Of all the songs in Led Zeppelin’s lengthy catalog, “Kashmir” is one where all four members agreed that it was special. It may not be the first song that pops into your head when you think Zeppelin, yet once you hear it it’s hard to get “Kashmir” out of your head. What went into this song that made it so memorable for listeners, while making it so fun to play for musicians?
The song begins by diving directly into the main riff without any setup or intro. There are two noteworthy points regarding the main riff: 1) it has a distinct and unusual rhythm, and 2) it uses chromatic scale.
Remember that rhythm is the foundation of music and when rhythm is interesting it makes the whole song interesting. The sort of rhythm employed here is essentially subdividing of the beats differently among layers. If eighth notes are the basic units of the beat, the drums are grouping them by fours while guitar and bass are grouping them by three. So every twelve notes, they come together on a big down beat. That sounds complicated on paper but thanks to the song’s leisurely pace it doesn’t come across as convoluted to our ears. (If you are a musician you can certainly experiment with that sort of juxtaposition intentionally.) Because the drums, the foundations have the longer groupings, the shorter grouping of the instruments above make the song feel faster than it is, which is part of the song’s charm.
Chromatic scale moves half step at a time and makes the song sound ambiguous. But the vocal melody mostly picks out notes that are in the D major scale (it’s more like D major pentatonic). As with other songs, Led Zeppelin’s primary interest lies in how the song is constructed, and the vocal melody, though more defined here than some of Robert Plant’s more sporadic phrasings, is more an icing on the cake than the center of the show.
The song really doesn’t have a chorus but the majestic “B” section has this descending figure which again features rhythmic twists over chromatic moves. But the notes emphasized this time are of D minor scale (because those notes fall on the stronger beats) which give it more bluesy sound. The music feels so complete without vocals that Plant doesn’t bother singing over it.
The “C” section sits on an A chord and serves as the breathing space between main parts, where Plant does his rambling. The “D” section goes back and forth over Gm and A but with an exotic scale being emphasized by the strings/keyboard. The ascending figure uses D harmonic minor but in the 4th mode so the note G serves as the basis — and this scale has a big jump between Bb and C# and creates that exotic, Eastern sound. But toward the end of the song the ascending figure morphs into this run that goes from G dorian to G lydian (G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C#). That is a very unusual move in rock, where a tonality shift is built into a phrase. The result is this sense of transformation — the phrase starts out sounding ominous but then the series of whole steps in the second half really make it sound as if some kind of enlightenment is revealed at the end.
One other thing to point out is how the classic call and response structure is built in to the song to create a sense of balance. The “A” riff and “B” sections function like that, but even within the “A” section toward the end the band inserts this response in the form of a fill-in phrase that comes in response to the vocal melody.
As far as arrangement goes, John Bonham wisely restrains his drumming to holding down the basic beats, and Jimmy Page has to stick to riffing — the downside of having such distinct riffs is that you can’t deviate from it too much, or otherwise the song would lose its backbone. Robert Plant’s vocals’ meaningful contributions are somewhat isolated to the main verses, which makes “Kashmir” a showpiece for John Paul Jones. In many of the songs Led Zeppelin is a lean and mean machine with little embellishments outside of the four band members, but here they take advantage of John Paul Jones’ arranging skills to have an orchestral backing with strings and brass. Live, JPJ covers most of the orchestra with his deft keyboard playing. And speaking of live, the recording’s fadeout comes across as more of a cop-out compared to their live performance, where the band brings the song to a smashing conclusion by banging on that triumphant ascending figure. That was a missed opportunity in the studio.
Restrained he may be, it’s impossible to discuss Zeppelin with Mr. Bonham’s drumming. Even when he sticks to the basic beats his drumming makes the band huge. Starting out simple gives him ample room to fill later, but one can also argue that the sparse drumming toward the beginning is a great showcase of John Bonham’s musicianship, where you can feel the space between the notes to appreciate the song’s expansiveness. Timing-wise JB sits behind other instruments, anchoring and holding everyone back. If the drums played ahead of the beat this song may have felt more immature and busy, but instead it sounds simple and grandiose because JB keeps everyone grounded.
Jimmy Page, too, sticks to simplicity this time, and Robert Plant doesn’t impose himself where he’s needed. And while John Paul Jones’ playing and arrangements are dense, they are not frenetic, either. All this together makes the song feel like a painting made up of big, broad strokes. As musicians it’s so easy to be busier than needed, and this song is a great example of how less is more — maturity is amply expressed in what one chooses not to play. Big sounds are created not by cramming notes in but placing choice notes only where they are needed.
There is a lot going on in this mix, so the production doesn’t have to do anything out of ordinary to add interest. The drums are mixed very loud and fairly close to the audience, and all other layers seem to envelope around them. Curiously Jimmy Page’s guitar is mixed very low in some sections — as a producer he did know that the interesting parts are in this arrangement may not be the guitar. Robert Plant’s vocal has the deepest reverb and seems to come from slightly behind the instruments, creating the mystical feel that serves the philosophical lyrics.
So what’s so quintessential about “Kashmir”? I believe it’s because they composed music that was so interesting from the fundamental level. Between the rhythmic interest and shifting harmonies, the very basic building blocks of this song present strong hooks. Robert Plant’s job was easy because the music doesn’t need much from him, so he can focus on what he does best — all the scatting and wailing serve simply to up the intensity and drama. It’s hard to fail when both rhythm and harmony are interesting — you can just fool around inside the big sandbox created by those two elements and almost anything sounds good. This makes it fun for musicians to play it, because it’s very hard to fail with this material.
And the material evolves through 5-6 different scales/modes (depending on how you count them) in the course of the song, which helps keep it interesting after repeated listens. Some parts may sound simple and sparse, but all combined they paint a rich and fascinating picture. Each member has a distinct contribution to make here, and that may be why they think so fondly of this song — as do we, their audience.