Tuesday, November 8, 2011
If you came of age in the mid-1970’s, as I did, Led Zeppelin IV (aka ZOSO) was always there. You go to the carnival, and the Tilt-a-Whirl guy is blasting Rock and Roll, Black Dog and When the Levee Breaks. Guys driving down the street would be blasting it out of their 8-track player. You didn’t hear it for the first time, you absorbed it over time.
IV wasn’t even the first Zeppelin album I found and loved. That honour would fall to their third album, which I “borrowed” from my older brother on such a regular basis he bought me my own copy for Christmas the next year.
The follow up fourth album soon joined III as a staple of my record player. Mostly side one, it has to be confessed, for the obvious reasons. Frankly, song for song, I’ll still take side one even now, with the exception of When the Levee Breaks which may be my favourite song on the album.
Everybody has favourites, and most Zeppelin fans will probably chose an album other than IV as their’s. But make no mistake, none will deny the greatness of Led Zeppelin IV. From song 1 to song 8, it contains no flaws, no misses. And in fact, in age when artists worried about the flow of the entire album, IV has two very different, but flawless sides, and still works as a complete unit. In other words, whether you throw on side 1, side 2 or the good old standby, 8-track and hear the whole thing through, it works.
But it’s still the songs that make the album, and IV features Led Zeppelin at their best. Rock and Roll, the bands answer to critics who said they had gone soft. Black Dog, a unique call and response style song unlike anything recorded before or since.
Battle of Evermore, the prelude to Stairway: Angry Hobbits with mandolins. Page and Jones, with just mandolins, acoustic guitar and, reportedly, a Dulcimer make the earth shake. Stairway to Heaven, in the aftermath of Battle of Evermore is like the dawn after battle. It’s message of hope in direct conflict with Evermore’s war call. Stairway to Heaven, the song that ended a thousand dances, more of a ritual than a rock song.
Side 2, if your using old school formats like me (or actually track 3 and 4, which is how I have listened to IV the last few times I’ve had it on), starts with the albums two weakest songs. Misty Mountain Hop, the hippy anthem. This falls in the category of second tier Zeppelin songs that prove just how good Zeppelin was. Four Sticks is a drum driven song with rather complex time structure. Again, most bands would kill to have this song in their repertoire, for Led Zeppelin in 1971, it was weak.
Going to California is the ultimate Zeppelin folk song. They had done folk before, had built the third album around folk songs, but Going to California trumps them all. Give Led Zeppelin acoustic guitars and mandolins and they were still the best rock band in the world, and Going to California is exhibit A.
Finally, the tour de force. Of all the songs on Led Zeppelin IV, When the Levee Breaks may have aged the most gracefully, which is odd considering it has all the grace of a charging Rhino. Built around John Bonham’s great drum pattern, the most sampled drum pattern in all of rap, Zeppelin rolls for 7 minutes of chicago blues like no other. It is pure driving rock yet, thanks to Bonham, swings like an old soul song.
Left off the album destined to appear on 1975's Physical Graffiti, the songs Night Flight, Down By the Seaside and Boogie With Stu. Those three songs, the afterthoughts, those are a career for some bands.
Forty years ago today, November 8, 1971 Led Zeppelin IV was released. It may have been the best album of the rock era, yet not Led Zeppelin best album. It is good enough to be called that, and Zeppelin good enough to transcend it.