Led Zeppelin IV
by Peter Grainger
Led Zeppelin IV, or the infamous ‘Runes Album’, as we called it, was a rite-of-passage for many of us in the early 70s. I remember scrawling on my original inner sleeve, “Greatest Led Zep album so far!!!” Looking back, I realize every band has an imperial phase,
even the mighty Zeppelin and for me this was their peak. Of course they made other good records, but IV just holds together so well from start to finish. There was great music on the first 3 LPs too, but IV raised the stakes. I was 15 when I saw Zep in Ottawa in
April 1970. It is hard to describe how exciting it was seeing this band in action at that age. My grade 9 buddy Paul Gehring and I climbed up a section of seats that had been raised like a drawbridge over the Civic Centre stage, giving us an aerial view of the band
from above and behind, with us facing the audience for much of the show. It was incredible watching from that perspective. Less than a year later, IV came out. I was blown away.
That opening salvo of "Black Dog" and "Rock+Roll" is dynamite. So sexy, so strong. Both songs have gnarly, memorable riffs. “Black Dog” started from an idea from John Paul Jones, while messing around in the studio; the weird sounds at the beginning put you right
in the room—there’s a ching, ching, ching of guitar strings before all hell breaks loose. Page says the track was influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”. Bonzo Bonham lays down a drum pattern straight out of Little Richard’s “Keep A’Knockin”. That classic 1950’s
rock sound continues on “Rock & Roll”, which is also similar to the aforementioned Little Richard, this time inspired by “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Zeppelin always borrowed liberally from others, although these influencers were almost always left uncredited and unpaid.
Next the mood changes abruptly with another of their Tolkienesque ballads, the moody, melancholic "Battle of Evermore" with the late great Sandy Denny dueting with Plant, with Pagey playing mandolin for the first time on record. This song comes across like ye olde
English ballade, replete with dramatic call and response chanting. Plant sings the verses, which chronicles the sad events, while Denny soars on the choruses, as if from atop the battlements, urging the fighters to lay down their swords. Plant was a fan of Tolkien
but has said that at that time he’d also been reading a book about the Scottish wars. Denny herself wrote & recorded two classic anti-war songs of her own, “John The Gun” and “It’ll Take A Long Time” and a year before this session with Zeppelin, she recorded the
traditional lament, “Banks Of The Nile” with Fotheringay, about two young lovers, with the girl asking if she can come to fight Napoleon too, willing to cut or hide her long locks, don a uniform and take up arms to be with her man. It is so tenderly sung, it has
made me cry on many an occasion.
Then came "Stairway To Heaven"; I can still remember the goosebumps I felt as I first took it in. Such an amazing performance. But what was it about? I am still convinced that much of the music was stolen from an instrumental titled “Taurus” by the U-S Westcoast
rockers Spirit. Ultimately, the copyright challenge favoured Zeppelin over Spirit, but it is known both Page and Plant were fans of the band, even performing songs like “Fresh Garbage” on early tours. I have a bootleg of several early workouts, including Page
messing around on an acoustic in front of a fire place. I can’t help thinking he borrowed more than liberally from what Spirit’s guitarist Randy California had created. If you’ve never heard “Taurus”, check it out and decide for yourself.
Despite the ownership issue, the electric guitar solo at the climax of “Stairway” is still a favourite, even though I have heard it hundreds of times (I worked both campus and then commercial rock radio in the late 70s into the mid-80s, so yeah, I am more than
familiar with the tune-- it is in my DNA). Page sounds so free and spontaneous as he plays it; he has been quoted several times, saying the song brought the best out of them—a “milestone”.
The second side of the original LP was almost as good. Although the title of “Misty Mountain Hop” seems another nod to Tolkien, it was actually inspired by a celebrated London love-in that was busted by the bobbies. I loved the playful drum pattern and the funky
electric piano by Jonesy gave it a much different sound to anything they had attempted before.
Supposedly “Four Sticks” points to Bonham’s occasional use of four drumsticks during live solos, but it may also be a reference to the band members themselves, who critics often decried them as “sticks in the mud”. For me it is the weakest track on the LP,
although I often wonder as the song fades, if Bonzo is equipped with four sticks during the ride-out.
Their ode to Joni Mitchell, "Going To California" set my younger heart asoaring. It is so wistful, as mellow as a foggy Laurel Canyon sunrise. From bootlegs, it is obvious Page had been playing around with the tune for years. Plant gave it substance. It
always impressed me that Zeppelin could play as hard and loud as any band on the planet, yet turn around and play some as sweet and delicate as this. Light and shade, you bet.
And a final nod to their blues roots came with the closer, a pilfering of Memphis Minnie on "When The Levee Breaks". It still floods my mind with memories. It is blues, but given a shot of studio wizardry, that made it sound down-right modern. The guitar
is a heavily phased electric 12-string, with some backward echo here and there; the harmonica is treated with such distortion, its grating wail elevates the dread, as Plant sings in fear of the rising flood waters. They made a smart move, recording the drums
with a single mic, hung from the ceiling of the main hall of Headley Grange. It sounds so powerful, it is no wonder Bonzo’s drum pattern has been sampled and recycled by so many others. Bonham's drumming alone makes this a standout track on a definitive album
by one of rock's greatest groups. Rock on!
Led Zeppelin IV
Robert Plant: Vocals, Harmonica
Jimmy Page: Guitars, Mandolin
John Paul Jones: Bass, Electric Piano, Mandolin, Recorders, Synthesizer
John Bonham: Drums
Atlantic Records, November 1971