One of the greatest aspects of Led Zeppelin IV was the mystery that surrounded the LP when it first came out. The album isn’t even technically called Led Zeppelin IV; it’s untitled and has been retroactively grouped together with the same naming conventions as the band’s first three albums. There’s no catalogue number, no band name, and no form of identification on the original album sleeve. Just a rustic picture, with no hint that the contents inside contained hard-hitting all-timers like ‘Four Sticks’ and ‘Black Dog’.
The origins of the album’s anonymity came from Jimmy Page’s disgruntled feelings towards rock writers. The vibrant and eclectic nature of Led Zeppelin III led to a divisive response among critics, with the general consensus being that the band were becoming bombastic and too reliant on their previous success. To some of these reviewers, it didn’t matter what was inside an album: as long as the outside said ‘Led Zeppelin’, it would sell. Page decided to challenge this notion on the group’s next album.
The response from Page, to put it mildly, comes off as a little defensive. Led Zeppelin was one of, if not the biggest band in the world at the time. It didn’t matter if Page wanted to purposefully throw off the public by releasing the album under a pseudonym: people were going to know it was Led Zeppelin one way or another. The preconceived notions that critics had were going to be intact no matter what, and it showed when contemporary reviews were equally as lukewarm as the response to III was. Retrospective acclaim attempts to paint the album as universally beloved, but Zeppelin had a lousy reputation with critics in their time, and the harshest ones dismissed IV just as they had dismissed the band’s previous work.
Of course, now everything about Led Zeppelin IV is iconic: the songs, the artwork, the production, the performances, and especially the band’s collective push back against name recognition. Page’s original plan was for the band to be represented by a single symbol, but he eventually decided that each band member should have a unique identifiable symbol for themselves. And so, the band sought out their own identifiers, and this is what they came up with.
What do the ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ symbols really mean?
Being the mastermind behind the symbol idea, Page took the concept further than simply finding a pre-existing symbol to which he felt connected. Instead, Page went about making his own creation, which wound up looking like a specific word: ZoSo.
“A lot of people mistook it for the word ZoSo, which is a pity because it wasn’t supposed to be a word at all but something entirely different,” Page lamented later on. Theories relating it back to a traditional symbol Saturn to a concealed drug reference (with the bottom portion supposedly forming the image of a pipe) are all just conjecture, as Page has never publically revealed the meaning behind the symbol other than its resonance with him.
Robert Plant teased the public for the book Led Zeppelin: In Their Own Words by recalling, “Page once took me aside and said, ‘I’m going to tell you the meaning of this once and then I shan’t ever mention it again’.” Plant wound up forgetting, Page stuck to his word, and the world continues to wonder about the mysteries of Page’s symbol.
After Page’s self-produced and indecipherable symbol, all of the other band members chose their respective symbols from verifiable and traceable sources. Plant was the only other member who decided to customise his, much in the same way that Page did, by creating the final product of his own design.
“My symbol was drawn from sacred symbols of the ancient Mu civilisation, which existed 15,000 years ago as part of a lost continent,” Plant explained in the previously mentioned book In Their Own Words. It’s an appropriately mystical origin for the songwriter who loved to reference Tolkein literature.
The feather itself is actually a feature of another civilisation: it is often associated with Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness. Like Page, Plant declined to further elaborate on the meaning but indicated that the origins aren’t hard to trace and that fans should feel free to research on their own.
John Paul Jones
The most elusive and erudite member of Led Zeppelin was John Paul Jones, the quiet intellectual who often appeared aloof of his band members hedonistic attitudes towards rock and roll. Jones could get in just as much fun as his bandmates, but his symbol has an appropriately bookish origin.
When given the assignment to find a symbol, Jones reached for Rudolf Koch’s Book of Signs for inspiration. While flipping through, Jones came across a triquetra, a symbol with origins in Celtic and Gaelic traditions. The book featured a specific version of the symbol that featured a circle around the triquetra.
There are many interpretations of the triquetra’s meaning, but Jones connected with the interpretation that the symbol represents an individual with both confidence and competence, adopting it as his own.
John Bonham, despite his hard-hitting nature on stage and his fondness for excess off stage, could often be a quiet and introspective figure. He had a strong belief in family, and when he was advised by Jones to look in Koch’s book for his own inspiration, he was drawn to the symbol that represented the holy trinity: mother, father, and child.
That was the makeup of Bonzo’s family at the time: him, his wife Pat, and his son, Jason. Page would later claim that the drummer simply enjoyed the image without considering its meaning, but Plant recalled Bonham’s desire for a personal signifier, and he found it with three interlocking circles.
Ever the jokester and prankster of the group, Bonham’s choice of symbol came with a notable ulterior motive: it doubled as the inverted logo of Ballantine beer, representing Bonham’s identity and lifestyle in more ways than one.
Bonus: Sandy Denny
When the band sought a counterpoint to Plant’s harried howl on ‘The Battle of Evermore’, former Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny stepped in to turn the folky acoustic song into a duet.
To thank her for her contribution, Denny received a symbol for the artwork as well. Whether Denny directly chose her symbol or was given the symbol by the band is unclear, but the downward-pointing three triangles visually aligned with Jones’ triquetra symbol and Bonham’s interlocking circle symbol, creating a cohesive addition.
The triangles also served an alternate purpose: situated next to the title of ‘The Battle of Evermore’, the symbol served as an asterisk to identify Denny’s contribution on the record without directly naming her, just as the other four member’s symbols credited them without name identification.