As the title suggests, the song is based on one of the most popular structures in rock and roll; namely, the 12-bar blues progression (in A). The phrase "Rock and Roll" was a term blues musicians used, which meant sex.
Robert Plant wrote the lyrics, which were a response to critics who claimed their previous album, Led Zeppelin III, wasn't really rock and roll. Led Zeppelin III had more of an acoustic, folk sound, and Plant wanted to prove they could still rock out.
"We just thought rock and roll needed to be taken on again," he told Creem in 1988. "I was finally in a really successful band, and we felt it was time for actually kicking ass. It wasn't an intellectual thing, 'cause we didn't have time for that - we just wanted to let it all come flooding out. It was a very animal thing, a hellishly powerful thing, what we were doing."
This song came about when the band was working on "Four Sticks
" at the Headley Grange mansion they had rented in Hampshire, England to record the album. With a pretty much unplayable drum pattern, John Bonham got frustrated with the session, and tensions rose. In a pique of anger, he started playing something completely different: a riff based on the intro to the 1957 Little Richard song "Keep a Knockin'" (Session great Earl Palmer was the drummer on that one).
Infused with creative energy, they put "Four Sticks" aside and started working on this new song, which they called "It's Been a Long Time." Jimmy Page blasted out a guitar part, and the bones of the song were completed in about 30 minutes.
The band often used this either as an encore or to open live shows from 1971-1975.
Nicky Hopkins played the piano on this track. Hopkins was a renowned session player who appeared on tracks for The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and many others.
Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones played this at Live Aid in 1985. It was the first time they played together since the death of John Bonham in 1980. Tony Thompson and Phil Collins sat in for Bonham on drums, which didn't go over well with Page and Plant. When the band reformed for a benefit show on December 10, 2007, it was with John Bonham's son Jason on drums. This was the last song they played at the show, which raised money for the Ahmet Ertegun education fund.
Besides Live Aid, the remaining members of Led Zeppelin played this on two other occasions. When Robert Plant's daughter Carmen turned 21 in 1989, they played it at her birthday party. They also played it at Jason Bonham's wedding in 1990. Jason is John Bonham's son, and he sat in on drums on both performances.
This has been covered by many other artists, including Def Leppard and Heart. In 2001, it was recorded by Double Trouble (Stevie Ray Vaughan's backup band), for their 2001 album Been A Long Time. Susan Tedeschi sang lead on the track.
All four band members got writing credits for this. Many Zeppelin songs are credited only to Page and Plant.
This was the first Led Zeppelin song used in a commercial. Cadillac used it to kick off a new advertising campaign in 2002 with the tagline "Breakthrough." The company was going for a hip, new image, since their audience was slowly dying off. The spots aired for the first time on the Super Bowl, and sales rose 16% the next year.
The lyric "It's been a long time since the book of love" is a reference to the Monotones' 1958 hit "Book Of Love
," which is also referenced in "American Pie
Since the death of his father, Jason Bonham has filled in behind the drum set for various Led Zeppelin reunion gigs. He told American Songwriter this is the hardest Zeppelin song to play as, "a lot of people out there try and play it, and really it's a two-handed shuffle all the way through, playing the sixteenth notes, it's not just boom bap-boom-bap-boom- bap, it's boom-boom-bap-bap-boom-boom-bap-bap on the snare and the hi-hat. It's a hard one to play properly."
Stevie Nicks added this to her live set in 2001.
Kazryn - Potters Bar, England
Jimmy Page recalled to Uncut magazine how this song seemed to come out of thin air. "We were recording something else when John Bonham started playing the drum intro to 'Keep a Knockin' by Little Richard and I immediately started playing the riff for 'Rock And Roll.' Instead of laughing it off and going back to the previous song, we kept going. 'Rock And Roll' was written in minutes and recorded within an hour."