By: Scout Walker
How does one begin writing a reflection of a band as monumental as Led Zeppelin? It becomes especially difficult when this reflection concerns their fourth studio effort – the untitled album often referred to simply as Led Zeppelin IV, an album that has had an unprecedented impact on the music industry as a whole, and one that defined an era of classic rock.
Commonly regarded as one of the greatest musical acts to have existed, Led Zeppelin began after guitarist Jimmy Page exited British rock band The Yardbirds. Seeking to create a band of his own, Page recruited vocalist Robert Plant, who in turn suggested his friend and drummer John Bonham. After bassist John Paul Jones was on board, the band was formed, and they entered the music world with their self-titled debut album on January 12th, 1969. They saw massive commercial success and quickly became the biggest band in the world, taking audiences by storm with their wild live acts and esteemed albums, including Led Zeppelin II, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti. However, amongst their impressive discography stands Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s commercial and critical masterpiece. Released on November 8th, 1971, IV was Zeppelin’s answer to relentless critics who continued to dog them. Jimmy Page made the decision to leave the album entirely untitled, leaving the cover blank of text to highlight the iconic photo of a man carrying wood. Also, Page’s decision was the icons each band member constructed for the sleeve of the album, with his own design featuring symbols similar to the word Zoso that would become a legend within the world of classic rock. This eight-track titan of a musical compilation would go on to be heralded as one of the greatest musical recordings of all time, selling millions of copies and inspiring a new generation of musicians to follow in their gargantuan footsteps. This year, Led Zeppelin IV turns 50 years old, and we’ll be taking a look back on this album, critically analyzing each track and how they each come together to determine if it stands the test of time.
Led Zeppelin IV – Tracklist
1. Black Dog
2. Rock and Roll
3. The Battle of Evermore
4. Stairway to Heaven
5. Misty Mountain Hop
6. Four Sticks
7. Going to California
8. When the Levee Breaks
To start this record, Zeppelin threw “Black Dog” at the world like a quarterback shooting for a cross-field touchdown. A titanic opening track, and my personal favorite Led Zeppelin song, nothing could quite come close to the declaration of intent that “Black Dog” is. It wastes absolutely no time, jumping straight into Robert Plant’s wailing screams followed by one of music’s most groovy guitar riffs ever written. It demonstrates just how far ahead of their time Zeppelin truly was, encompassing hard rock with their special, swinging touch that makes this opening track a true force to be reckoned with.
Immediately following the stunning opener is a nod to the classic age of rock and roll, literally titled “Rock and Roll” as such. This track pays homage to the legends that formed rock by combining different elements of blues and swing, with a 1950’s-style guitar riff that leads John Bonham’s hammering drum track, all pieced together by a guest contribution by Rolling Stone’s pianist, Ian Stewart. Though nothing particularly memorable, Robert Plant’s lyrics tell the tale of a man reliving the glory of that golden age of rock n’ roll, singing about having a good time and getting lost in the music.
The momentum of IV’s first two vivacious, fierce tracks trips heavily with “The Battle of Evermore”. Although Plant provides beautiful vocals of a Lord of The Rings-esque tale, Page’s acoustic guitar playing simply does not provide enough for this track to stand out. The formula of Led Zeppelin had always been the combination of the talents of each of the four members, but “The Battle of Evermore” suffers from the absence of this four-way dynamic. On its own, nobody can deny that this track is a beautiful composition, but without a doubt feels like a black sheep amongst the other songs on IV. “The Battle of Evermore” would have felt more appropriate on the acoustic-driven Led Zeppelin III.
I cannot continue with the next track without first properly addressing it. The next track on Led Zeppelin IV is “Stairway to Heaven”, the most played song of all time on the radio, and a song that is regarded by most who hear it as one of the greatest songs ever made, if not the absolute number one. This song contains some of the most thought-provoking lyrics ever penned, brandishing meanings so deep that the writer himself, Robert Plant, isn’t entirely sure what exactly the song is about. The track opens with an ominous duo of acoustic guitar by Jimmy Page and recorder courtesy of Robert Plant. In the following eight minutes, the song slowly builds upon itself, slowly adding more instruments and layering more depth until it reaches a breaking point, roughly six minutes in, when Jimmy Page rips into one of the best guitar solos of all time. The band ferociously bangs away during the climax of the song, with Page declaring that “if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last”. “Stairway to Heaven” very well may be the masterpiece of the musical genius of Led Zeppelin, standing as the truest showcase of each of the four member’s talents and abilities.
“Misty Mountain Hop” is a fun, groovy track that is carried by the wacky melody of Plant’s singing, as well as a solid-enough riff from Page and Jones. Plant wails about a trippy experience with drugs in the park, noting that he “didn’t notice but it had got very dark and I was really, really out of my mind.” What this track lacks however is longevity, for although it brandishes a catchy composition, it isn’t quite strong enough to keep listeners’ attention for the entire runtime. For most, “Misty Mountain Hop” is likely a song they’ll dig for the first few minutes, but ultimately end up changing the channel before it’s over.
Admittedly, Led Zeppelin IV’s biggest stumble is the next track, “Four Sticks”. After frustratingly not satisfied with rehearsals for this song, drummer John Bonham grabbed four drum sticks (two in each hand) and eventually the band found the sound they wanted. Simply put, this riff is just nowhere near strong when compared to the other tracks on the album. Bonham does his best with his drum track, but “Four Sticks” fails to do anything innovative, or anything interesting. Page sings lyrics that feel first-draft and boring, and sadly his performance, although great, does not provide anything strong enough to carry the rest of the band. “Four Sticks” is really the only track on IV that struggles harshly in all categories, and falls quickly to the bottom.
“Going to California” could be called one of Led Zeppelin’s most beautiful songs, with Bonham and Jones notably absent from any drum or bass contribution. This track is a duo of Plant’s ability to craft heartfelt lyrics and Page’s gentle, yet powerful acoustic strumming. The shortest track on the album, it is a lovely contribution, short and sweet. It’s a joy to listen to, even if it doesn’t necessarily knock anything out of the ballpark. “Going to California” is top-tier for Zeppelin’s acoustic efforts, but lacks much rock and roll spirit that makes it fall flat when compared to their other hits.
The final track on the album is another legendary Zeppelin classic, “When the Levee Breaks”, highly regarded as one of their best. John Bonham’s thunderous drum track is often called the greatest drum loop of all time, with many crediting Bonham as the best rock and roll drummer to ever live. It encompasses the feeling of desert travel, with guitar playing that audibly personifies the scorching sun. Plant tells the tale of a man who travels, a man who finds solace in the titular levee. An excellent closing track, “When the Levee Breaks” certified Led Zeppelin IV’s status as a legendary album, and gave fans a fitting end to a collection of formidable Zeppelin work.
In closure, does Led Zeppelin IV stand the test of time, as we set out to determine? Absolutely. This album certified Led Zeppelin’s status as a legendary rock band, and one of the greatest musical acts of all time. Though not every track can be as absolute as “Stairway to Heaven” or “Black Dog”, what mattered more to Zeppelin besides the music was the message to critics, the message of their persistence. Personally, I prefer the much more hard rock-oriented Led Zeppelin II, although I cannot deny the status and legacy of IV. Truthfully, nobody can.