How Led Zeppelin's 'Black Dog' Was Influenced by a Fleetwood Mac Classic
When Led Zeppelin arrived on the scene in 1968, England was brimming with talented “white blues” acts. Eric Clapton, who’d made his name playing blues in The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, had kept it going in Cream. And Peter Green, Clapton’s replacement in Mayall’s band, kept his blues focus alive in Fleetwood Mac.
But the Zeppelin concept was different. From the start, founder Jimmy Page wanted to play the blues but make it something entirely different. You could argue the band pulled that off first with “Since I’ve Been Loving You” from Led Zeppelin III (1970).
Zeppelin took it to the next level on its fourth album. That album featured “When the Levee Breaks” as well as “Black Dog,” two of the Zep’s blues masterpieces. In the case of “Black Dog,” the band had used a hit Fleetwood Mac song as inspiration.
Led Zeppelin structured ‘Black Dog’ like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’
“Black Dog” features one of the finest riffs in the Zeppelin catalogue, but it didn’t come from Page. John Paul Jones, Zep’s brilliant multi-instrumentalist, wrote the track’s time-bending hook following a rehearsal with his bandmates.
The riff has tripped up many a cover band in the past five decades, and Jones intended it to be complex. Along the way, it changes time signatures a few times (at least). After John Bonham figured out he could play 4/4 while the guitarists played the shifting times, the track began to took shape.
But it takes more than a riff to create a masterpiece. Building on Jones’ idea, Page proposed setting up a call-and-response format for the tune. And he turned to a Fleetwood Mac hit for inspiration. “I suggested that we build a song similar in structure to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well,’” Zep’s guitarist recalled in Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page (2012).
Fleetwood Mac had hit No. 2 on the British charts in late ’69 with “Oh Well.” You can hear what Page liked about it, and how he adapted the format for “Black Dog.” But that still didn’t simplify the timing, and you can hear Bonham counting in on his sticks to keep the band on the beat.
Jimmy Page was a big fan of early Fleetwood Mac
The band that recorded “Dreams” might not be an obvious source of inspiration for Led Zeppelin, but Fleetwood Mac wasn’t fronted by Stevie Nicks for the band’s first seven-odd years of existence. In the beginning, the band was very much a blues-rock act, and Page was a fan.
“The original Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green performed the music of people like Elmore James really well,” Page said in Light and Shade. “Peter had such a beautiful touch on things like ‘Stop Messing Around.’ Just fabulous in the vein of B.B. King.”
And while his old friend Clapton really broke open the modern guitar sound with the Bluesbreakers, Page thought the band that recorded “Oh Well” played England’s finest brand of blues. “I don’t think you’re going to find a better example of British blues than the original Fleetwood Mac, with Jeremy Spencer and Peter Green,” he said in Light and Shade.
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