Blast from the Past: Led Zeppelin IV // Led Zeppelin

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Is Led Zeppelin IV, aka Four Symbols, the most written about record in the history of rock? Certainly seems like it, and with the 50th anniversary of its November 1971 release, the tsunami of words written about it shows no sign of slowing any time soon. Whilst debate still rages about the album’s octet of classic songs by Led Zeppelin, the perceived anonymity and mystery surrounding its packaging have proved equally noteworthy.  

Predictably, my conscious introduction to the work of Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham came with this album’s centrepiece ‘Stairway to Heaven’. As a kid blown away by the racket generated by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early 1980s, for me, every weekend started with BBC Radio 1 DJ Tommy Vance and his Friday Rock Show. The seminal Zeppelin track became the show’s perennial chart-topper of the annual listeners top ten poll, although to get your ‘Stairway’ fix, you normally had to sit through the 22-minute Genesis epic ‘Supper’s Ready’ beforehand, more often than not occupying the number two slot.

On first hearing Led Zeppelin’s signature epic, I did wonder what all the fuss was about, given the fragility of the song’s opening, very humble indeed. What was it with the eggshell delicacy of Plant’s voice, flanked by Page’s almost staccato acoustic that pulled you in? Then there’s Jonesy playing recorder of all instruments, at a stroke proving its versatility beyond a million schoolkids’ hamfisted renditions of  ‘London’s Burning’.

However, it was still a million miles away from what I was expecting, practically inaudible even with the volume turned up to eleven. Yet as Stairway slowly but surely found its feet, it felt like each of the quartet was joining Percy (Plant’s nickname) like guests arriving at a party. Jimmy’s 12 string guitar breezed in like the Pacific wind caressing Andy Dufresne’s convertible, shortly followed by the underfloor warmth of Jonesy’s electric piano. Bonzo’s predictably grandiose appearance, simultaneously tight yet loose, made it a full house, his effortless groove thanks to cutting his chops playing R&B before audiences who demanded songs that made them want to dance.

Only now did the four horsemen finally let rip their apocalypse, practically howling into the face of God before just as quickly falling on their swords. One can imagine the song’s climactic finale being shortly followed by the sound of a million cigarettes being lit as the turntable arm lifted and returned to its starting position. Predictably, the number became a bit of a millstone, particularly for Plant who famously said at the end of its 2007 performance at London’s O2, “Hey Ahmet, we did it”. 

Having purchased the cassette (remember them?) over time the rest of Led Zeppelin IV began to compete for Stairway’s supremacy. Hearing Lovemongers memorable cover of ‘The Battle of Evermore’ whilst watching the Cameron Crowe grunge-era romcom Singles had me stampeding back to the otherworldly original. The only Zeppelin track ever to feature a female vocal, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny was enlisted to expertly complement Plant’s dulcet Black Country tones. Unsurprisingly, Led Zep were ardent Fairport fans, both groups playing the Bath Festival of Blues & Progressive Music the previous summer. 

Opener ‘Black Dog’ was the statement of intent to end all statements of intent, and hilariously parodied in 90’s cult spoof TV quiz show Shooting Stars every time George Dawes [Matt Lucas] appeared at the start of each show. Named after the pet labrador belonging to the owners of Headley Grange, the Hampshire pile where the album’s songs were created, it reminds you of the voice/guitar exchange in Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well Part 1’. Bittersweet and introspective ‘Going to California’ proved another long-lasting favourite. Containing the line “Took my chances on a big jet plane” Plant’s ode to Zeppelin’s relentless American touring schedule became particularly resonant after experiencing my own bout of in-flight transatlantic turbulence. 

On the other hand, both ‘Rock and Roll’ and ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ demonstrated when you stripped everything away, Zeppelin were just a rock and roll band at heart. Oh and the album’s only cover, ‘When the Levee Breaks’ knocks ‘Kashmir’ into a cocked hat.  

Thanks for 50 years of listening pleasure.

Words by Michael Price

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