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.”
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