Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir' became a band-defining track, but it started life in an Airstream trailer known as the Ronnie Lane Mobile Studio.
While 'Whole Lotta Love' and 'Stairway To Heaven' may be the better-known songs, there's a strong argument that 'Kashmir' — heavy, driving, melodic and mysterious — is the quintessential Led Zeppelin track. As the side-two closer of 1975's monumental double album Physical Graffiti, the sweeping, eight–and–a–half–minute epic featured guitarist Jimmy Page adopting a folk–style DADGAD tuning for its cyclical riffs, mirrored by the Mellotron and orchestral arrangements of bassist John Paul Jones, supported by the strident beats of John Bonham and topped by the yearning, desert fever dream vocal of Robert Plant.
The song started life under the working title of 'Driving To Kashmir', inspired by Plant's 1973 travels through southern Morocco — actually more than 7000km from the Indian subcontinent. But, as the singer later explained to US journalist Cameron Crowe, the concept was the dislocated beauty of a road journey, rather than the destination. Plant recalled one specific vision on his trip that sparked the idea for the lyric. "It was a single–track road which neatly cut through the desert," he remembered. "Two miles to the east and west were ridges of sand rock. It looked like you were driving down a channel, this dilapidated road, and there was seemingly no end to it."
In the years that followed, up to Bonham's death in 1980 (when they split) and beyond, the four members of Led Zeppelin would regard 'Kashmir' as one of their finest musical accomplishments. "The intensity of 'Kashmir'," said Jimmy Page, "was such that when we had it completed, we knew there was something really hypnotic to it. We couldn't even describe such a quality."
The initial sessions for 'Kashmir' were conducted in a rundown Hampshire stately home, Headley Grange, which had earlier been the scene of recordings for Led Zeppelin's three previous albums, III, IV and Houses Of The Holy, using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. This time around, the band used a mobile recording truck built for the Faces' bassist Ronnie Lane by an American engineer, Ron Nevison.
In the US, Nevison had gained his early engineering experience working live, rather than in the studio, as the soundman for the likes of Derek & the Dominos, Jefferson Airplane (including for their appearance at Woodstock) and Traffic. But in spite of his success in this field, road life soon became a grind for him.
"You have to understand that with life on the road in 1969 or 1970 for a guy like me, I didn't fly around with my briefcase with the band on their private planes," says Nevison. "I was driving the frigging truck and loading up and watching the pretty girls walk out of the arena, while I was wrapping up mic cables and waking up people that were on acid and getting them to climb out of the big bass bins. It was a crazy time.
"So, I was burned out. I'd finish up a gig at 11 o'clock at night and walk out of there at two in the morning, drive three or four hours and get six hours sleep and do the whole thing all over again. It was pretty nuts."
It was while Nevison was having a good old moan about his road dog life to Chris Blackwell, manager of Traffic — and, of course, boss of Island Records — that Blackwell suggested a move into studio engineering, offering Nevison a job as a recording assistant if he moved to the UK. "Chris said, 'Well, I happen to have a studio called Island,'" Nevison remembers. "It was on Basing Street [in West London] and the whole church building had been refurbished. It was the perfect setup for me and I took him up on it."
Given his background, Nevison took an unusual approach to studio engineering, in attempting to capture the excitement of live music directly onto vinyl. "For me, it was the live performance aspect of trying to record something," he says. "To make it sound like a performance instead of like a dry, tight studio atmosphere. I think everybody was going to concerts and watching their favourite bands, but when they got the studio album, sometimes it was not that exciting. So, I was just trying to make it as exciting...