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The Cover Uncovered: Why Led Zeppelin picked the symbols for ‘IV’

We’ve all heard of Led Zeppelin’s critically acclaimed fourth album, the untitled record widely known as Led Zeppelin IV. The 1971 effort contains some of the band’s best-loved and most influential works, including ‘Black Dog’, ‘The Battle of Evermore’ and yes, what we have now come to describe as “the forbidden riff”, ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Aside from the iconic music, though, there’s another reason why the LP is one of the most enduring records of all time; the artwork.

The fact that the album is untitled and that the band opted to adorn to record with four symbols, each pertaining to the character of each band member, has steeped the album in a mythos that is unmatched in both Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue and within the music industry itself. But why did Led Zeppelin choose to leave the album untitled and use the symbols? Well, the driving factor was the negative critical and commercial reactions that they got to their previous album, 1970’s Led Zeppelin III. It was the band’s guitarist and producer of Led Zeppelin IV, Jimmy Page, who made the conceptual choice.

Ironically, the label, Atlantic, was totally against the idea, but the band were unrelenting in their position, and they even refused to relinquish ownership of the master tapes until Atlantic supported their decision. Even Page’s press agent was against the decision. He told Page in no uncertain terms that the move would be “professional suicide”, particularly in the face of Led Zeppelin III‘s detractors. Page still wouldn’t budge. Looking back, he said: “We just happened to have a lot of faith in what we were doing”. 

Atlantic carried on insisting that the band give the album a title, but Page maintained that he thought doing so would be giving in to the critics. At the time, he felt that the media could not review a Led Zeppelin album without comparing it to others, rather than as a singular unit. 

When the album was released as untitled, it did run into identification problems, and although it quickly became known as Led Zeppelin IV, Atlantic records catalogues used the rather lengthy title Four Symbols and The Fourth Album. It has been the debate on what call the project that has really added to the album’s mystique. Some even refer to it as ‘ZoSo‘, in direct reference to Page’s symbol.

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But what about the band? The no-nonsense Page has consistently labelled it “the fourth album” or “Led Zeppelin IV“, and frontman Robert Plant said that it is definitively “the fourth album, that’s it”.

At first, Page wanted the album cover to feature just a singular symbol but then decided that each member could choose their own, adding real personality to the artwork. The ‘ZoSo’ symbol he designed himself, and, given his well-known interest in all things esoteric, this has led some people to believe that it’s a 16th-century representation of the planet Saturn.

Widely known as ‘ZoSo’, Page has also maintained that it was not intended as a word but has remained coy about the actual inspiration behind it. You can read more about the meanings of the symbols here. Interestingly, the rest of the album artwork also has a tale to tell. Famously, the focal point of the cover is a rustic oil painting featuring a farmer. It was purchased from an antique shop in Reading by Plant and hung on a wall in a partly demolished city house. The image was juxtaposed to its reverse, the grey picture of Salisbury Tower block of flats in Birmingham.

The band explained that the cover was meant to encapsulate the dichotomy between the city and the country, a theme the band had first discussed on Led Zeppelin III. It was intended as a reminder to look after the planet, a theme that is more pertinent than ever today. 

An important album with an outstanding cover, Led Zeppelin IV makes a strong claim for being the most complex album cover of the classic rock era. The decision to go with releasing it untitled and the addition of the symbols has created a talking point that shows no sign of abating even 50 years after its release in what is an undoubted stroke of genius. Furthermore, the environmentalist themes show that the band weren’t just ahead of their time musically, a testament to their brilliance.

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