Achilles Last Stand
|"Achilles Last Stand"|
|Song by Led Zeppelin|
|from the album Presence|
|Released||31 March 1976|
|Studio||Musicland, Munich, Germany|
"Achilles Last Stand" is a song by English rock group Led Zeppelin. Guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant began writing it in the summer of 1975 and were influenced by Eastern music, mythology, and travels. At ten and a half minutes, it is one of the group's longest studio recordings[a] and one of their most complex, with different interwoven sections and multiple overdubbed guitar parts. It was released in March 1976 as the opening track for their seventh studio album, Presence.
The song received positive reviews, with comparisons to other epic-style Led Zeppelin songs, such as "Kashmir". Between 1977 and 1980, it was a feature of the group's concerts and a live performance from 1979 is included on the Led Zeppelin DVD (2003). In several interviews, Page named it as his favourite Led Zeppelin piece and places his guitar solo on a par with "Stairway to Heaven".
After their 1975 US tour and London concerts, Led Zeppelin took a break from public performances. To take advantage of tax exile status, the group members needed to limit their time in the UK. Page and Plant traveled to Morocco in June 1975, where they developed some material for their next album. Some local music that Page heard influenced his guitar parts for "Achilles Last Stand". North African and Middle Eastern music inspired earlier Led Zeppelin songs, such as "Friends", "Four Sticks", "No Quarter", and "Kashmir".
Although the song uses mythological imagery, including William Blake's Albion, Atlas, and Achilles, the lyrics reflect more on the group's travels during their exile. The title itself is an ironic reference to Plant's August 1975 automobile accident that left him with a severe ankle injury; Achilles was brought down by an arrow to his heel. Plant was unable to walk for a year and recorded much of Presence while in a wheelchair, hence the working title "The Wheelchair Song".
Composition and recording
30-second excerpt with vocal and guitar verses
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The song opens with solo guitar arpeggios by Page that gives it a haunting or mysterious sound. Drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones then come in and establish a driving rhythm, that they pursue throughout the piece. After the long intro riff is played four times, Plant begins singing. His vocal sections are broken up by brief instrumental passages and Page adds the first of many overdubbed guitar parts.
At 3:42, the song shifts and Page plays his first solo. Besides a change in tempo, the section also includes breaks and a switch to 5/4 time (the rest is 4/4). When the song returns to the vocals, Page adds more guitars. After a brief slide guitar part, Plant enters into an Eastern-influenced scat-style vocal section. At 8:25, Page plays a second solo with yet more overdubbed parts and a minute and a half later, the song winds down with chording that echoes the opening.
After extensive rehearsals in Los Angeles, Led Zeppelin traveled to Munich, Germany, to record Presence at the Musicland Studios. They recorded the basic tracks for "Achilles Last Stand" during the early sessions on 12 November 1975. For the first time during a recording, Jones plays an eight-string bass guitar with a pick. He explained that it added more mid-range presence during Page's high-register soloing and that while Page objected at first, he quickly saw its effectiveness. Without the rest of the group, Page recorded all of the guitar overdubs in one evening. He later commented: "There must be half a dozen going at once. I knew that every guitar overdub had to be very important, very strong within itself to identify each section." Recording for Presence was completed on 27 November 1975, 15 days after the group laid down the basic tracks for "Achilles Last Stand".
Release and live performance
Atlantic Records released Presence on 31 March 1976, with "Achilles Last Stand" as the opening track. The album initially performed well in the charts, but ultimately was not a great success for the group. There was no tour to support the album release. However, in November after Plant had sufficiently recovered, Led Zeppelin began to rehearse for a upcoming American tour. "Achilles Last Stand" was one of the first songs they attempted. Since their studio recording relied heavily on overdubs, they needed an arrangement that would work for a three-piece plus vocal ensemble. Page recalled:
We could have just eased into familiar stuff but we went straight in to the deep end by trying out "Achilles". I thought I'd have to use the twin-neck [6- and 12-string Gibson EDS-1275 guitar] but it actually sounded better with the six string using different effects. When we did that first rehearsal it just all clicked all over again.
The song and "Nobody's Fault but Mine" were the only numbers from Presence that the group added to their repertoire. They performed it at most concerts, often late in the set before "Stairway to Heaven". A live recording from Knebworth Festival 1979 was also filmed and in 2003, released on the Led Zeppelin DVD. When remastering Presence for the 2015 deluxe album editions, a reference mix of "Achilles Last Stand", titled "Two Ones Are Won", was included.
In a contemporary review of Presence, Stephen Davis of Rolling Stone believed Bonham's "furiously attacking [drumming]" to be the lead instrument in "Achilles Last Stand", until Page tires of chording under Plant and takes over."
In a 2011 review of Presence by Classic Rock Review, the site gave "Achilles Last Stand" a positive review, calling the song the album's "tour de force", further describing the track as "a true journey" from start to finish. However, they believed the song was a little long, writing it becomes repetitive near the end. They believed it would've worked better at seven minutes rather than ten and a half.
In a retrospective review of Presence (Deluxe Edition), Andrew Doscas of PopMatters described "Achilles Last Stand" as the band's "last true epic". Doscas writes "between Bonham’s heart attack-inducing drumming, Page’s incendiary guitar play and Plant’s hypnotic shrill singing, the opening track is more of a cold opening, one where Led Zeppelin is firing on all cylinders with no need for introduction."
- Milward 2013, p. 135: "Jimmy Page was a master of orchestrating pulverizing hard rock songs like 'Achilles Last Stand'".
- Schuman 2009, p. 37: "'Achilles Last Stand,' a hard rock number featuring manic drumming by Bonham."
- Shadwick 2005, pp. 240–241.
- Shadwick 2005, pp. 241–243.
- Fast 2001, p. 88.
- Tolinski 2012, eBook.
- Waksman 1998, p. 295.
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- Shadwick 2005, p. 246.
- Downing, Brian. "Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand – Song Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 24 July 2018.
- Popoff 2017, p. 185.
- Popoff 2017, p. 184.
- Akkerman 2014, pp. 102–103.
- Akkerman 2014, p. 103.
- Akkerman 2014, p. 105.
- Akkerman 2014, p. 106.
- Shadwick 2005, pp. 243–244.
- Power 2016, eBook.
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- Atlantic 1993, Presence details.
- Lewis & Pallett 2005, pp. 275–276.
- Lewis & Pallett 2005, p. 308.
- Lewis & Pallett 2005, p. 275.
- Lewis 2010, eBook.
- David, Stephen (20 May 1976). "Led Zeppelin: Presence". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
- "Presence by Led Zeppelin". Classic Rock Review. 24 November 2011. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
- Doscas, Andrew (10 September 2015). "Led Zeppelin: Presence (Deluxe Edition)". PopMatters. Retrieved 28 July 2017.
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- Campbell, Iain (2016). "From Achilles to Alexander: The Classical World and the World of Metal". In Bayer, Gerd. Heavy Metal Music in Britain. New York City: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7546-6423-9.
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