Led Zeppelin were never ones to step down from a musical challenge. Although their sound was rooted in the simple three-chord structure of the blues, the band contained three of the most technically gifted musicians of all time, along with one of the most versatile vocalists ever. There wasn’t much that Led Zeppelin couldn’t handle.
You can hear as such on long structured tracks like ‘The Rain Song’ and ‘In My Time of Dying’, along with more ambitiously time signature-bending tracks like ‘Black Dog’ and ‘The Crunge’. Led Zeppelin were not a prog-rock band, but they could do epic-length excursions with the best of them. But there was one song where the arrangement was so arduous and confusing that the band only attempted it live a handful of times.
‘Four Sticks’ is perhaps the most obscure song on one of the biggest albums of all time, Led Zeppelin IV. Slotted between the slinky fun of ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and the gorgeous folk of ‘Going to California’, ‘Four Sticks’ is a hard-hitting rocker that seems to go in circles around itself, creating a hypnotic trance. The songs propulsive 5/4 main section lifts into a dreamy 6/8, tumbling back into its insistent main riff. It reveals two sides of Zeppelin that they melded perfectly: the ambitious experimentalists and the thunderous hard rockers.
While recording the track, John Bonham had difficulty wrapping his head around the changes and burned through a number of takes with increasing frustration. According to John Paul Jones, “It took him ages to get ‘Four Sticks.’ I seemed to be the only one who could actually count things in. Page would play something and [John would] say, ‘That’s great. Where’s the first beat? You know it, but you gotta tell us…’ He couldn’t actually count what he was playing. It would be a great phrase, but you couldn’t relate it to a count. If you think of ‘one’ being in the wrong place, you are completely screwed”.
Jones’ strict musical training had equipped him to handle such situations, but Bonham was completely self-taught and “felt” music more than he ever explicitly counted it. The results were always incredible, but occasionally it took a bit of time to get there. Bonham had similar difficulties counting in ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Rock and Roll’, keeping his sticks clicking during the a cappella portions of the former and borrowing the opening to Little Richards’ ‘Keep A-Knockin’ to kick off the latter.
Speaking of sticks clicking, the unique click-clack sound on ‘Four Sticks’ wasn’t an overdub: looking to change his approach to the pattern, Bonham grabbed an extra stick for each hand, hence the song’s title. The clattering of those four sticks in Bonham’s hands were picked up on the mics and provided a sort of clattering percussion to complement the song’s twists and turns.
Even though they eventually got the result they were hoping for, the difficult birth of the song put the band off performing it live. There’s only one verified take on the track from a 1971 concert in Copenhagen. You can check out that audio down below.