Album: Walking Into Clarksdale (1998)
Charted: 26
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Songfacts®:

  • "Most High" is a song full of obvious Christian imagery, surprising because neither Robert Plant nor Jimmy Page have ever associated themselves with the religion, while Page's serious interest in the occult is well documented. The duo's work with Led Zeppelin would certainly never be mistaken for "Christian rock."

    The key to the song in its nuance. While it's not necessarily anti-Christian, it's subversive of mainstream Christian thought. The word "mainstream" is used here because there is a much wider range of Christian theological thought than what is seen the masses of American churches at your average Sunday. There are even occult perspectives on Christ. Page's own field of study is such a case.

    Page was a serious student of the work of the English occultist Aleister Crowley and Crowley's Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn spiritual system. Over the last couple of decades Crowley and the Golden Dawn have become part of numerous conspiracy theories and are often conflated with Satanism and "pure evil." Most students of the philosophy do not see it that way at all. The Golden Dawn system, in fact, includes a great deal of overt Biblical symbolism, language, and ideas. Knowing a bit about Page's belief system might be informative to "Most High," with all of its mystical but unmistakably Christian imagery.

    A defining difference between mainstream Christian and Golden Dawn thinking is the way the individual supplicant is perceived and encouraged to act in order to attain spiritual wisdom. Christians generally praise humility and total devotion of self to Christ, the shepherd, with the ideal of giving oneself over to become an instrument of Christ. The Golden Dawn, meanwhile, praises the individual as paramount and the highest good. It sees the total realization of one's unique individual will as being the highest spiritual attainment. Its adherents strive to essentially become god-figures in themselves.

    Stick with us, all of this background informs the song.

    It opens with the lines:

    Who guards the truth, oh Lord most high
    A frightened dove in a starless sky


    Most people would quickly recognize this as referential to Christianity. "Oh Lord most high" clearly harks to Biblical imagery. The Hebrew word Elyon, meaning "most high," is used in the Bible.

    The dove is a common symbol throughout the Bible, often associated with the Holy Spirit. In popular Christianity it has sometimes been associated with Jesus himself. The dove is a symbol of peace and kindness. There are a couple subtly subversive bits in this verse, though.

    So, right off the bat, we have what certainly appears to be a presentation of Christianity from an occult perspective - a frightened being keeping people from seeing the truth (presumably of their own power and freedom).

    As a side note, Plant once had a dove land on his hand in the middle of a 1973 performance at the Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, California. Dozens of doves had been released during the show, and one settled right on his hand. The images of it have become some of the most iconic of Zeppelin's legacy.

    Who hides the east from the blind man's eye
    In the land of peace where the righteous cry


    The east is important both Biblically and in the Golden Dawn, but separating the two at all is not even accurate. The Golden Dawn's ideas were directly informed by Biblical ideas and ideas from many scholars, monks, and thinkers of the general Abrahamic spiritual tradition. They can't really be talked about accurately as two wholly different systems of thought.

    Suffice it to say that in the Golden Dawn system, the cardinal direction of the east is associated with the element of air, as well as intelligence/mind, science, and communication. The east also fits securely into Biblical theology, being presented in the bible as a symbol of Christ (the sun rises in the east, after all) as well as Eden and the creation of Man ("Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed" - Genesis 2:8). For a long time Christians intentionally prayed to the east.

    Here again we have a verse of knowledge (symbolized by the east) being hidden. There's also a subtle note of sarcasm in the line, "In the land of peace where the righteous cry." Why would righteous people cry in a land of peace? They should be happy and home in a land of peace. So either the people aren't really righteous or the land isn't really peaceful.

    While mercy sleeps in the hearts of liars
    And the olive tree is consumed by fire


    Mercy sleeping in the hearts of liars is an obvious and harsh criticism of hypocrisy.

    Olive trees appear throughout the Bible, which isn't surprising because the olive tree was so important to the lives of ancient Jews. The first mention of an olive tree comes in Genesis 8:11, when a dove brings an olive branch back to Noah's ark. The term "extend an olive branch" has become a common term for brokering peace with an enemy. Here, Page presents it as being in flames, which informs another common theme of the song: war and violence.

    When David's seed talks through his paper crown
    And he spits hot steel see all the kids fall down


    There's no need to think too deeply on this one once the rest of the song is deciphered. Jesus is often presented as the spiritual "seed" of David, the Goliath-slayer who was King of the Jewish people around 1000 BCE.

    So, this seed, who is Jesus, is presented as having a paper crown, with paper being something easily torn and destroyed, something with no real power, yet this man with a paper crown spits hot steel (bullets?) and kills.

    Taken with the other verses, this is an obvious condemnation of the role war has played in Western, Christian nations.

    So, when viewing the verses altogether, the song is a dig at mainstream Christianity and at the nations guided by that religion. The criticism comes in the most earthly form (condemning war) and in the more abstract, symbolic (Christianity as a means of hiding the spiritual truth from humanity). Given Page's spiritual interests, it's probably not accurate to write the song off as a wholesale slamming of spirituality or even Christian mystical concepts as a whole. It's a bit more nuanced than that.

    The song was not written entirely by Page. Robert Plant, Charlie Jones, and Michael Lee all contributed to it. Still, the spiritual and mystical themes seem consistent with his influence, though Plant also was not short on mystical lyrics (he wrote the lyrics so "Stairway To Heaven"). Plant also has had his own study of spiritual and mystical traditions, but this song seems too seriously concerned with discussing Christian spiritual concepts (for better or worse) to have not been strongly influenced by Page's philosophical interests.
  • The song appears on Walking To Clarksdale, an album Page and Plant collaborated on during an emotional turning point in Plant's life. His mother had just died, prompting him to break from a year-long hiatus from recording and touring. During that year, he hadn't gone into total seclusion (he played some local charity gigs), but was living a basically normal life: attending football games, hanging out with old friends, and stepping back from the rock star lifestyle.

    After his mother passed on, he called up Jimmy Page. They decided to get into the studio and strip things down for their work together. Rather than bringing in a circus of gig musicians, they brought in just two players: bassist Stephen Charles Jones and drummer Michael Lee. They also hired producer Steve Albini, who was known for a minimalistic approach, roughness, and iconoclastic personality. Albini doesn't believe producers should collect royalties from the musicians they produce, so he only collects a flat fee.

    Albini worked on hundreds of albums in the 1980s and 1990s, bringing a hard-edged and not-so-radio-friendly sound to most of his work. His most well-known work was on Nirvana's final studio album, In Utero.

    So, Plant was looking to get back to basics musically and emotionally. They recorded with all four musicians in the same room together, and they did it pretty fast, completing the whole album in about seven weeks.
  • The song didn't crack the Hot 100, but on May 9, 1998, it did reach #1 on the Mainstream Rock Airplay chart. It also hit #26 on the UK singles chart and #88 on the Australian singles chart.
  • The official music video for "Most High" has a very '90s feel, with dark ambience, distorted imagery, and quick cut-shots of Plant and Page. To the children of the '90s, this styling will be immediately recognizable. Italian-Canadian Floria Sigismondi directed it. She did a lot of prominent work in the '90s and has created over 70 major music videos, with acts including Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Sarah McLachlan, and Björk.
  • The single had a different B-side depending on where it was released. The UK version was backed with "The Window." The European version had "The Window" and "Upon a Golden Horse." The US release, meanwhile, had three versions of "Most High" - a radio edit, a video edit, and the album version.
  • "Most High" won the 1999 Grammy Award for Best hard Rock Performance. It was the first Grammy that Plant or Page ever won, either separately or as a duo - yes, Zeppelin never won a Grammy in its heyday. They were nominated for Best New Artist in 1970 along with Chicago, Oliver, The Neon Philharmonic, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, but CSN took it home.

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