"Of all the songs recorded by Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir” may be the most highly regarded. Considered to be the peak musical achievement by all four members of the band, the song was a radio staple from when it was released (even with 8:28 running time) until this day.
“Kashmir” was originally titled “Driving to Kashmir” and reflects a time when guitarist/producer Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant were driving through the Saharan Desert on their way to play the National Festival of Morocco. The song carries Moroccan musical influences, despite Kashmir actually being a province of India, a country half a world away.
This was one of the few songs by the band that featured outside musicians, as uncredited string and horn players were brought in to provide the power that only an orchestra can provide. The song actually took three years to complete, as it started out on a home recorded work tape of Page. The song is only credited to three of the four band members as bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones was late getting to the studio when the song was being worked out.
Few Led Zeppelin songs follow the traditional rules of popular songwriting, and “Kashmir” is no exception. The verses are principally in 6/8 time but the drums play in a 4/4 rhythm against it, yet instrumental choruses and bridges come back to 4/4 so the song seems anchored and closer to what we’re used to hearing. Plus, there’s no traditional vocal chorus, as only the orchestral riff at the end of each verse acts like a chorus.
Even though the song might be considered a dirge by some, the lyrics are fairly positive and uplifting, being set around the idea of life as an adventure. The verses are written as poetry with few forced rhymes (save for the second verse, which feels unfinished), but the bridges are somewhat contrived and seem almost like they were improvised or tacked on at the last minute. The form looks like this:
intro | verse | chorus | intro (1X) | verse | chorus | intro (1x) | chorus | bridge 1 | chorus | bridge 2 | intro (2X) | verse | intro (1X) | verse | chorus | intro (1x) | chorus | bridge (fade)
“Kashmir” has an arrangement as interesting as the song demands. The song is very long because the sections repeat multiple times (except for bridge 1 that only happens once in the song), but we don’t lose interest not only because of the power of the orchestra, but because of the subtle arrangement changes.
The intro and verse are the same instrumentally with the guitar on the left, strings on the right and drums up the middle, except for the vocal entering on the verse. The instrumental chorus has an additional guitar doubling the line on the right, and horns in the center.
The second verse is identical to the first except a string counter line enters, with the basses holding the lowest note on the right side. The second chorus is the same as the first except for the strings doubling the guitar on the left.
The first bridge is entirely different from the rest of the song in that it’s much more open and funky, especially the drums. The elements remain the same as the chorus, with the second string line on the left doubling the guitar original guitar line, and Page’s guitar now playing harmony to it. The next chorus is identical in arrangement to the previous one.
The second bridge sees the Mellotron strings playing a high line on the left and the lower strings from the orchestra playing a different, almost answering line on the right, with the horns punctuating the accents.
The third verse is identical to the second, except that low horns answer the end of the string counter phrase. The next chorus is the same as the previous, as is the last verse and chorus, except for the last time through the pattern when low strings fill out the sound.
The final bridge sees the Mellotron strings begin on the right, punctuated by horns at the end of each line. After 4 bars, a new ascending line enters with the orchestra strings on the left and Mellotron on the right, accompanied by much more active drumming, including fills at the end of each string line.
- The Foundation: bass and drums
- The Rhythm: none
- The Pad: strings and horns, Mellotron (bridge 2)
- The Lead: lead vocal
- The Fills: strings and horns
The mix balance of “Kashmir” is very interesting as it centers around John Bonham’s drums with Jimmy Page’s guitar and John Paul Jones’ bass somewhat buried in the mix. Even the vocal is laid back into the mix, which is typical of many rock songs in order to help emphasis the power of the band.
Bonzo’s drum sound is typical of all Led Zeppelin albums in that it’s somewhat distant and roomy, mostly because the drummer insisted on recording with two or three mics (when recording in stereo) in order to adequately capture the sound of the drums as he heard them. That said, by this time most other producers were resorting to using more mics closer in on the drums in order to capture the full sound of each, which helped to make them sound more dramatic. You can hear the difference in Bonzo’s many drum fills on the last bridge of the song where you can hear a bit of a stereo effect, but not what we’re used to hearing on other records. The drums were also put through an Eventide phaser suppled by engineer Ron Nevison, which can be heard clearly on the cymbal crashes of the first bridge.
Probably the most interesting thing on the record is how much producer Page used the stereo field. Guitar is panned to the left and the strings are panned to the right during the bridge and the strings are in wide stereo during the chorus. As the song progresses, you hear two different strings lines on the left and right in the second bridge, and a low horn pans left to center, then right to center at the end of the string counter phrases during the third and fourth verses.
- To the guitar on the left and the strings on the right playing the same line during the verses
- To the wide stereo reverb on the vocal
- To the stereo orchestra panned hard left and right during the choruses
- To the two different string lines left and right on the second bridge
- To the low horn that pans left to right at the end of the string line during the third and fourth verses
- To the phasing effect on the drums during the first bridge
The production of “Kashmir” is truly a departure for both Led Zeppelin and rock music at the time. Being known as the most influential rock band of the era didn’t stop them from coming out of left field to employ an orchestra on a recording that was the centerpiece of the album, and some say even the band’s career.
The fact that the guitar is somewhat buried in the mix turns out to be a brilliant move. It’s there in the mix and an essential part, but it doesn’t need to be front and center like on other songs.
Another interesting production point is that’s it’s difficult to tell the difference between the simulated strings and the real ones, a tribute to arranger John Paul Jones skills. The Mellotron strings can be more clearly heard as a line on the bridge 2, but they interweave so well with the real strings that it takes a conscious effort to discern the difference.
Yet another interesting production trick is the panning of the instruments in the mix. There are elements constantly entering and exiting from all sides, as well as parts moving from one side to the other. The moves are subtle, and in no way make the recording seem as drastic as a stereo demonstration record, instead adding the interest that an 8+ minute song needs to keep the listener’s attention.
All this leads to one of the most important and influential track of the era, and one that seems destined to be played on radio and streaming to people’s headphones for decades to come.
To read additional excerpts from Deconstructed Hits and my other books, go to the excerpts section of bobbyowsinski.com.