). And there’s nothing remotely like a love song in the down-and-dirty, jam session instrumentation, which seems designed primarily as strutting music, and screwing music. Bonham’s beat pounds, John Paul Jones’s keyboard work packs a cheap, dirty thrill, and Jimmy Page’s simple but distinctive guitar riff is his most memorable this side of “Moby Dick.” This is not the sound of romance, or even of “making love”—it’s the sound of a quickie with a groupie in a dressing room, or the back of a tour bus.
But that’s the genius of “Trampled Under Foot.” In its simple arrangement (layers are added, then subtracted—drums and guitars stripped away for that original clavinet line—and then, after a moment of suspense, piled back on again) and bar-band sound, it encapsulates an entire rock and roll ethos: the lead singer as preening sex god, hollering out filthy lyrics to a primal beat, seducing the teenage girls in the front row, pointing out your daughter to his roadie for a backstage rendezvous, but no no dad, calm down, just listen, he’s singing about love! It’s a love song. And as Jones and Page trade solos in the instrumental break, Plant keeps singing, ad nauseam: “I can’t stop talkin’ about love!” Damn right you can’t.