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

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: October 14

After a longer pause, it’s time again for another installment of my irregular feature where I explore what happened on an arbitrarily picked date throughout rock history. The only rule I have it that it must reflect my music taste and be a date I haven’t covered yet. The good news is I got plenty of choices left, including October 14, so without further ado, let’s get to it!

1957: The Everly Brothers hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Wake Up Little Susie. Written by husband-and-wife country and pop songwriting duo Felice Bryant (born Matilda Genevieve Scaduto) and Diadorius Boudleaux Bryant, the tune became the first of three no. 1 songs Don Everly and Phil Everly scored on the mainstream charts. The Bryants also wrote Bye Bye Love, the previous single by The Everly Brothers, as well as numerous of their other hits. Wake Up Little Susie reached the top of the Billboard country and R&B charts as well, and was included on The Everly Brothers’ 1958 eponymous debut album. It was the first song by them I heard in my early teens when I was still pretty much adoring Elvis Presley. While in my mind back then nobody could ever match Elvis when it came to rock & roll, The Everly Brothers quickly earned my respect.

1967: Of course, no music history post can be without The Beatles or related topics. In this case, it’s an artist who managed to knock out The Fab Four from the top of the charts. The great Bobbie Gentrie, who later became a woman of mystery, hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200 with her debut album Ode to Billie Joe, ending the 15-week reign of The Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. According to Wikipedia, it was the only record that managed to displace Sgt. Pepper from the top spot. Released on August 21 that year, Gentry’s debut album had been quickly assembled following her successful single with the same title. This is such a great tune!

1968: Next let’s turn to The Beatles themselves to see what they were up to. The year was 1968 and the location was Studio 2 at EMI Studies, Abbey Road, London. John, Paul and George were working on eight songs for the White Album – of course, The Beatles Bible had to count them all! The ultimate record of Beatles truth further notes Ringo Starr had left for a two-week family vacation to Sardinia and as such was absent. In fact, he had no further involvement in the album’s mixing and sequencing. The recording session saw the completion of work on one the tunes: Savoy Truffle, a song by George Harrison, which had been inspired by Eric Clapton. Eric has “got this real sweet tooth and he’d just had his mouth worked on,” Harrison explained. “His dentist said he was through with candy. So as a tribute I wrote, ‘You’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy Truffle’. George’s sense of humor could be peculiar!

1971: Specialty Records, the company that held the rights to Little Richard’s songs, sued John Fogerty, charging the Creedence Clearwater Revival song Travelin’ Band plagiarized Richard’s Good Golly, Miss Molly. Here’s Richard’s tune. The CCR track is below. Great gosh a’mighty, if this is plagiarism, then pretty much all classic rock & roll songs are! I feel this is very different from Zep’s rip-off of Spirit’s Taurus or the similarity between George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and The Chiffons’ record of He’s So Fine. Eventually, the case was settled out of court. Travelin’ Band first appeared in January 1970 as the B-side to Who’ll Stop the Rain, the lead single of CCR’s fifth studio album Cosmo’s Factory released in July of the same year.

1977: David Bowie released his 12th studio album Heroes. The second installment of Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy only came nine months after predecessor Low. The third album in the series, Lodger, would appear in May 1979. Bowie recorded all three albums in West Berlin, Germany, in collaboration with Brian Eno and co-producer Tony Visconti. Bowie was quite busy in 1977. The making of Heroes followed his participation as keyboarder during a tour of his friend Iggy Pop and co-producing Pop’s second studio album Lust for Life. Heroes incorporated elements of art rock and experimental rock, and built on Low’s electronic and ambient approaches. In general, I’m more fond of Bowie’s late ’60s and glam rock period. That being said, I always liked the album’s title track that was co-written by Bowie and Eno. The record did pretty well in the charts, reaching no. 3 in the UK, the top 20 in various other European countries, no. 6 in Australia and no. 35 in the U.S. – overall largely matching the performance of Low.

1983: Let’s finish this little history post with another album release: She’s So Unusual, the solo debut by Cyndi Lauper. The record became a huge chart success and Lauper’s best-selling album with more than 16 million units sold worldwide as of 2008. It certainly was welcome news for Lauper who only a few years earlier had found herself forced to file for bankruptcy, a fallout from the aftermath of her previous band Blue Angel, a failed debut album and a lawsuit the band’s manager Steven Massarsky had brought against her and the band. Beware of hiring a lawyer as your manager! She’s So Unusual yielded several hit singles. Here’s the most successful and my favorite, Time After Time, co-written by Lauper and Rob Hyman who is best know as a founding member of American band The Hooters. The tune topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and Canada, climbed to no. 3 in New Zealand, reached no. 5 in Australia, and became a top 10 hit in various European countries, including Austria (no. 6), Ireland (no. 2), France (no. 9), Germany (no. 6), The Netherlands (no. 8) and the UK (no. 3).

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day in Rock; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six. Can you believe we’re already in August? It feels like July came and went before we knew it – crazy how time seems to fly these days! So what’s in store for this installment? In a nutshell six tracks representing different flavors of rock, a dose of Americana, and some classic rock & roll, spanning the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and the current decade. Ready to embark on another unpredictable music excursion? Let’s do it!

Spirit/I Got a Line on You

Kicking it off today are Spirit, and I’m not talking about liquor. The American rock band perhaps is best remembered for writing the signature acoustic guitar intro to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Let me rephrase that. Somehow, Jimmy Page unconsciously got inspired by Spirit’s instrumental Taurus after Led Zeppelin had opened up for Spirit during their first American tour. Evidently, Messrs. Page and Robert Plant also had better lawyers, leading to a favorable verdict in a copyright infringement lawsuit the estate of Taurus composer Randy California had brought several years ago. To be clear, I love Stairway to Heaven and have come to dig Led Zeppelin big time. I just wish they would have given credit where credit was clearly warranted – nuff said! Let’s get to what I really wanted to highlight: I Got a Line on You, Spirit’s second single released in October 1968 and another tune written by California. The great song also appeared on the band’s second album The Family That Plays Together, which came out in December of the same year.

Beki Hemingway/Cost Me Everything

Beki Hemingway and her husband Randy Kirkman are an Americana wife and husband duo based in the Americana hot spot of Dundalk, Ireland. Shout-out to fellow blogger Darren Johnson who through his recent review of Hemingway’s latest album Earth & Asphalt brought the duo on my radar screen. For some additional context, following is an excerpt from Hemingway’s online bio: Her long and varied career has found her singing in several bands, including comical punk-rockers This Train, as well as singing live and studio backup vocals on everything from industrial to inspirational music. Things really clicked when she started collaborating with Randy Kerkman in the late 1990’s, releasing 5 CDs on the Minneapolis-based indie Salt Lady Records, performing up to 150 shows per year, and sharing the stage with nationally and internationally acclaimed singer/ songwriters such as Aimee Mann, Shawn Colvin, and Duke Special. After several years on hiatus living a “normal life” as a tour guide and Deputy Sheriff in Denver, Beki and Randy released a 6-song ep entitled I have big plans for the world and followed up with 2017’s Whins and Weather. Since the fall of 2016, Hemingway and Kirkman have lived in Ireland. Here’s Cost Me Everything, a tune from the aforementioned Earth & Asphalt album that was released in December 2020. Check out that beautiful warm sound!

Neil Young/Like a Hurricane

I trust Neil Young doesn’t need an introduction. A couple of weeks ago, my streaming music provider served up Hangin’ On a Limb, and I was going to feature this nice deep cut from Young’s 17th, 1989 studio album Freedom that’s best known for the anthemic Rockin’ in the Free World. Things changed on Thursday when my family and I found ourselves seeking shelter in our basement for two hours after a tornado warning had been issued for my area. Of course, tornadoes are pretty common in certain regions of the U.S. but in friggin’ central New Jersey? While there were several confirmed tornadoes that caused significant damage in other areas of the state, luckily, we were spared. It was a surreal and pretty humbling experience, and it wasn’t the first time. With getting blown away on my mind, I suppose Like a Hurricane wasn’t much of a leap. Appearing on American Stars ‘n Bars, Young’s eighth studio album from May 1977, the track also happens to be my all-time favorite among his crunchy rock songs.

ZZ Top/Heard It on the X

Sadly, longtime ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill passed away on Wednesday at the age of 72. I think it’s fair to say guitarist Billy Gibbons has gotten most of the attention when it comes to the Texan rockers. That’s because he has played the cool guitar riffs and solos and has done most of the lead vocals. While I’ve enjoyed ZZ Top’s music since their 1983 Eliminator album and hits like Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs, I’m far from being an expert on the band. In fact, until the news about Hill’s untimely death, I had not realized it was actually Hill who sang lead on my favorite ZZ Top tune Tush. Well, he did! And here’s another track from the Fandango! album, featuring Hill on vocals – in this case sharing duties with Gibbons. When that record appeared in April 1975, the difference between their voices wasn’t as pronounced as in later years. Check out this cool clip from Live from Texas released in various video and audio formats in June 2008. It captured ZZ Top’s November 1, 2007 gig at Nokia Theatre in Grand Prairie, Texas. Makes you wonder a bit why Hill didn’t get to sing more often.

The Kinks/Sunny Afternoon

The other day, fellow blogger Hans from Slice the Life picked Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks as part of his ongoing fun 2021 song draft. Not only did this remind me of the great tune but also that The Kinks are among my longtime favorite British rock bands, together with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Cream, to name a few others. When it comes to the group from Muswell Hill, I’m mostly familiar with their ’60s and early ’70s output. I still love You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Got My Feet On the Ground, A Well Respected Man, Till the End of the Day, Dead End Street…The list of great tunes that were mostly written by Ray Davies goes on and on. One of my favorite songs by The Kinks is Sunny Afternoon, yet another track penned by Ray. It first appeared as a single in the UK in June 1966, yielding the band’s third and final no. 1 hit there. In the U.S., where it was released the following month, Sunny Afternoon peaked at no. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was also included on The Kinks’ fourth studio album Face to Face that came out in October and December 1966 in the UK and U.S., respectively. According to Songfacts, Davies wrote the tune while recovering from a challenging period of group tensions and lawsuits. The song’s success “did bring Davies out of his funk for a while.”

Elvis Presley/Jailhouse Rock

And once again this brings me to the last tune for this installment. Elvis Presley was my childhood idol and, come to think of it, my only idol. Usually, I don’t idolize people, not even The Beatles, my all-time favorite band. Well, when I adored Elvis and would do crazy stuff like trying to impersonate him in front of a mirror I was pretty young – 12 years or so. Anyway, while I no longer idolize Elvis, I still think he was one of the most compelling music artists I know, especially during his early phase before he entered the U.S. Army. Here’s an absolute classic rock & roll gem: Jailhouse Rock, one of many great tunes co-written by the songwriting and record-producing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. First released as a single in September 1957, Jailhouse Rock also became the title track of the third movie starring Elvis Presley. While Elvis movies are generally pretty dismal, this picture will forever be remembered for its amazing dance routine. In some regards, this feels like looking at an early version of a Michael Jackson video. The choreography is pretty stunning. Come on Spider Murphy, play that tenor saxophone, and Little Joe, blow that slide trombone!

Sources: Wikipedia; Beki Hemingway website; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube