At 50, Led Zeppelin IV Continues to Shine

Another 1971 gem in my book is hitting the big anniversary. Today, 50 years go, Led Zeppelin released Led Zeppelin IV, an album that to me hasn’t lost any of its magic. And it’s not just because of Stairway to Heaven. I will add, and I’ve said this before, Led Zeppelin and even the song that would be my choice if I could only pick one rock tune were an acquired taste.

The 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin IV certainly deserves to be celebrated, so let’s go back to November 8, 1971. Actually, let’s make that 11 months earlier. Zep’s fourth studio album was recorded between December 1970 and February 1971 at Headley Grange, a historic 18th-century three-story stone workhouse in the southern English county of Hampshire, which was a popular recording and rehearsal venue in the ’60s and ’70s for artists like Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, Genesis and Led Zeppelin.

Not only did the informal setting inspire the band to try different musical arrangements in various styles, but the absence of any bar or other leisure facilities allowed them to stay focused. “…there was no, ‘Let’s get stoned or go to the pub and get pissed.’,” Jimmy Page told Mojo in a recent interview for a cover story, as reported by Louder. He also said, “It’s like there was a magical current running through that place and that record. Like it was meant to be.”

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant at Headley Grange

Apparently, not all of Zep’s members were quite as enthusiastic about the place. “Headley Grange was cold, damp, dirty, smelly,” noted John Paul Jones in the same Mojo story. Page was quick to dismiss the comment, saying, “Why is John complaining? We were there to work.” Yet implicitly, Page seemed to least somewhat agree with Jones, adding, “I don’t want to say anything to embarrass Mrs. Smith, the lady in charge. Headley was a bit austere.”

To make the album Led Zeppelin were using The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, along with engineer Andy Jones who had just worked on engineering the Stones’ Sticky Fingers, one of my other favorite albums from 1971. Zep also had assistance from Stones co-founder and keyboarder Ian Stewart who played piano on the record’s tune Rock and Roll. And, speaking of other artists, Sandy Denny, the vocalist of Fairport Convention was another guest.

Headley Grange wasn’t the band’s first choice. In fact, recording sessions had started at Island Records’ Basing Street Studios in London in December 1970. Zep also had considered recording at Mick Jagger’s home and recording location Stargroves but felt it was too pricey! I guess the band had yet to make big bucks, or perhaps they were a bit skittish about cost, given the lukewarm reception of Led Zeppelin III by critics.

Once the basic tracks were in the can, Zep added overdubs at Island Studios in February. Initial mixing was done at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. But the group wasn’t happy with the outcome, so following a tour in the spring and early summer, Page remixed the entire album in July 1971. Further delays occurred over discussions about whether Led Zeppelin IV should be a double album or be released as a set of EPs.

Nuff said – it’s time to turn to some music. Side one kicks of with Black Dog, a great rocker with a cool guitar riff. According to Songfacts, Jones got the idea for the song after he had listened to Electric Mud, a 1968 album by Muddy Waters: He wanted to try “electric blues with a rolling bass part,” and “a riff that would be like a linear journey.”…When they started putting the album together, Jones introduced this riff, the song started to form. The first version Jones played was comically complex. “It was originally all in 3/16 time, but no one could keep up with that,” he said.

The Battle of Evermore is a great example of Zep’s outstanding acoustic songs. As noted by Songfacts, it holds the distinction of being the band’s only tune that featured a guest vocalist: Sandy Denny, an excellent choice! Robert Plant’s lyrics were inspired by a book on Scottish history he had read. The music was written by Page using a mandolin he had borrowed from Jones. “The band was sitting next to the chimney in Headley, drinking tea, when Jimmy grabbed a mandolin and started playing,” Andy Jones recalled. “I gave him a microphone and stuck a Gibson echo on his mandolin. Jimmy had brought this stuff before and had asked me to take a look at it. Suddenly Robert started singing and this amazing track was born from nowhere.” What a mighty tune indeed!

Of course, no homage to Led Zeppelin IV would be complete without the big enchilada that’s closing out side one. Sadly, in addition to being one of the greatest rock songs of all time, Stairway to Heaven will always be remembered because of the copyright infringement litigation it triggered. Much has been written about this. All I will say is only a deaf person could possibly conclude that Page’s opening acoustic guitar arpeggios weren’t pretty much identical to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental Taurus whether done deliberately or not. By the way, again referring to Mojo, the above Louder piece notes the working title for Stairway was Cow And Gate – something I’m sure you always wanted to know but never dared to ask! That working title was inspired by Robert Plant who had recently bought a farm. I also found Cow & Gate was the name of a British dairy products company. Apparently, today the name lives on as a specialist baby food brand owned by a Dutch company.

On to side two. Similar to side one, it starts with a cool rocker, Misty Mountain Hop co-written by Page, Plant and Jones. “It’s about a bunch of hippies getting busted, about the problems you can come across when you have a simple walk in the park on a nice sunny afternoon,” Plant explained, as noted by Songfacts. “In England it’s understandable, because wherever you go to enjoy yourself, ‘Big Brother’ is not far behind.” Seems like somebody had some beef here! BTW, there are Misty Mountains in Wales.

Going to California is another acoustic gem I’d like to highlight. Songfacts explains the Page-Plant co-write was inspired by Joni Mitchell’s California: Mitchell lived in the musically fertile but earthquake-prone Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles; “California” finds her recalling her adventures on a trip to Europe but looking forward to a return home. In “Going To California,” Plant plays the part of a guy who’s looking to leave his no-good woman behind and make a fresh start in California.

This leaves me with the album’s excellent closer When the Levee Breaks. The song’s original lyrics are based on The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and were written by Memphis Minnie. The tune was first recorded as a country blues by Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. Plant who had the record in his collection kept most of the original lyrics while Page rearranged the music. Zep’s version is credited to the entire band and Minnie.

Unlike its predecessor, Led Zeppelin IV was widely praised by music critics. Fans liked it as well. The record topped the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada, Australia, Austria and Italy, and also strongly performed in many other countries. Additionally, it became Led Zeppelin’s most commercially successful album with more than 37 million copies sold worldwide, and one of the best-selling albums in the U.S.

Last but not least, Led Zeppelin IV is included in many lists, such as Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (no. 58 in 2020) and Colin Larkin’s All Time 1000 Albums (no. 42 in 2000). In June 2004, Pitchfork also ranked it at no. 7 on their list of Top 100 Albums of the 1970s.

Sources: Wikipedia; Louder; Songfacts; YouTube

23 thoughts on “At 50, Led Zeppelin IV Continues to Shine”

  1. I didn’t know it was ever gonna be a double album. I wonder what the other songs were gonna be. Too bad that it wasn’t a double album. It probably would have been a better one than Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin IV isn’t my favorite, but they’re all pretty close. Right now Houses of the Holy is my favorite and maybe even Led Zeppelin lll. I love that picture of the house that you got. I always loved places like that.

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  2. What a year for music and albums. My favorite album of the year was Who’s Next…what a great few months with Who’s Next released in August and this one coming in November. Misty Mountain Hop and When The Levee Breaks are my two favorites off the album.

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      1. I have a book that just talks about that year in music…it was incredible. The author turned 21 that year and he said it was the best for rock albums…I tend to believe him.

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  3. „Led Zeppelin IV“ Album ist ein Meisterwerk der Rockmusik der frühen 70er Jahre, das die Herren Page, Plant, Jones und Bonham in Headly Grange zusammengezimmert haben. Darüber hinaus ist die Platte weltweit bisher mehr als 37 Millionen Mal verkauft worden.

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    1. Rock and Roll and Misty Mountain Hop are actually my favorites besides Levee and Black Dog. I kind of skip over Evermore and Going to California when I listen to the album, not because I don’t think they’re good but I just never feel like hearing them. Houses of the Holy is their only album where I listen to every song equally. That’s probably why I call it my favorite even if it’s not actually better.

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      1. I don’t have a very strong opinion on my favorite Zeppelin album. Each of their records has songs I really dig. If I could only pick one, I would go with IV. But I guess at least in part that’s also because I’m best familiar with that album.

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      1. I’m the same way. I think the only time they sounded kind of ordinary was when they did a bluesy song that was just too close to regular blues. The first few albums all have a couple tracks like that. However I love Whole Lotta Love, just because it’s so weird and wild. And on the first album I also love Good Times Bad Times and Communication Breakdown, And even Dazed and Confused. Actually I think their albums kept getting better as they went along, up to the point of Houses of the Holy. I like Physical graffiti but just not as much. I’ve even started liking In Through the Out Door now. At least more than I like Presence

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  4. It’s a great album, and I still cherish my vinyl copy. I was a 17 when it came out, and bought it for “Stairway to Heaven” (which has been my all-time favorite song my entire adult life). Back then, I wasn’t much into hard rock, or at least anything harder than the Rolling Stones or the Doors, but eventually came to love all the other tracks on this album.

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  5. I could listen to this album daily and still get a kick out of it. I love Bonham’s drumming on When The Levee Breaks… it’s like he’s kicked his kit down the stairs and still playing it as it falls

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    1. Thanks, Tony, agree it’s a great album and a gift that keeps on giving.

      You’re also right about Bonham. Even though the song certainly hasn’t suffered from underexposure, Bonham’s drumming on Stairway is my favorite drum part.

      I’ve always wanted to learn the drums and haven’t entirely given up on it yet. If I ever do, I would definitely want to practice that drum part. I would probably fail miserably but wouldn’t give up without seriously trying! 🙂

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