Down the decades certain albums have had so much praise heaped upon them by fans and critics alike, that it becomes almost impossible to be objective about them. If so many people tell you how Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer are the greatest albums ever recorded, what if you don’t agree? Are you just wrong? Are they just regurgitating information that they’ve been told enough times that they’re now utterly brainwashed? What if you prefer other albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead? Does it make them any less great? Have you heard them so frequently that they just wash over you? If you’ve heard them so many times, have they just become over-familiar? And where the hell does that leave Led Zeppelin IV?
By November 1971, Led Zeppelin, despite being given regular drubbings by the critics, were now the biggest band on the planet, so big in fact that their much-anticipated fourth long player could be released with effectively no title and no reference to the band on the gatefold sleeve, and yet still be a best seller. Having spent the last four years popularising hard rock, conquering America and defying the naysayers, Led Zeppelin had already evolved from blues rockers, to unstoppable riff machine, to amped up folk-rockers. Their fourth album would effectively blend the styles they had explored on their previous three albums, bringing Jimmy Page’s production know-how, Robert Plant’s occasionally naive lyrics, John Paul-Jones’ well structured arrangements and multi-instrumental skills and John Bonham’s thunderous drum pounding together again and releasing a musical statement that would silence any doubters. The thing is, unlike The Beatles and Pink Floyd, fans and critics alike have never been able to definitively decide which their best album is. Some prefer the amplifier-frying hard rocking of their second album, others will point to their more chilled-out third as their most musically achieved release, and in recent decades more and more people try and convince their social circle that they know best by claiming that the over-egged Physical Graffiti, with its blend of two thirds new material to one third reheated leftovers is the definitive Led Zeppelin album. This fragmentation of opinions has resulted in Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth not really have compete with its own reputation as the best album they ever recorded, and instead it stands on its own merits without having to cope with the unbearable weight of too much expectation placed on it.
It starts with an odd thrumming sound (apparently it’s an amplifier warming up), then Plant’s instantly recognisable yelp hits you, before the rest of the band crash in behind him. Yes, “Black Dog” is an unfussy slab of hard and hairy rock, but it sounds tremendous, with just enough sound separation between the vocals and each instrument to give an impression of real space between the band, as if they’re playing it absolutely live through your stereo. What with all their reputation as the definitive hard rock band, something which seems oddly overlooked when assessing any point of Zeppelin’s career is Page’s supreme talent as a producer. While much of Zeppelin’s sound is down to the fact that three of them were top-flight musicians, a fair portion of it is still down to Page’s ability to transfer the sounds in his head into the studio, and nowhere is this more obvious than on their fourth album. While the immense drum sound of the closing “When the Levee Breaks” has seen Bonham become one of the most sampled drummers to have ever lived, it’s actually a combination of Bonham’s own powerful wallop, the decision to set his drums up at the bottom of a stair case in Headley Grange and Page’s technical ability that got that unmistakable beat committed to tape. The sense of space achieved throughout the album gives it an unmistakable sonic quality and makes it sound fantastic regardless of the quality of the stereo you may be listening to it on.
After the grinding riffage of “Black Dog”, the sound of Bonham battering away at his drumkit at the start of “Rock and Roll” quickens the pulse before the rest of Led Zep slam in with some heads-down boogie rock. It’s not high art by any means, but it’s whole lotta fun and confirmation, should any be needed, that Zeppelin were now not content to play by anyone else’s rules but their own. Next up is “The Battle of Evermore”, a slowburn folk rocker which does what more than a few prog rockers were doing at the time and takes its inspiration from a large print edition of JRR Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It could have been a disaster, however the genius move of having Plant duet with Sandy Denny (she of Fairport Convention fame), ensures that the song is lifted to a higher level than it had any right to be.
Of course, despite a trio of strong tunes opening the album, the first half of Led Zeppelin IV will forever be dominated by “Stairway to Heaven”, a song which seems to now get buried beneath its own mythology. Some have claimed it to be the greatest heavy metal song of all time, but that ignores the fact that for its first half its effectively a sword and sourcery indebted folk ballad, at least until Bonham’s drums stumble in. From there “Stairway to Heaven” adds Page’s guitar and the big amps to the folk rock number, pretty much bringing to a definitive end what the band had started on Led Zeppelin II and expanded on with Led Zeppelin III. It’s masterfully done, and one of the landmark moments in the evolution of rock music, but heavy metal? No. “Stairway to Heaven” is undoubtedly a great song, but it’s also one that has been vastly overrated by some fans down the decades. Oddly enough though, this has had an oddly beneficial effect on the rest of the album, as so much focus has been placed on “Stairway to Heaven”, that the rest of the album is perhaps a little underrated. Now that might seem odd given the eye-watering numbers that this album has sold in, but how many of those sales were to people who just wanted it for “Stairway to Heaven” alone? Perhaps this is why Led Zeppelin IV has escaped the over-familiarity of other ‘best albums ever’.
Of course, such is the concentration of great stuff in the first half of Led Zeppelin IV, some forget that the more downbeat second half consists of four other great rock songs, only one of which is called “When the Levee Breaks”. “Misty Mountain Hop” is another Tolkien-informed number, this time in the form of a grinding rocker with a deep groove courtesy of some ear-catching organ work from John Paul Jones. “Four Sticks” rumbles ominously behind Bonham’s incessant drums and “Going to California” is another folk–rocker, albeit one that seems to slowly pendulum swing between being truly laid back and Plant undergoing what sounds for all the world sounds like some sort of panic attack, all while being dappled with some distinctly West coast sunlight.
Led Zeppelin IV ends with “When the Levee Breaks”, a song which has steadily grown in reputation, particularly in recent decades, featuring as it does one of the most sampled drum patterns in the history of rhythm. While it doesn’t compete with “Stairway to Heaven” in terms of duration, it sounds like it should do, and in terms of reputation, “When the Levee Breaks” now serves as a handy counter balance to the mythology which has grown up around the band’s most legendary number. Ultimately, as much as “Stairway to Heaven” gets hailed as the evergreen heavy rock classic, “When the Levee Breaks” just sounds weightier and is the perfect way to close what is one of the definitive rock albums.
Led Zeppelin IV was the final shot in the opening salvos of their career. It wasn’t a game changer in the same way that their second or third were, but it consolidated their now unassailable position as the biggest band on the planet, and effectively cast the gauntlet down for anyone who dare challenge them. As it turned out nobody could match it, and even Zeppelin themselves seemed to realise that they would struggle to match their majestic fourth album. It would be a couple of years before its oddly funky and daringly arranged follow up, Houses of the Holy, would see its release, but it was a much more subtle and textured beast. Some would say that they tried to top it with 1975’s Physical Graffiti, but in reality that double album was just a bit too bloated and lumbering for its own good.
While it may not always be heralded as their best album due to constantly shifting public opinion, Led Zeppelin IV is in many ways the pinnacle of their career, and one which no hard rock band, least of all Led Zeppelin themselves, would ever truly top.