Monday, November 7, 2011

All That Glitters Is Gold: Led Zeppelin's Led Zeppelin IV is 40

 Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin IV
Rating: **** 1/2

1971 would turn out to be a big year for Led Zeppelin. The English hard rockers had been recording their next studio album that year. That album was released on November 8, 1971. The album’s title: it didn’t have one. There was no title anywhere on the front, spine, or back. The cover was of a grey background with a picture of an old man carrying sticks. The band members were also credited by four different symbols, one for each band member. One symbol read ZOSO. Therefore, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is sometimes called ZOSO or the more popular Led Zeppelin IV (other titles: Four Symbols, The Runes, Untitled, The Hermit). Whatever the case may be, Led Zeppelin IV has become the band’s most successful album ever. It’s also one of the best selling albums in the world, selling over 37 million copies. There is no doubt that Led Zeppelin IV is one of the greatest albums ever made, but at the same time it can also be one of the most overrated albums of all time. How did four guys from England create a best seller? The best way to go into this album is to do the song-by-song review.
            Led Zeppelin formed in 1968. The band consisted of singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. The band released their thundering debut album towards the beginning of 1969. The album did okay in the charts but many critics, including Rolling Stone, negatively reacted to the album (although years later, they absolutely love it). Months later, the band released Led Zeppelin II. The album did even better than the debut and critics were much nicer this time around. The band even gained a hit single out of “Whole Lotta Love”, which reached #4 in the Billboard Hot 100 (although Led Zeppelin were a band who didn’t like releasing singles). The band started playing in bigger venues and gained more fans from all around. Led Zeppelin, at that time, were one of the heaviest bands in the world. So it came as a surprise when the band released Led Zeppelin III the following year in 1970. Unlike the first two albums, III was much more folk rock than it was hard rock. Both critics and fans were left scratching their heads as to why the band chose to make an album like this. Zeppelin kept this in mind for the fourth album: no one would be disappointed. Led Zeppelin started recording their fourth album over at the new Basing Street Studio owned by Island Studios. At that time, Jethro Tull were recording their next album Aqualung. Both bands were promised the latest in recording technology but both bands had a hard time recording there. Members of Fleetwood Mac suggested the band record elsewhere. So Zeppelin decided to record the album over in Headley Grange, a Victorian house. Using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, the band was able to make it there. Mixing took place in various locations. The album was recorded from December 1970 till March 1971.

Song by song review

1.      “Black Dog”- The album starts off with one of Led Zeppelin’s best known songs. The song is memorable for its main riff, which John Paul Jones takes credits for. Jones was looking for a sound that people couldn’t dance to but that was catchy and he was able to do just that. Originally, the band were going to play to Plant’s singing. Instead, Plant sings a cappella in the verses before the band kicks in. If one listens carefully, they may hear John Bonham tapping his drum sticks for timing. In live performance, the timing was changed to give Plant room to sing his bit. The song was supposedly named “Black Dog” after a black Labrador retriever that walked by Headley Grange often. The song’s lyrics have nothing to do about the dog (the band didn’t know his/her name!). According to Plant in an interview in 1975, the lyrics are very blatant and what he described as “lets-do-it-in-the-bath type things”. Plant’s vocals only took two takes, which is pretty impressive if you think of it. “Black Dog” is one of the best songs from the album easily. If there had to be a list of the greatest classic rock song, “Black Dog” would be on there easily.

2.      “Rock and Roll”- Just like “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll” is one of the band’s best known songs. It’s a simple twelve-bar blues track with the band just rocking out. Jimmy Page’s guitar playing is great and Plant’s vocals soar over everything. Listen to Bonham’s impressive drum solo at the end of the track. Overall, a standard rock track.

3.      “The Battle of Evermore”- Things slow down for the next song on the album with this very folk rock or celtic rock track. Page is playing mandolin and Jones is playing acoustic guitar. For the first and only time, a guest vocalist is on this song. Singing with Plant is Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention. The lyrics for this song are based on Scottish folklore that Plant had been reading about and there are references to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The band had referenced Tolkien before on “Ramble On” from Led Zeppelin II. Adding Denny to the song was a wise thing to do: it gives the song a more celtic folk/rock kind of sound. Of the eight songs on the album, “The Battle of Evermore” is one of the more underrated of them. A unique song from the band’s catalogue.

4.      “Stairway to Heaven”- Over the years, “Stairway to Heaven” has been called many things. Some love the song and some just can’t listen to it anymore. It’s easily one of the band’s best songs and probably their most popular. The song also holds the record as the most requested song to be played on the radio and it’s also one of the first songs that a beginning guitar player will learn. There are some things that bother me about this song. While I think it’s my favorite from the album, it’s very overrated. Also, some people believe the iconic opening guitar riff was plagiarized. Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarism many times. In a rare situation, Zeppelin might’ve stolen something from their peers: a band called Spirit. In 1968 on Spirit’s debut album, there was an instrumental piece called “Taurus”. The piece was written and performed by guitarist Randy California. The guitar piece has an ascending guitar sound, very similar to “Stairway to Heaven”. In 1969, Zeppelin and Spirit went on tour together. It’s known that Zeppelin loved Spirit so much that they would perform “Fresh Garbage” during sound checks. Some believe that Jimmy Page robbed Randy California of credit. Page has denied copying California but many don’t buy it.  With all of this aside, “Stairway to Heaven” is a masterpiece. The song started life as a guitar piece that Page had. While he played it for the band by a fire side, Plant sat there writing the lyrics. According to Plant in an interview, the lyrics just came to him suddenly. He remembers writing on the piece of paper so fast that he almost fell out of his seat. The lyrics seem to be about a lady who keeps getting great things without asking for them or doing anything to get them. The song transitions into a more up tempo sound four minutes in. By the time Page plays his solo, “Stairway to Heaven” is a full blown hard rock masterpiece. Over the years, the song has built a legacy of its own and even gets referenced in movies (remember Wayne’s World?). “Stairway to Heaven” is indeed timeless.

5.      “Misty Mountain Hop”- This snazzy sounding track starts off the second side of the album. Jones is playing the electric piano in the beginning, which grabs up right there. The song seems to be about smoking marijuana. It talks about a walk in the park and stopping by hippies who ask “Hey boy, do you wanna score?” It seems that the people in song get busted by the police but are destined to pack their bags for Misty Mountain, “where the spirits fly”. Like “Ramble On” and a few others before, the song also references to Lord of the Rings. In some ways, “Misty Mountain Hop” could be thought of as a deep track and it’s a very good one.

6.      “Four Sticks”- Of all the songs on this album, “Four Sticks” is probably the most underrated of them. The song is known to have only been played once live by the band. The song’s title came from the fact that Bonham was playing with two sets of drumsticks. The lyrics, much like “Black Dog”, seem to be generic and very simple. Personally, it’s my least favorite from Led Zeppelin IV but there are some good parts in this song.

7.      “Going to California”- This wistful folk song is one of Led Zeppelin’s best love songs. The lyrics seem to be of remorse and regrets. Plant sings of visiting California and being told “there’s a girl out there/with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair”. Plant seems to question if he can put up with the craziness of groupies. Plant was married when Led Zeppelin was formed and was just 20 years old. Some believe the song is about singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell because of this lyric: “To find a queen without a king/They say she plays guitar and cries and sings”. That supposedly is referencing to Mitchell’s song “I Had a King”. Plant was later quoted to saying that the song might be embarrassing today but it was his life then. I think I saw something on VH1 Classic in the documentary Let’s Spend the Night Together, which has famed groupie Pamela Des Barnes going to interview former groupies. I remember there being one woman who said she was with Plant for a while and remembered being touched by this song. Obviously, Plant may’ve written the song about the groupies he had fallen for (and no mud sharks were involved in this, thank goodness. Don’t get it? Look it up). Page is on acoustic guitar and Jones is on mandolin. This is just a beautiful song.

8.      “When the Levee Breaks”- Led Zeppelin IV finishes off with this down-right bluesy tune. Compared to the other songs, “When the Levee Breaks” is the only cover tune on the album. The song was originally written and recorded by husband and wife Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929. The song was written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The original recording is a basic, fast-paced three minute blues tune. Years after its recording, Zeppelin decided to rework the song into a slow but heavy blues tune.  Comparing the two side by side, they don’t use the same exact lyrics but Zeppelin make “When the Levee Breaks” their own. The playing on here alone is amazing. Page, Jones, and Bonham are just brilliant...and Plant comes in wailing. It’s a fantastic way to end the album.

When Led Zeppelin released their fourth album in 1971, it was Page’s idea for the album to remain untitled. This was in response to the negative review of Led Zeppelin III. All that could be seen was a picture of a hermit with a walking stick. The band were all credited as four different symbols: one read ZOSO (Page), a triquetra with a circle (Jones), three interlocking circles (Bonham), and a feather in a circle (Plant). The album received very positive reviews from almost every major rock critics. It also sold millions of copies worldwide and peaked at #1 in UK and Canada. Strangely enough, the album only peaked at #2 in the US but has managed to become the third best selling album in the country.
I myself like Led Zeppelin IV very much. I have it charted at #22 in my list of favorite albums. It’s a great album and is easily one of the greatest hard rock albums ever made. Still, it’s massively overrated. For me, my favorite Led Zeppelin album will always be the debut (which I have at #6). Still, there’s no denying that Led Zeppelin IV is indeed a great album.

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