The Story Behind “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin

If you ask music fans about the first band that pops into mind when the words “hard rock” are mentioned, chances are Led Zeppelin would be the name that appears the most. Yet their catalog proved time and again that the quartet of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham could do so much more. “Thank You” is scintillating evidence of that.

But how did this song come to be? Who was meant to be on the receiving end of all that gratitude? And how did the band come to put such a delicate song together in the midst of a particularly frantic time in their careers? Read on to find out all the details on this iconic ballad.

Led Zep Runs It Back
Led Zeppelin’s debut album, released in January 1969, proved a massive success and still stands as one of the most revered first albums in rock history. What’s stunning about that is how quickly it came together. When guitarist Jimmy Page inherited the Yardbirds’ contractual obligations following that group’s implosion, he quickly hired John Paul Jones, like Page, a session veteran, as bassist for an intended new band. When his first choices for singer and drummer declined, he landed on the relatively unheralded duo of Robert Plant and John Bonham for those roles.

The group’s first rehearsal was in August 1968, meaning that just five months elapsed from when the four men all met and when they shook up the world as Led Zeppelin (the name allegedly inspired by The Who’s John Entwistle’s assessment of how such a band would go over.) You might think the success would have bought them a little time for album No. 2. Instead, Atlantic Records, sensing a cash cow, insisted upon another album within the year, even as the band was booked for tours on both sides of the ocean.

Hence, Led Zeppelin II was recorded in piecemeal fashion, the band taking time at various, far-flung studios whenever they had a small break in their tour schedule. Perhaps because they needed to drum up material and couldn’t be too picky about whether it fits the expectations of fans who loved the hard-charging first album, the follow-up was a much more varied affair in terms of tempos and moods from its predecessor.

In the case of “Thank You,” the song was recorded in June 1969 at Morgan Studios in London. To give you an idea about the band’s diversity, they also recorded, at the same time and studio, the breathless rocker “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid (She’s Just a Woman).” This was a band operating with the energy of youth and the virtuosity of veterans, so nothing seemed beyond their reach, even with such a frenetic schedule.

When Led Zeppelin II landed on shelves in October 1969, the reception was even more rapturous than it was for the first album. Not from the critics, mind you, who would take an agonizingly long while before appreciating what Zep could do. But the fans knew as the album topped the charts in both the US and the UK. Amidst all the colossal rockers on the album like “Whole Lotta Love” and “Heartbreaker,” it was “Thank You,” which closed out Side 1, that proved to be the sentimental heart of the album.

Whom Were They Thanking?

“Thank You” was one of the songs on Led Zeppelin II that displayed the growing lyric-writing talents of Robert Plant. It’s easy to forget that Plant was only 20 years old when Zep recorded their first two albums, the youngest of the group. And yet Page, who generally composed most of the music for Zep, especially in the early days, quickly trusted Plant to come up with the words for Page’s striking, oft-complex pieces.

As for the inspiration for “Thank You,” that’s actually an easy one. Page was writing about Maureen Wilson, whom he had married in 1968 not long after Led Zeppelin’s creation. The couple also had a daughter at that time, so it’s only natural that Plant wanted to reach out through song to his new wife, considering all the time that he was spending away from her and their new family while on the road.

So it is that Plant sings of a love that can endure any kind of calamity, including dark suns and crumbling mountains. There’s also a lighthearted touch that he adds when singing about the levels of his commitment: Kind woman, I give you my all/Kind woman, nothing more. Some of the phrasing also gives their union the feel of something that was ordained by a higher power: And thanks to you it will be done.

In the chorus, which features some rare Led Zep harmony singing, Plant drops some lovely imagery that speaks to the problems that can befall even the strongest relationships: Little drops of rain whisper of the pain/Tears of love lost in the days gone by. But ultimately, true love prevails: Together we shall go until we die, my, my, my.

Even though the lyrics might make “Thank You” seem like a typical love ballad, Led Zeppelin was just too musically restless to make anything sound routine. The song is a showcase for Jones’ florid organ part, but all three instrumentalists get their due in the thrilling instrumental section, as the organ, Page’s acoustic guitar and Bonham’s drums seem to go their own way at times only to cohere with uncanny timing. Not bad chemistry for a band that hadn’t even been together a year at that point.

Plant’s vocal is also a marvel, at times delicate and tender, at times wailing to the heavens. “Thank You” is one of many Led Zeppelin songs where the title isn’t found in the lyrics. But the gratitude is evident in every note sung and played, proving that the ultimate hard rockers could be quite convincing softies as well.

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