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The Meaning of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California”

Led Zeppelin performing acoustic in 1973.

While Led Zeppelin are generally known for more hard-hitting songs, “Going to California” takes a much more gentle approach, and still makes a hard-hitting impact. One of the most well-known songs in Led Zeppelin’s catalogue, the beautiful acoustic number appears on 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV, and is one of the few acoustic songs in their repertoire.

With lyrics penned by Robert Plant, “Going to California” captures the mystique and naiveté of youth and young, hopeful love. Plant himself was young when he wrote this one, just 22 years old, with wide eyes and an unbreakable spirit, and the song still speaks to the free-spirited youth of today.

In true Robert Plant fashion, the lyrics are dripping with imagery and thus the meaning can be tough to decipher.

He has spoken on the song’s meaning a few times over the years — first at a concert in September of 1971, when he told the crowd the song was about “the days when things were really nice and simple, and everything was far out all the time.” 

Later, in 2002, he discussed the song’s lasting popularity with Spin Magazine, and said, “it might be a bit embarrassing at times lyrically, but it did sum up a period of my life when I was 22.”

Led Zeppelin IV (1971).

We don’t exactly agree with Plant’s self-critical stance on the lyrics, as we consider “Going to California” to be one of the best Led Zeppelin songs. Let’s dive in and see what it’s all about, starting with the first verse:

Spend my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine
Made up my mind, make a new start
Goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart
Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair

First verse to “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin.

Here, Robert Plant sings about wasting his time away with a woman who was no good for him, and would simply just smoke all of his weed and drink his wine. He finally got the courage to leave her, and he set out for California to make a new start.

One of the main reasons he decided on California was because he is heartbroken, and he heard that there is a lovely woman out there with flowers in her hair and plenty of love to give. Being young and naive, he was on a journey to meet this woman.

Took my chances on a big jet-plane
Never let ’em tell ya that they’re aw-ooh-all the same
Oh, the sea was red and the sky was grey
I wonder how tomorrow could ever follow today
Mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake
The children of the sun begin to awake (watch out)

Second verse to “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin.

So, he hops on a plane with a hopeful spirit and thinks he’s really winning at life. He dismisses the notion that girls are the same no matter where you are, and lives what he thinks is a wonderful day, on his way towards a blissful existence in California.

Meanwhile, beneath the singer’s awareness there is trouble brewing. Plant depicts this with images of red seas and grey skies, indication a storm forming at sea. The mountains tremble, and the ground shakes, but our protagonist does not notice.

When Plant sings of the “children of the sun”, he is referring to the youth of the 1960s countercultural movement, who all had this same hopeful spirit when they made for California at the time, with hopes of changing the world and finding true love.

The third verse shows that this young man was in for a rude awakening upon arrival:

It seems that the wrath of the gods got a punch on the nose
And it’s startin’ to flow, I think I might be sinking
Throw me a line, if I reach it in time
Meet you up there where the path runs straight and high

Third verse to “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin.

It hits him like a punch on the nose, and the blood starts flowing, and he feels a sinking feeling. He cries out for help, and hopes that the help comes soon enough so that he can escape. This represents the crushed feeling, when your dreams turn out to be fantasies and you are forced to face reality.

Led Zeppelin perform acoustic in May of 1973. Photo by Terry O’Neill

The fourth and final verse shows the singer reaching this painful milestone:

To find a queen without a king
They say she plays guitar and cries and sings, la-la-la-la
Ride a white mare in the footsteps of dawn
Tryin’ to find a woman who’s never, never, never been born
Standing on a hill in the mountain of dreams
Telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems

Fourth verse to “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin.

In the first part of this verse, Plant again presents the fantasy that enamored our young protagonist, of a woman fit to be a queen, single and waiting for him, playing music and singing along in the meantime. He sets off on a white horse on a fruitless quest, as he comes to realize that this woman — this ideal partner — does not exist.

The closing lines depict the singer standing at the top of a hill, surrounded by mountains of dreams. This means that after all this searching and climbing, his dreams are still mountains when compared to the tiny hill of his achievement.

Still, he tries to maintain some semblance of his former hopeful spirit, and leaves us on a somewhat positive note: “it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.”

Listen to “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin below.