Atlantic Records, 1971
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/16/1998
Up until the time I was about 17 years old, I hated Led Zeppelin. Don't ask me why; I just couldn't stand them. The truth was that I had never really heard their music, but being young, narrow-minded in my tastes of music and fairly stupid, I wasn't willing to give them a try.
Then, the revelation occurred. Every year in the Chicagoland area, a special used record sale is held to help benefit research for a cure to ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. In the tent of the Mammoth Music Mart, they had a few battered Led Zeppelin albums for a dollar each. Figuring I wouldn't be out too much if I hated them, I bought the albums, and took them home. It just so happened that the first album I gave a shot on the turntable was their untitled fourth album. (Side note: Many people mistakenly assume that this album is titled Led Zeppelin IV, or that the runes that represent each band member are the title -- even though Billboard used them to identify the album on their charts. In fact, there is no title for this album.)
Pow -- the realization of who this band was and their ultimate power hit me like a cab racing to pick up a fare. What the hell had I been thinking all these years? It took me far too long to learn what people who first heard this album in 1971 knew: it's a timeless classic.
Led Zeppelin were coming off the critical drubbing they received for Led Zeppelin III, a more acoustic, experimental album for the band. What guitarist Jimmy Page, vocalist Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham could not have realized was that they were about to re-write rock history with their fourth album. Still staying in a slightly acoustic vein for a few numbers, it also marked a return to the blues for Led Zeppelin, albeit in their own unique style.
The opening number, "Black Dog," exemplifies their own style of the blues, with a vocal from Plant that almost sounds free-form, followed by the rest of the band punctuating what Plant said with their riffs. Wisely, Page saves his guitar pyrotechnics for the end of the song, allowing the whole band to shape the voice of this number. The blues continues with an in-your-face 12-bar number, "Rock And Roll," and it completes the album with the plodding "When The Levee Breaks," a number that is driven by Bonham's snare and bass drums.
Acoustically, Led Zeppelin build on the styles they began to develop on Led Zeppelin III (although they abandon any country motifs they had, as on "Tangerine"), and turn it into more of a folk vein. Their collaboration with Sandy Denny (to my knowledge, one of the few times that the band brought in an additional musician) on "The Battle Of Evermore" was sure to shock the long-time fans of the band -- no guitars, just mandolin? Thing is, Denny's vocals seemed to be the perfect yin to Plant's yang, and the instrumental arrangement also works to everyone's benefit. Likewise, "Going To California" is a pretty arrangement, featuring guitar and mandolin. It is one of Plant's most moving vocal performances in his career with Led Zeppelin.
The two tracks that return Zeppelin to a rock vein all their own, "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks," are unique animals in and of themselves, each one featuring a member of the band that normally didn't get the spotlight. Jones's organ work is a driving force on "Misty Mountain Hop," which might seem a little too hippy-drippy these days. Bonham's incredible work on the drums is evidenced on "Four Sticks," pounding out a rhythm pattern that I've never been able to figure out. If you want proof that Bonham was one of the greatest rock drummers ever, this song is exhibit "A."
And then, there is "Stairway To Heaven," possibly the most played song in FM radio history -- and also a song that has never been commercially released as a single. (It was released as a promo in 1971, and as a special 20th anniversary promo in 1991 -- I had that 1991 promo, and gave it to my father earlier this year.) What can be said about this song that hundreds of thousands of voices haven't already said? I think what seals this song's eternal staying power is its slow build from minimal instrumental arrangement into a grand piece with Page's trademark guitar solo at the end. Overlooked in this, I feel, is Page's acoustic work; his gentle chords in the first half of the song are just as powerful as the intense electric work he throws in.
The drawback to releasing an album this good is that it's bound to get overplayed on the radio -- and this particular album, to some, has overstayed its welcome. True, oversaturating the airwaves with these eight songs does tend to take away their power when you listen to them in the guise of the album. That being said, there still is something magical about hearing this album in its entirety that radio will never take away from it.
There are few albums that I declare are works that everyone must own -- and this is easily the first one I'd tell people to pick up.