Led Zeppelin's masterpiece, song by song
By Sergio Ariza
The blessed music critics inability to value Led Zeppelin led Jimmy Page decide to make the "best fucking rock record ever made.” He was sick of being the band being denigrated by people saying that they were monolithic, on their first two albums, and then criticizing the third, more acoustic record, because it was supposedly the new fashion imposed by bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash. So, fed up with all this nonsense, Page decided to release an album so big that not even Lester Bangs, up to his eyebrows in heroin, would be able to reject it. So he gathered together his three band mates, took them off tour, and encouraged them to start working on ‘the final rock album’. Spoiler alert: THEY DID IT.
In 1971 Led Zeppelin was the biggest rock band in the world as the Beatles had split, and only the Rolling Stones could be compared in terms of popularity. Their first three albums had been number one on both sides of the Atlantic, their concerts were the most packed and readers of the New Musical Express had just named them the best group on the planet, after eight years of uninterrupted domination by the Beatles. They were at the absolute top, but Jimmy Page felt slighted by the rock critics and wanted to put an end to that.
After releasing their third album in a year and a half, the band retired from the stage and started to concentrate on studio work. In December 1970 they started recording the album in which they would manage to fuse the best of the first three albums, the reinterpretation of Blues Rock from their debut, the Hard Rock and the mythical riffs from the second, and the Folk exploration of the third; in this way mixing influences from the emerging British scene and from the echoes of Laurel Canyon in California.
The guitarist produced the album and decided that the name of the band would not appear anywhere, nor any extra information, just a nameless cover with a picture of an old man with his back bent by wood, hanging from a collapsed wall and surrounded by modern-day buildings. Inside was the lyrics of Stairway to Heaven in a strange typeface and four symbols for each of the fourth album’s band members (plus another symbol for their guest Sandy Denny). Led Zeppelin was going to show critics that their music spoke for itself and had nothing to do with the 'hype' that had surrounded them since their inception.
The sessions resulted in 11 songs but Page chose the best eight to model a perfect masterpiece. Below is a song-by-song breakdown of the album:
After the brief appearance of a guitar, Robert Plant gave everything from his privileged lungs to make it clear, from the beginning, that this was no joke, and then the whole band answered him, with one of the most brutal riffs from the Zeppelian canon, with Page’s Les Paul turned up to 11 and an unstoppable rhythm section. The guitarist never hid his enormous admiration for Peter Green and his Fleetwood Mac (a band that was recommended them the Victorian mansion of Headley Grange where they recorded the album); so it's understandable that this song is inspired by the first part of their Oh Well… although taking it to a much higher rhythm.
Rock And Roll
With no time to catch breath, one of the most mythical drumming intros in history began; one of the biggest adrenaline rushes in the history of rock and roll (sorry for stating the obvious). The band was trying to finish Four Sticks when Bonham started playing the beginning of Little Richard's Keep A Knockin', Page didn't hesitate and pulled out a Chuck Berry riff of his own. 15 minutes later they had almost finished one of their most direct and fun songs, proving once again that simplicity is the key to rock & roll. Since they layed down this track, the song was perfect for opening their concerts in style.
The Battle Of Evermore
Led Zeppelin III took many people by surprise with the band’s turn to a more acoustic sound, showing that they were a much more versatile group than people thought. Both Page and Plant were avid fans of British folk rock bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle and The Incredible String Band, and this was noticeable, and very much so, on their third album. But on Led Zeppelin IV there would also be space for folk melodies and lyrics inspired by Tolkien. Page composed this song when he first played John Paul Jones' mandolin. Plant wrote the lyrics and decided to call on Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny herself to sing a duet. The result was so satisfying that Denny earned her own symbol on the record and became the only singer to collaborate on a Zeppelin album. The union of her voice with Plant's is wonderful, as if Galadriel and Aragorn sang parts of The Lord of the Rings as a duo.
Stairway To Heaven
A song that summarizes in eight perfect minutes the best of the band, with Folk and Hard Rock holding hands like never before or since. A song that literally goes up to the sky and that is good enough to be listened to until satiety and the Wayne's World type memes, in which it is forbidden to play it in a guitar shop. The guitar in this song is not the Les Paul with which Jimmy Page is usually identified, but his mythical 59 Fender Telecaster that was given to him by his partner in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck. The fact is that in the work summit of his career, the God of the Les Paul plays a Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic, a Fender Electric XII of 12 strings and the aforementioned Telecaster. However, when he played live, Page used another of his most remembered guitars, the Heritage Cherry Gibson EDS-1275 6/12 double neck.
Misty Mountain Hop
Another song with a title taken from Tolkien's work, in this case from The Hobbit, opened the B side of the album, which emerged after John Paul Jones started played some chords on the piano and Page decided to add the distinctive guitar riff. While in the lyrics Plant again demonstrates his hippy sympathies in one of the most pop and direct songs in the history of the band, with a great solo by Page. Its accessibility led it to be chosen as the B side of Black Dog when it was released as a single in the USA, at the end of 1971.
One of the most difficult songs to play in the band’s history, its title came about because Bonham played with four sticks, instead of the usual two, and he also had a rather strange tempo, combining structures in 5 / 8 and 6 / 8; and John Paul Jones played a VCS3 synthesizer. All this made it one of the songs of the album that was least played iive (only one recording in Copenhagen in 1971 has been identified) but Plant and Page recovered it when they returned to play together in the 90. It may be the least good song on the album - but that says everything about the enormity of the album we are talking about.
Going To California
When the critics spoke about the influence of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young they were wrong, although Page and Plant did share something with the Americans, an enormous admiration for Joni Mitchell. So much so that, in 1975, the guitarist would declare, "That's the music I put on at home all the time, Joni Mitchell (...) It brings tears to my eyes, what more can I say?” For his part, Plant decides to also pay tribute to her in the lyrics by talking about “A queen without a king. She plays the guitar and cries and sings", referring to one of Mitchell's first songs, I Had A King. A true delight that was rarely left out of the acoustic parts of their concerts.
When The Levee Breaks
This song was the culmination of Zeppelin’s appropriation of existing blues, and turned the band’s sound into something unique, in addition to confirming John Bonham as the most incredible drummer in the world and Page as a supreme producer. Based on an old blues number originally recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929, Led Zeppelin made it their own with a surround sound, almost symphonic, that took the genre to another sphere. Sharp and threatening, the atmosphere they create with the song that closed Led Zeppelin IV is amazing. The powerful start of Bonham's drums, captured in a majestic way by Page, would become one of the most used 'samples' in hip hop. Despite being one of their great songs, recreating its complex sound live was quite difficult and so it was only interpreted on a few occasions, as on their 1975 tour, with Page using his Danelectro 3021 from his time in the Yardbirds. A masterful closing for Led Zeppelin's masterpiece.