Slaughtering the Sacred ‘Dog’: Led Zeppelin’s Greatest Miss

If I never hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’ again, I will be a happy man.
I know that among rock connoisseurs, this revelation will evoke a response similar to a declaration that Ringo Starr is my favorite Beatle, but I cannot stand idly by while this abomination of a song is praised by otherwise intelligent people.
OK, I’ll admit that the main riff isn’t bad (I’m referring to the riff that first occurs between 0:13 and 0:19). But it’s only six seconds long. Even when it’s repeated ad nauseum (at 0:24, 0:35, 0:47, 1:10, 1:21, 2:09, 2:21, 2:32, 2:44, 3:06 and 3:17), it’s really not enough to constitute an entire song on its own.
The guitar solo at 3:37 doesn’t help much either. It’s not that Jimmy Page is a bad guitarist, or even that he’s playing poorly on this song, but the sound quality is terrible. It sounds like Page was playing in a trashcan while he was being recorded onto a Thomas Edison wax cylinder from a hundred yards away. The result is that he’s almost entirely drowned out by John Paul Jones and John Bonham.
Speaking of Bonham, he seems to be sleepwalking through this song. Of course he’s ultimately incapable of playing poorly, but he’s given so little to do that he comes as close here as he ever does.
However, while musically ‘Black Dog’ doesn’t have much to propel it beyond mediocrity, it’s not an altogether terrible song on that basis alone.
Enter Robert Plant.
For whatever reason, Plant thinks that he sounds really cool when he sings in a ridiculous falsetto, but he really sounds pretty awful. That’s why the first half of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is good and the ‘and as we wind on down the road’ part is not so hot.
I like Led Zeppelin as much as the next guy. In fact, the album that ‘Black Dog’ is on is one of my favorites. They are a great band, and consequently I can usually overlook the grating quality of Plant’s voice.
But why would anyone think that it would be a good idea to have the music drop out entirely whenever Plant starts squealing?
But more than the music, more than Plant’s screeching vocals, I can’t get over the utter weirdness of the lyrics.
A lot of people consider ‘Black Dog’ to be a ‘sexy’ song, but is it really?
Let’s consider the first two lines: ‘Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move. Gonna make you sweat. Gonna make you groove.’
Grammatically, this is imperfect, but I take Plant’s meaning to be something like, ‘Hey, hey, mama, [I] said [because of] the way you move [I am going to] make you sweat [and going to] make you groove.’
In case you’re unfamiliar with rock ‘n’ roll terminology, you can consult the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘groove,’ which reads, ‘To play jazz or similar music with ‘swing’; to be ‘in the groove’; to dance or listen to such music with great pleasure; hence, to make good progress or co-operate; to get on well with someone; to make love.’
In case you’re really dense, to ‘make love’ is ‘to pay amorous attention; now more usually, to copulate.’
In other words, the protagonist of the song (‘I’) is so aroused by the mode of movement of some unnamed second party (‘you,’ who may be the same ‘big-legged woman’ referred to in a subsequent verse) that he feels inclined to engage in sexual intercourse with her.
So far so good. But then the second line hits: ‘Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing. Gonna make you burn. Gonna make you sting.’
Back up for a second. I can see why Plant would announce that he is going to make someone groove. I can even see why he would announce that he is going to make her sweat.
But why would anyone announce his intention to make someone ‘burn’ and ‘sting’? Is Plant promising a good time or an infection?
He might as well say, ‘Gonna give you painful urination. Gonna make you experience unusual vaginal discharge.’
I realize that Plant slept around a lot, and in all probability he was infected with a cornucopia of sexually transmitted infections. I’m a supporter of full disclosure between sexual partners, but does he really have to broadcast it to the world?
Then he goes on to describe an encounter with a ‘big-legged woman’ who steals his money and his car. This is a really weird non-sequitur, and it almost seems like Plant combined two unrelated songs to form this bizarre amalgam.
‘Black Dog,’ to me, is about as sexy as a traumatic memory I have of going to some hospital-sponsored safe sex fair, during which a crazy old man cackled, ‘That’s the sort of stuff they won’t show you in Penthouse!’ while narrating a very explicit slide show about chlamydia.
It’s about time we put this ‘Black Dog’ to sleep.