45 Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Go Rockabilly With ‘Candy Store Rock’
Jimmy Page called it a "fun" homage to their rockabilly roots. Robert Plant reportedly described it as "far beyond the realms of pop, jazz or anything." Rolling Stone's Stephen Davis dubbed it "an unholy hybrid in which Buddy Holly is grafted onto the quivering stem of David Bowie."
Intriguing praise all around. But "Candy Store Rock" remains a rare obscurity in the Led Zeppelin catalog: Despite arriving on June 18, 1976 as the sole single from Presence, it failed to grace the charts. It's also one of just 17 album tracks that they never played live.
Like the rest of Led Zeppelin's seventh album, "Candy Store Rock" was born under strenuous circumstances. The band, now at peak rock-god status following the first leg of their Physical Graffiti tour, were forced to cancel their remaining 1975 dates after Plant's frightening automobile crash in Greece.
Since they'd become tax exiles from their native U.K., Plant recovered from his injuries abroad — including a stint in California, where he was joined by Page. Together they crafted the foundation of what became Presence, later rehearsing with bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham in Hollywood before rapid-fire recording sessions at Munich, Germany's Musicland Studios.
As producer and guitar architect, Page faced a massive hurdle — particularly because of the timeline, with the Rolling Stones scheduled to track their own Black and Blue at Musicland immediately after. (It didn't help that Plant, still recuperating, was forced to record his vocals in a wheelchair.)
"[Led Zeppelin were] under incredible deadline pressure to finish the record," Page later told Guitar World. "I was working an average of 18 to 20 hours a day. It was also grueling because nobody else really came up with song ideas. It was really up to me to come up with all the riffs, which is probably why Presence is so guitar-heavy."
From initial rehearsals to final product, the process took just over three weeks, as detailed in 2010's Jimmy Page: The Anthology. "The band channeled a huge amount of energy and determination into Presence," he said. "It was a heroic feat; we created a really positive document from a difficult time."
The album has several obvious "heroic" moments: the hard-prog epic "Achilles Last Stand," the swaggering "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and "For Your Life." But "Candy Store Rock" — a quirky, deliberately retro hat-tip to their early rock icons, with Plant channeling Elvis Presley sound-alike Ral Donner – isn't one of them.
The lighthearted vocal and unfussy innuendo offers a welcome contrast on Presence, an album of mostly dark and heavy themes. And Plant's bandmates are on a similarly playful wavelength on "Candy Store Rock," which supposedly originated from live improvisations during "Over the Hills and Far Away."
In the studio, Bonham added a splash of funk during the rhythmic twists and turns, as Page's strutting, echoing riffs — played on a sunburst Gibson Switchmaster for authenticity — harkened back to the tone of Presley guitarist Scotty Moore. "It was fun doing that song," Page wrote in Anthology, "and it's a beautiful specimen of that guitar."
Plant prominently mentioned Donner, best known for his 1961 hit "You Don't Know What You've Got (Until You Lose It)," during Led Zeppelin's 1995 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: “We looked to America from an early age and we admired the work of Howlin’ Wolf, the writing of Willie Dixon, the playing of Muddy Waters and the singing of the Capris, the Jive Five and Ral Donner," he said onstage. "So much American music that really formed our musical personalities."
But Led Zeppelin only wound up playing two full Presence songs, "Achilles' Last Stand" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine," during their original run. The reunited act, without the late Bonham, debuted "For Your Life" at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in 2007. Page and Plant didn't revive "Candy Store Rock" until a duo-era covers-heavy set on July 7, 2001 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, reportedly themed that year as a tribute to Sam Phillips' Sun Records.
"It’s almost 30 years since Jimmy and I came here with Led Zeppelin,” Plant said, introducing the tune. “When we arrived, we came with all this information to daydream about American '50s rockabilly and blues and the work of Sam Phillips and the musicians who worked out of Tennessee. … This is a song that came from the Presence album. It leans very heavily in that area."
That gig, their last as Page and Plant, marked this song's only official live performance. Covers have popped up here and there — but with such rarity that Setlist.fm hasn't logged any. These days, critics typically register "Candy Store Rock" as middle-of-the-road at best: UCR placed it at No. 63 of 92 in our ranking of every Led Zeppelin song.
But it was been more important to the band: a fun wink to their heroes and, like the rest of Presence, a sign of perseverance. "I think it’s the most perfect statement a group could make," Page said of the LP, in a talk with Rolling Stone. "All our urgency and pent-up passion is there more than ever."
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