There are very few rock albums more celebrated than Led Zeppelin IV, and with good reason: It’s Led Zeppelin at their most ambitious, testing the limits of their baroque sound and layering the perimeter with intricate details while refusing to revisit and walk over the same ground twice. The songs are as much a byproduct of their free time at Headley Grange as they were of their mobile sessions in East Hampshire.
With Led Zeppelin, there was no soul-searching, no indecisive phase while they figured out what kind of band they wanted to be and what sounds they wanted to produce. They were fully formed and ready from the first riff “Good Times Bad Times”. They powered along through half-dozen records destroying anything in their path on their road to legendary status. This was a band that knew exactly what they wanted to be and executed it with merciless precision.
If you grew up listening to classic rock radio, many will tell you it felt that Zeppelin’s fourth album on shuffle. It has eight monstrous songs, all of them are emphatic, and the infamous “Stairway to Heaven” is frequently included on the lists of the ‘greatest rock songs of all time’, ‘Most recognisable guitar riffs’ etc… Given its place in rock n’ roll culture, IV can seem like a record of collective moments rather than 8 tracks. Individual parts have been selected, copied, amplified, stripped back by a multitude of artists. Every song has two or three sections that are instantly identifiable and always seem to be playing somewhere nearby. It’s hard to hear “When the Levee Breaks” and not think of the opening drum of Mac Demarco’s “Chamber of Reflection”.
“Black Dog” is the ultimate riff, a driving, a sexual impulse of blues rock stripped back to its essence. A crowd taunting call and response between Plant and serpentine guitar-slinger Jimmy Page. The lock tight rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham allow the track to be pushed to its very limit. Has there ever been a greater opening phrase in a rock history than Robert Plant’s seductive wail over “Black Dog”? “Hey, hey mama, said the way you move / Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.” It’s no idle threat and a promise that is kept until the last note of “When the Levee Breaks”.
The album is daring and curious in its ambition to explore folk dreamscapes in “The Battle of Evermore” and still wade through the murky bayou blues of “When the Levee Breaks”. The two songs are so remarkably different in tone, texture, and feeling, that really, they aren’t even in the same category anymore. The importance these 2 tracks have to IV as a whole cannot be underestimated. “The Battle of Evermore” segues into a rock epic, and “When the Levee Breaks” fortifies the album in dense southern blues and a heavy message delivered with great conviction from one of the most distinguished voices in rock history.
Put together from a couple of instrumental pieces, written on several 6 and jangly 12 string guitars, the song “Stairway to Heaven” would go on to be the band’s most famous song. The song draws lyrical comparisons from Welsh folklore and musical influence from a variety of areas. Depending on the part of the song there are three distinct sections that effortlessly wander into each other. Page’s finger-picked, folk acoustic is accompanied by recorders played by bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones. After a few poetic verses, the song seeps into the second part, a madrigal played on an electric 12-string. John Bonham makes his entrance, adding the rhythmic element that finally breaks the tension and drama. The finale is a heavy, electric crescendo with overdubbed guitars and high-majestic vocals, bringing the song to the heights before laying the track to rest until next time.
The magic is in the symbiosis between Page and Plant. The balance it produced allowed Led Zeppelin IV to do something weird if it means doing something interesting and intriguing. “Four Sticks” rumbles through its progressions with a slapping rhythm while the guitar rumbles on the off beat. That’s particularly poignant considering Robert Plant opens the song in a trembling howl: “Oh, baby … it’s cryin’ time.” Immediately after, he screeches out, “Got to try to find a way/ Got to try to get away.” His lyrics are escapist; he chases freedom, a new frontier. The song that follows is “Going to California”, and what a fitting transition. Everything clicks at the same frequency; everything works perfectly.
Released: November 1971
Produced by: Jimmy Page
- Black Dog
- Rock and Roll
- The Battle of Evermore
- Stairway to Heaven
- Misty Mountain Hop
- Four Sticks
- Going to California
- When the Levee Breaks
Words: Matthew Thomas