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Retro Rewind: Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin album cover

Led Zeppelin | Derek Velasquez | Flickr

The British rock band Led Zeppelin is one of the most influential rock acts to ever grace a stage, and much of their discography has become synonymous with the 1970s.

Rock radio stations and music stores worldwide have become havens for the band’s music, where noteworthy tunes such as “Kashmir,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “Stairway to Heaven” can often be heard.

This week’s article in the Retro Rewind series will be the final entry, and the album to be discussed contains some of the group’s most iconic hits.

That album was left untitled by its creators, though it is often known as “Led Zeppelin IV.” Released on Nov. 8, 1971, this record was supported by four singles: “Black Dog,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Rock and Roll,” and “Four Sticks.” It is Led Zeppelin’s top-selling album, with over 37 million copies sold globally.

The artist

Founded in London in 1968, the line-up of Led Zeppelin consisted of vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham.

The band was an act formed after the Yardbirds dissolved, with the name being chosen because Keith Moon and John Entwistle, members of the rock group The Who, suggested that the creation of a supergroup with Page and his Yardbirds bandmate Jeff Beck would end in disaster, falling like a “lead balloon.”

Eight studio albums were released between 1969 and 1979, each of them reaching the top spot of the U.K. charts. In addition to these, the band has released four live albums and nine compilations, the latest in 2012. Led Zeppelin disbanded in 1980 following the death of Bonham.

They are one of the most successful acts in music history, selling between 200 million and 300 million records in total. T

he group earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, and four of their recordings (two albums and two songs) received a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Led Zeppelin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

The tracklist

Side one of “Led Zeppelin IV” begins with “Black Dog,” which was named for a black Labrador Retriever that enjoyed lounging around the band’s studio during their recording sessions.

“Rock and Roll” was created with Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart and became a staple at Led Zeppelin shows. Rocking out to Little Richard’s “Keep A Knockin,” Bonham wrote this track’s intro.

The following tune, “The Battle of Evermore,” is a softer track written by Page, who used a borrowed mandolin, and features lyrics from Plant. It also includes vocals from former Fairpoint Convention member Sandy Denny, who is the only guest vocalist ever to appear on a Led Zeppelin song.

Next comes “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most iconic tracks in rock and roll history.

Its introduction features Jones on the recorder and Page on acoustic guitar, with Bonham’s drums entering halfway into the song. According to Plant, “Stairway to Heaven” is about a woman who “took everything without giving anything back.”

Side two of the record starts with “Misty Mountain Hop,” which received its title from the J.R.R. Tolkien novel “The Hobbit.” The song deals with conflict between hippies and police over the possession of drugs, and features Jones on electric piano.

“Four Sticks” earned its name from the number of drumsticks Bonham used when playing the song’s drum part and was only performed once live by the band. It was also hard to record for the album.

The acoustic track “Going to California” was influenced by the music of Joni Mitchell and talks about earthquakes in the state as well as the search for the ideal woman.

“Led Zeppelin IV” ends on an impressive finale with a cover of the 1929 blues song “When the Levee Breaks.” Bonham’s drum part is a notable aspect of the track, whose heavy drum intro has been sampled extensively in popular music by artists including Eminem, the Beastie Boys, Beyoncé, and Sophie B. Hawkins.

Blues musicians Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy originally performed “When the Levee Breaks,” and the tune’s lyrics were based around the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and its aftermath.

The production

After the release of “Led Zeppelin III,” the band shifted their focus to creating their fourth album and started writing new material at Bron-Yr-Aur, a country house in Wales.

Recording sessions for the album began at London’s Basing Street Studios (now known as SARM Studios) in December 1970, with the band switching to Headley Grange, a house in England, a month later.

They utilized the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio during the switch, and Andy Johns, fresh from engineering the Rolling Stones’ album “Sticky Fingers,” was enlisted to engineer “Led Zeppelin IV.”

“We needed the sort of facilities where we could have a cup of tea and wander around the garden and go in and do what we had to do,” Page mentioned regarding the change in studios.

The chord structure of “Stairway to Heaven” was mostly written before the band arrived at Basing Street, and Plant wrote a bulk of the song’s lyrics in a single day.

Page played three different versions of the track’s guitar solo during recording, picking the best one for the album. This solo was played using a Fender Telecaster that was a gift from Jeff Beck. Meanwhile, his solos for “Black Dog” were recorded without the use of an amplifier.

The drum introduction for “When the Levee Breaks” was created in the home’s lobby with a Binson Echorec delay unit and two Beyerdynamic M 160 microphones that were hung on the staircase.

Overdubs for the record were completed at Basing Street, and mixing was completed at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. However, the group was dissatisfied with the final mix, so Page reworked it in July 1971.

The guitarist refused to give the album a title after the mixed reception of “Led Zeppelin III,” and suggested that each member of the band have a symbol representing themselves appear on the inner sleeve and record label to mark the album. Atlantic Records was strongly opposed to this, but the group refused to give the label their master tapes unless a deal was reached.

Page designed his symbol, which seems to spell out the word “Zoso,” though he has said that his icon was never supposed to be a word. Jones’ symbol is a circle surrounding a triquetra (three interwoven shapes that resemble fish), while Bonham’s consists of three linked rings.

Finally, Plant also designed his own symbol, a feather within a circle, which resembles an icon from the legendary Mu civilization. Sandy Denny also had her own symbol, three downward-facing triangles, appear on the inner sleeve.

The 19th century oil painting on the album’s cover, which was bought by Plant at an antique store, was placed against the wall of a somewhat demolished house to create the artwork. A piece by Barrington Coleby, called “The Hermit,” is featured on the inside of the album as well.

What critics thought of “Led Zeppelin IV”

Reviews for the album have been consistently positive since its release. Lenny Kaye, in his review for Rolling Stone magazine, mentioned that “out of eight cuts, there isn’t one that steps on another’s toes, that tries to do too much all at once” and deemed “Led Zeppelin IV” the group’s “most consistently good” album.

Though he gave a mixed review at first, journalist Robert Christgau said that this record showed Led Zeppelin’s best songwriting and called it “the definitive Led Zeppelin and hence heavy metal album.”

In more recent reviews, AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine explained that the album defined “not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of ’70s hard rock”, while “encompassing heavy metal, folk, pure rock & roll, and blues,” and PopMatters writer AJ Ramirez called “Led Zeppelin IV” the greatest metal album ever made.

Rolling Stone, in 2003, ranked “Led Zeppelin IV” at number 69 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and Spin magazine writer Chuck Klosterman named it as the second-best metal album in 2002.

The magazine Classic Rock voted it as the best British rock album as well as the best rock album in general. It was included in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” in 2005.

What I think of the album

For me, judging “Led Zeppelin IV” is difficult because I’d heard about 75 percent of the album before deciding to listen to it in its entirety.

However, my thoughts on that aspect are like my perception of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”: the songs, no matter how many times they’re heard, fit together like jigsaw pieces to form a cohesive final product.

The mixing done on the album sounds gorgeous, and you can tell that a lot of effort was put into this record in order to create a memorable piece.

Memorable is an adjective that this record earns. “Led Zeppelin IV” can be listened to on repeat endlessly without overstaying its welcome.

Plant’s signature high-pitched vocals command attention while Page’s guitar wails, Jones’ bass guitar gives a brilliant groove, and Bonham’s drums provide a powerful heartbeat to the tracks.

Though the album was released without a title, there is no doubt in my mind that the songs on this record speak for themselves, as the band intended.

“Led Zeppelin IV” showcases the band in their prime, and it will surely live on in the hearts and minds of rock fans everywhere.