It goes by many names: Led Zeppelin IV, Zoso, Four Runes. I’ve even heard ‘old man with sticks.’ The box set released in 1990 credits it as ‘Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album.’ Whatever you choose to call it, it was, and still is, a larger than life powerhouse of an album from a band in its prime. Purists will give you different answers for which album of Zep’s is the absolute best, from any one of the numbered albums, Physical Graffiti, or Houses of the Holy, but what can’t be denied is that the untitled fourth album was in nearly every household, having sold 22 million copies, second only to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, as far as albums recorded in the seventies. It also ended up to be the fourth biggest selling album of all time! (ed note: fourth? Coincidence?) The album contains some of the most recognized Zeppelin songs recorded in “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” and the ever present “Stairway to Heaven,” which is billed as the song with the most radio play ever. Those songs, plus the pounding “When the Levee Breaks,” the mandolin tune “The Battle of Evermore,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” and “Going to California” make this album the quintessential Zep album.
While the late ’60s and early ’70s were filled with singer/songwriters, the mid to late seventies discovered discomania, and the punk movement flourished in the latter part of the decade, Led Zeppelin were the epitome of straightforward rock and roll. Jimmy Page’s steroid-amped blues riffs, John Paul Jones’ driving bass, John Bonham’s fueled rhythmic aggression and Robert Plant’s keening wails melded into a tightly reined, yet always straining at the leash, ready to explode rock band. What separated them from the rest was on one hand the proficiency of their playing, and on the other the now legendary mysticism surrounding the band. References to the occult, Page’s fascination with magic and Aleister Crowley, and Tolkien-inspired lyrics all made for a unique blend of muses. Styles ranging from folk, blues and metal expanded their range and made for some of the most timeless popular music available. It’s no mistake that their songs still have power whether played on a turntable in a basement thirty years ago, or backing up a car commercial in our time.
Plant had a way of linking his fantastical lyrics to the real world. You know that in “Stairway to Heaven” that when he speaks of the feeling he gets when he looks to the west, that while he is making an allusion to the elves sailing to the Grey Havens, he is also looking to the west in his own physical space and time. He even has another song on the album about “Going to California.” His lyrics even take on new meaning when sung by another as Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny contributes her haunting vocals to “The Battle of Evermore.” When she sings to us to “dance in the dark of night” and “sing to the morning light,” we feel some kind of pastoral mystical power urging us to do just that. Maybe it’s their connection to nature that makes it so compelling, or maybe there’s something more to it. Either way, there are dark, mysterious and strange things going on all throughout this album. Entire essays can be and probably have been written about the mysticism in the fourth album. Parallels can be drawn to Tolkien’s work in scholarly essays, which I’m sure Zep never saw coming. Even the album’s cover of a framed picture of an old man carrying a basket of sticks, hanging on a wall with peeling paper is somewhat eerie. I mean, really, who is that guy?
The real question becomes why do I personally love this album? After all, over 22 million copies were sold, so I really don’t have to convince most of you out there. Do I love it because it was recorded and released in the year of my portentious birth? Is it because of the references to Tolkien’s work, even specifically citing the ‘ring wraiths?’ Is it because I first heard the album in 1984, a year more known for Michael Jackson (still milking an album release two years prior), Madonna, Van Halen and Prince, thereby shattering my shimmery pop sheen illusions of the world? It is for all of these reasons and further still the myriad of reasons that so many others loved it and continue to love it. I have been known for using the word `great’ far too often. It is the most used adjective in my arsenal, which is fairly telling of my skills as it is a very common one. I even used the word in naming my column for Treble. I do have to say, though, Led Zeppelin is great. They are significantly better than those around them, and they are extensive in size, magnitude, time and distance. I use both because “you know sometimes words have two meanings.”
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Black Sabbath – Paranoid
Cream – Disraeli Gears
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream