Regarded by many as their definitive masterpiece, the fourth Led Zeppelin album remains their biggest seller on the strength of “Stairway To Heaven” alone.
After being hounded by the British music press as a load of hype, the band decided to release an album without its name anywhere on the cover, which was intended to sell the music on its own merit. Apoplectic record label officials warned of ‘commercial suicide’ (the band are represented on the album by four symbols, one for each member. The combined symbols are the real name of the album!).
The gamble paid off; Zep became the world’s biggest rock band.
In an attempt to break away from the normal studio environment, Jimmy Page took the band out to record at Headley Grange, an old manor house in the English countryside, with the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck used as a control room. Further overdubs and mix-downs were done at Island Studios in London.
Andy Johns, the engineer, was instrumental in the creation of this landmark album, with all the subtleties, explosive energy, intricate interplay and sonic other-worldliness that a Zep album should contain.
The main ingredient on this album is composition, and the band had been together long enough at this point (mid-1971) to trust each other’s instincts, allowing any sketch or idea to be adopted by the band as a whole and developed to full fruition, all the way from a couple of chords on guitar to the final mix.
Deservedly serving as the yardstick by which not only classic rock but rock in general should be measured, this album is a must-have testimonial of the freedom and creativity that rock musicians enjoyed in the first half of the 1970’s, and should be cherished by fans and non-fans alike.
Led Zeppelin — Led Zeppelin IV: Track-by-track review
1. “Black Dog”
The track opens with a few tentative strums on electric guitar. Robert Plant screams out one of the best-known opening verses in rock history, and the band answer in a riff of awesome rhythmic complexity: guitar and bass snake around and over and under the beat in unison (the concept being credited to John Paul Jones) while John Bonham pounds out the basic 4/4 beat on the drums, joining the bass and guitar on the syncopated off-beats.
The start-stop, call-and—response interaction between the vocals and rhythm section is a direct quote from early 20th century blues, taken here to its most skull-crunching conclusion. The guitar sound is in a league of its own, being triple-tracked from different microphone positions and panned out across the stereo, and the sustained notes link one band segment to the next as a backdrop for the a-cappella vocals.
After three verses the band extend the riff into one of the finest examples of polyrhythmic hard rock in music history, setting the stage for countless clone-bands. Bonham’s cross-syncopation in the latter half of this section is a drummer’s bible.
Another two verses lead into the ‘ah ah’ vocals (always a crowd favorite at shows), which lead into the mid section: a powerful blues riff played in unison, balancing out the complex polyrhythm of the other segments. The whole structure is repeated again, with more overdubbed guitars sneaking in on the last two verses.
Again, an ‘ah ah’ break leads to the outro, which is the riff from the mid-section played ad infinitum in a fade out that accompanies an angular guitar solo. “Black Dog” is breathtaking opener which sets the standards as high as possible for the following tracks.
2. “Rock And Roll”
Originally an impromptu jam, the track opens with Bonham hammering out the intro to Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The rest joined in instinctively and the song was created out of thin air.
A true homage to its title, “Rock And Roll” includes all the trademarks of 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll, with Jimmy Page firing up a Scotty Moore-styled solo, Robert Plant crooning out the ‘lonely lonely’ lyrics Elvis Presley-style (especially on subsequent live versions), and John Paul Jones adding a touch of Jerry Lee Lewis piano bashing on the last verse.
Bonham holds the whole thing together with a big, open hi-hat that washes the mix delightfully. His mini-solo at the end of this track is another testament to his technique, finesse and creativity, borrowing classic chops from rock ‘n’ roll while incorporating his own, bridging the fifteen year gap between Zeppelin and their roots with deceptive ease.
3. “The Battle Of Evermore”
Another track that was created spontaneously by the group, this beautiful song appeared when Jimmy Page picked up John Paul Jones’ mandolin and started strumming out the now famous introductory chords. Jones joined in with acoustic guitar, and Plant started singing almost immediately, making up most of the lyrics on the spot.
Later perfected into a medieval tale of impending war, terrifying battle and weary victory, interlaced with the classic mythological metaphor of evening-night-dawn and abundant with borrowed references from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the lyrics are picturesque and create yet another Zeppelin blueprint for countless metal bands intent on wielding axes across the chasms of doom, etc.
John Paul Jones plays a dulcimer on this track, and to make things even folksier, Sandy Denny (formerly of The Strawbs and Fairport Convention) is featured as guest vocalist, singing responsive verses to Plant’s narrative, and the two join in harmony for the choruses (such as it is — they sing different lyrics).
The chord changes in the interlude before the coda are classic Page and Jones, and sound as intriguing and mysterious today as when the album was released. Plant’s vocal execution on this track is outstanding (as is Denny’s), and the entire song is a masterpiece of craftsmanship from start to finish.
4. “Stairway To Heaven”
The magnitude of this song undermines any attempt to review it. It has achieved immortal status and will remain a staple of late 20th Century Western culture for the rest of human history, whether you like it or not.
Considered to be the prototype power ballad, it starts off with acoustic guitar playing the beginner-guitarists textbook chord sequence. Jones adds double-tracked recorders to create a beautiful opening melody, quite unexpected from the world’s heaviest rock band.
Plant sings the opening line, an apt opener for a set of lyrics that balances mysticism, enlightenment and hippy mumbo-jumbo. The first two verses are sung with grace and delicate simplicity, before the guitar restates the opening as an arpeggio, thus concluding the first section.
A ringing chord on electric guitar introduces the next section; the acoustic is replaced with a twelve-string, an electric 6-string and an organ. Plant sings the immortal “it makes me wonder” line, and yet another electric guitar joins in to accompany the next two verses, each ending with another ‘makes me wonder’ interlude.
Drums and bass join in (along with yet another electric guitar overdub) and Plant changes the melody to accommodate a different meter for the vocals. The track speeds up a little (before the days of click tracks, it was possible for musicians to do this), and a general sense of excitement starts building up.
After two more verses the whole thing breaks down, and following a triumphant ringing fanfare — the twelve-string and four (!) electric guitars making up what Page called his ‘guitar army’ — the rock world’s most awe-inspiring solo is played on Page’s old Fender Telecaster, unused since the first album.
The acoustic elements are long gone by the end of the solo, Plant returning to scream out the final set of lyrics amidst an ever intensifying barrage of Led Zep rhythm section, and the song reaches the ultimate climax, breaking down to leave Plant to sing the last words unaccompanied.
Nothing more I can write will do this song justice, for better or worse.
5. “Misty Mountain Hop”
Jones’ organ opens this medium-tempo rocker, Robert Plant’s vocals double tracked in tight harmony (the lyrics tell of a silly encounter with hippies getting stoned in a park), a precursor to the style later developed by 1990’s rockers Alice In Chains.
The drums are very ambient, recorded with Bonham’s kit set up in the echoing hallway of Headley Grange. The guitar solo is double tracked to mirror the vocals, and serves as a possible influence on Irish rockers Thin Lizzy, and subsequently on Iron Maiden and Scorpions (although the dual lead guitar concept harkens back to the Yardbirds days when Page was playing live alongside Jeff Beck).
The outro fades out with Jones jazzing it up on the organ. A wonderful, playful track that shows Zeppelin in a slightly less serious mood (although still as professional as ever).
6. “Four Sticks”
Bonham literally plays with two sticks in each hand (hence the title) while Jones and Page nail down an atonal ostinato riff in 5/4, resolving occasionally to a pair of dramatic chords over 6/8.
Robert wails out an open letter of love gone wrong through paranoia, the lyrics as beautiful and disturbing as the backing track. A sort of major key chorus in 6/8 follows the first two verses, with jangling acoustic guitars and extra percussion entering the mix, reminiscent of “Ramble On” from Led Zeppelin II, although much more of a challenge to listen to.
Another verse is followed by another chorus, extended this time to include a mysterious theme underpinned by sustained direct-injection electric guitars that create a strange, other-worldly synthesizer-like drone. Another verse is extended into the fade-out, Plant wailing an ad-lib solo of spooky intensity.
This is experimental Zeppelin at its mysterious best, unsettling, beautifully crafted, and completely irresistible.
7. “Going To California”
A gentle acoustic piece, with Page playing guitar and Jones on mandolin. Heavily influenced by the American West-Coast folk-rock scene, this song owes as much to Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, and Nash as it does to traditional English and Celtic folk music.
The lyrics certainly speak of a man in search of a hippy version of the American dream, and Robert’s voice is beautifully multi-tracked on the coda. The song is a welcome breather after the intensity of “Four Sticks”, and before the onslaught of “When The Levee Breaks.”
8. “When The Levee Breaks”
Bonham’s drums set the stage once again. Beautifully recorded out in the hallway with just three microphones, the resulting percussion is so fantastically monumental, it has been sampled countless times since the mid 1980’s (starting with the Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin'”) and remains a testament to the man’s ability to tune his kit appropriately for the musical demands of a song.
Although the track is just an adaptation of a classic Memphis Minnie blues tune from way-back-when, it is positively radiant with invention in both the performance and the production. The basic track is drums, bass, organ and two electric guitars, all pounding out a relentless blues riff, occasionally resolving via a minor sixth chord change.
The song starts off with a harmonica solo from Plant, and the instrument returns to underline certain verses along the track. The chorus has an uplifting major-key feel (with an extra electric twelve-string guitar adding a ringing chorused effect while Page plays simple yet effective phrases on electric slide guitar), and segues smoothly into another harmonica solo, doubled-up using tape delay for extra ornamentation.
Another verse follows, another major-key chorus, and the main riff returns for the coda with Plant’s phased vocals anchoring the stereo image while everything else starts floating between the speakers, recreating the tumbling chaos of a swollen river’s waters crashing through the levee and sweeping up everything in their path.
The track halts, Page gives a screech of slide guitar, and Jones plays the ending fanfare alone on the organ. While this may sound like a mistake, the decision to leave it ‘as is’ is yet another testament to Page’s immaculate taste in production: the drama and suspense created leave you breathlessly wanting more. An awesome closing track to a truly astounding album.
Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin
“Rock And Roll”
“The Battle Of Evermore”
“Stairway To Heaven”
“Misty Mountain Hop”
“Going To California”
“When The Levee Breaks”