Log fire ruminations and mysterious symbols. The myth-making has finally begun
Work on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album began in December 1970 at Island Studios, however it wasn’t until the band moved into Headley Grange that the whole process of writing and recording started in earnest. And it was at Headley Grange that the basic tracks were recorded, many of them live, before returning to Island for overdubs, followed by mixing sessions conducted by engineer Andy Johns at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles. After further mixing in London, the album was ready.
However when it came to a title, instead of choosing Led Zeppelin IV, the band opted to avoid giving it a name entirely, selecting four symbols instead, each one representing each band member.
Commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV (or Four Symbols), Zeppelin’s fourth studio effort was not only their best yet, but is often considered to be their finest ever.
As per their first three LPs, the group chose to open proceedings with another hard-hitting number in the form of “Black Dog” which, just like “Whole Lotta Love” packs a powerful punch. Jimmy Page constructed the deceptively simple riff out of no less than four overdubs with his Gibson, while Robert Plant’s a cappella vocals were purportedly inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.” On next number, the indomitable “Rock And Roll” they shake the Himalayas, a formidable riff-rocker that few groups then or since have ever surpassed in terms of sheer muscle and energy.
Written by Page and Plant at Headley Grange, “The Battle Of Evermore” reveals Zeppelin’s folk/Celtic side. It is also notable for the inclusion of Sandy Denny, whose own vocals were more than an equal match to Plant’s Viking tonsils. But of course it is “Stairway To Heaven” for which the LP is most famous, a tune that requires no introduction, since it has been played on classic FM radio more times than there are stars in The Milky Way.
Though despite it’s over familiarity, the song’s intimate log fire virtues continue to shine through, along with John Bonham’s impressive drumming and Page’s once-in-a-lifetime guitar solo.
On side two of the original album the band alter course on the funky, up-tempo “Misty Mountain Hop,” during which John Paul Jones demonstrates his considerable keyboard chops, before again shifting gears dramatically with the almost blues-metal of “Four Sticks.” The title stems from Bonham’s use of four sticks in order to create a unique percussive sound, something which resulted in the band having to perform multiple takes in order to produce a final master.
The pastoral hippie splendour of the all acoustic “Going To California” (inspired by Joni Mitchell and the Laurel Canyon scene) is quickly left behind by the near dynamite-infused finale that is “When The Levee Breaks.” An epic in every sense of the word, apart from Page’s supernatural sounding slide guitar, the song is largely anchored by Bonham’s bigger-than-Mount-Rushmore drumming, an affect created by Andy Johns who placed a couple of microphones above Bonham who was positioned in the hallway of Headley Grange, thus capturing one of the most unique and admired drum sounds of all time.
Led Zeppelin IV, or whatever you want to call it, would soon wind up selling in the millions upon release, especially in the US, the band’s biggest market. Also, the critics loved it as well, ensuring that the record would enter the UK chart at #1, and remain in the English charts for a staggering 62 weeks. From here on, world domination was simply a matter of time.