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50 years of Led Zeppelin's masterpiece 'Led Zeppelin IV'

When discussing classic albums, some of the usual suspects are The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and of course, Led Zeppelin’s untitled 1971 record, Led Zeppelin IV. Recorded in the Hampshire country house Headley Grange over the winter of 1970-’71 and produced by Jimmy Page, the record is hailed by both critics and fans as the band’s magnum opus.

The informal, relaxed setting of Headley Grange helped to inspire the band, and it drew out an esoteric might that they had previously teased, but up until this point, never fully tapped into. The time and relaxing nature of the Grange allowed the band to take their time with material and experiment with different arrangements and a variety of musical styles.

This needed to be a big album for the band. Its predecessor, 1970’s Led Zeppelin III, was largely panned, so they needed to deliver. Of the environment, Jimmy Page later recalled: “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.” They got what they needed. In addition, there were no bar or leisure facilities, allowing the band to fully concentrate on the task at hand. 

Page remembers picking out the studio: “After the brief stay that Robert and I had at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage [while working on Led Zeppelin III], I could see a situation where we all resided at Headley Grange and had a recording truck. I was keen on this whole idea of using it as a workplace so you could concentrate totally on the effort of making the music, while residing at the location.”

“It was all a bit experimental,” John Paul Jones says. “But it was the first time we’d actually stayed together. Before, we were recording in studios…and it was always hotel, studio, hotel, studio. We’d never been in one place and had recording facilities there. So that was really a new way of working for us, and I think it was a really good way. We just had this huge old room with a big fireplace with all the equipment set up. And you could just wander down and start stuff up if nobody was there, or if somebody else would turn up, there would be a bit of jam. There was music making in some way all the time, which, as you can see by the result, worked out pretty well.”

Led Zeppelin IV was also a departure in the sense that the band were joined by a host of guest musicians during the recording sessions. The late vocalist of folk heroes Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, leant her haunting falsetto to the mystical ‘The Battle of Evermore’ and Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian Stewart helped to augment the swagger of ‘Rock and Roll’. All of the songs that made it onto the album were originals, save for the trance-like closer ‘When the Levee Breaks’.

As with any classic album, there’s no downside. Each of the eight songs is a classic in itself, a remarkable feat. Opener ‘Black Dog’ remains one of Jimmy Page’s most enduring riffs and is a must-have for every intermediate guitarist. Interestingly, the a cappella segment was influenced by the early Fleetwood Mac song ‘Oh Well’ from 1969.

‘Rock and Roll’, meanwhile, came out of a jam early in the recording sessions in collaboration with Ian Stewart. Unsurprisingly, drummer John Bonham wrote the classic introduction, which was inspired by jamming along to the intro of Little Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll standard ‘Keep A-Knockin’. It quickly became a fan favourite and was played as either the opening number or as part of the encore.

‘The Battle of Evermore’ remains one of their most mystifying and atmospheric works, carrying on in the similar vein as Led Zeppelin III‘s ‘Immigrant Song’. Augmented by Denny’s haunting, siren-like voice, the song’s defining factor is undoubtedly the intricate mandolin part played by Jimmy Page.

The use of the traditional instrument truly instilled the song with the historical essence that Plant’s lyrics evoked. His lyrics were inspired by a book he had read on the Scottish Independence Wars. As an important side note, Denny’s appearance was the only female voice to be heard on a Led Zeppelin recording.

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Then we come to the closer of side one, the band’s signature song, ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Regardless of the accusations of plagiarism or the fact that the riff is ‘forbidden’, there is no denying its genius. Eight minutes of varying dynamics, lyrical intrigue, hard-rock power and folkish subtlety, the song encapsulated all of Led Zeppelin’s essential blueprints. Grandiose but restrained, heavy and soft, it raised the bar to a stratospheric level for the band moving forward. The follow-up album, 1973’s Houses of the Holy, would strive to recreate this gargantuan sound, and in many ways, it did. Robert Plant recalls the writing of the song: “I was sitting next to Jimmy in front of the fire at Headley Grange. He’d written this chord sequence and was playing it to me. I was holding a pencil and paper and suddenly my hand is writing the words ‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold…’ I sat there, looked at the words and almost leaped out from my seat. Looking back, I suppose I sat down at the right moment.”

Side two carries on with the same varied but winning formula. ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ features the funky warm notes of the electric piano played by John Paul Jones. Taking its title from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Plant penned the lyrics when thinking of the contemporary clashes between students and police over drug possession. One of the band’s best grooves; it’s a real earworm.

The thunderous beast that is ‘Four Sticks’ took its title from the jazz-inspired drum pattern that underpins the song, using four drum sticks to achieve the cacophonous sound. Jones also played the analogue synth on the track, giving it that whirling feeling. Due to the syncopation, it was challenging to record and required numerous takes.

One would argue that ‘Going to California’ is the album’s best track. The melodic acoustic number was written by Page and Plant about Californian earthquakes and also the fairly disparate topic of striving to find the “perfect woman”. Musically, it was inspired by Joni Mitchell, of whom both Plant and Page were keen admirers. It was initially set to be called ‘Guide To California’ until the band changed the title when going to LA to mix the album.

The ultimate track, ‘When the Levee Breaks’, carries on in evoking the Californian sunshine like ‘Going To California’. A hazy, washed-out take on the 1929 original, it opens with Bonham’s heavy, reverb-drenched beat, which was recorded in the lobby of Headley Grange and then passed through a Binson Echorec, a delay effects unit. This spacious location gave it that super atmospheric ambience that is unmatched within the band’s back catalogue. The beat is so good that Massive Attack, Aphex Twin and even Björk have sampled in the years since its release.

Outside of the music, the album’s other defining factors are the fact that it is unofficially untitled and that each of the band members is represented by four symbols taken from Rudolf Koch’s compendium, Book of Signs. The band’s decision to release the album without any written information on the sleeve was made contrary to advice from their press agent, who called it “professional suicide”, particularly after the flop of the previous record.

Luckily, the band believed in what they had recorded with every ounce of their being. Page recalled: “We just happened to have a lot of faith in what we were doing.” Record label Atlantic insisted a title had to be put on the album, but they held firm, as they thought reneging on their standpoint would be a loss to the critics who they felt could not review a Led Zeppelin record without comparing to other ones, which seems a pretty unavoidable thing.

The band made the best decision of their careers. The untitled record became their masterpiece and not only raised the bar to another level for themselves but for every other rock band around. They had filled the great vacuum left in the wake of The Beatles‘ demise, and this was going to be Led Zeppelin’s decade. 50 years on, it still has all of the magic that it did upon release.

Listen to Led Zeppelin IV in full below.