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—9½     

 

Released: 1971

1) Black Dog  2) Rock and Roll  3) The Battle of Evermore  4) Stairway to Heaven  5) Misty Mountain Hop  6) Four Sticks  7) Going to California  8) When the Levee Breaks

 

Led Zeppelin III” reached number one in the UK and in the States, but the success was based on advanced orders from fans thinking they were going to receive a rethread of Zeppelin’s second album.  After the initial sensation, “III” died (of the records released during John Bonham’s lifetime, only “Presence” sold worse).  And if the fan response was lukewarm, the critical reaction was measured at 273 Kelvin.  Being rejected on varying degrees by both the fans and the press, Jimmy Page was hurt.  He was convinced that the music on “III” was bashed because it was released under the Led Zeppelin moniker…that fans and critics would not take “serious” music from the cock-rock extraordinaire.  To demonstrate his displeasure, he orchestrated a band press blackout for an entire year and did everything in his power to let the music speak for itself on their subsequent release.

 

With this in mind, the fourth Led Zeppelin album had no title, nor did it have a list of the song names.  In fact, it didn’t have any information on the cover stating who the artist was that released the record.  Instead, the members of Zeppelin, under Page’s tutelage, found a symbol that represented each of their personas.  Although the band did not comment on the symbols at the time, and Jimmy still has not publicly stated what his represents, those four symbols are the official name of the album, listed on the various Music Charts of the times (although “Led Zeppelin IV,” “Four Symbols,” “Untitled,” and “Zoso” have all been used as well). 

 

To complete their façade, the band even began to dress differently during performances, with every member growing beards (and Jimmy wearing a fisherman’s jacket and cap on stage), purposely downplaying their sex symbol status, trying to get critics to just listen to their music, without thinking of their reputation.  Despite their best efforts though, the critical response was only slightly more welcoming than previous albums.  This backlash, however, did not detour fans from buying the album in droves.  While it wasn’t an overwhelming success right out of the gate (Along with “Led Zeppelin I,” this was the only Zeppelin album released in John Bonham’s tenure to not reach Number One in the States), “Zeppelin IV” went on to sell over twenty-two million copies, the fourth most units sold in history.   

 

The album opens with a tease for the fans and a snub to the critics, as “Black Dog” seems like a return to their “Led Zeppelin II” image.  True, the song contains smutty lyrics and Robert screams his delivery, but this hardened call and response tune is more than just a cock-rock song as it is truer to the blues—and not the “Whole Lotta Love” blues interpretation either…”Black Dog” seems purer, more in line with the spirit of Zeppelin’s heroes.  To open this record with such a deliberate prod shows just how hurt Jimmy Page felt by their critical condemnation and just how much he wanted to erase the aura “Led Zeppelin II” had helped to create.  In other words, he wanted to show the world that Zeppelin was much more than just a dumb cock-rocking band you love to hate…they were a band with artistic vision.              

 

And that vision was able to craft a brand new sound: a hard rock boogie.  Hot on the heels of “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll” comes blazing in with John Bonham’s fantastic drumming helping to create the band’s most unique track, sounding like “Train Kept A Rolling” on speed.  Ian Stewart, of too-ugly-for-the-Rolling Stones-fame (ouch…man, that truly is saying something there) guests on high-octane piano and adds an element of cheerfulness missing on almost every other Zeppelin number.  Marc Bolan and T-Rex were bringing back the boogie of the 50s and turning it around at about the same time, with albums like “Electric Warrior” and “The Slider,” but Zeppelin plays their version with so much force, so much physical-ness, that no one had heard anything like it before (or really since).  Hearing this true rock and roll gem is like when the kids at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance witnessed Marty McFly playing “Johnny B. Goode”…it all starts off new and fresh, but by the end, you can’t believe where the song was taken.   

 

Nor, I’m sure, could fans or critics have believed the mandolin driven, Old World March of “The Battle of Evermore.”  The tune begins as quiet and Medieval as the band was able with Page strumming a beautiful melody, and although slightly similar in structure to “That’s The Way” from their previous album, this seems more important, more forceful, more regal, more English.  Sandy Denny, of Fairport Convention, guests on vocals, sounding almost exactly like Robert Plant, but with just a touch more umph and really does add an authentic element that Zeppelin had lacked on their other quieter songs since “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (she was given a special symbol of her own on the inner sleeve of the album to thank her).  Despite its length, the whole tune is absolutely majestic and their most hollowing.     

 

Traditionally bands follow such an imposing track with something lightweight, but instead Zeppelin sequenced the song they knew would finally change their image forever…the song they were so sure would eliminate their cock-rock monkey, that they even included the lyrics inside the album for the first time.  And what lyrics they were.  Without a doubt, Plant’s best with the band, including enough imagery and one-liners to make even his harshest critic take notice.  Particularly the line, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”  The tune itself is also amazing in the sense that it radiates weight, with Page’s solo, Jones’s bass, and Bonham’s drumming all matching the mood, slow build up, and drastic tempo change beautifully.  "Stairway to Heaven," of course, isn’t the best song of all time, or even the best song on the album, but it is a deserving masterpiece.             

 

Unfortunately, the band follows one of the greatest opening sides in music history with “Misty Mountain Hop” kicking off Side B.  In the “Living Loving Maid” mold, this is just a dumb, catchy, funky-filler piece.  It shares a lot with “Celebration Day” and “Out on the Tiles” from the previous record, but the lyrics are what brings this tune up (albeit just slightly) from being the worst the band has written.  They tell the tale of a guy who gets high, gets harassed by some cops, and comes to the realization that things would be better if he left society completely.  With such a serious attempt at social commentary, even if it is disguised in such a ridiculous tune, Zeppelin was again trying to demonstrate that there was more to them than just booze and outrageousness.   

 

Ironically, the most outrageous and drunken member of the band, John Bonham, takes center stage for the next track…the often-overlooked “Four Sticks.”  His hammering really catapults Zeppelin into nailing the deep, powerful riff the tune is based on.  If it weren’t for the voice modulator on Plant’s vocals and the weird howling owls lyric, this would be an easy highlight.  As it is, it is still a great, thumping, amazingly melodic rock song, with an Eastern flair, and absolutely gorgeous acoustic interlays on the chorus.  Gorgeous doesn’t even begin to describe “Going to California” though.  It is as delicate as the band ever sounded, supports a stunning melody, and features, at times, extremely effective lyrics.  Plant’s singing is seeping with emotion; he doesn’t sound the least bit fake, and the guitar picking and mandolin strumming might be my favorite piece of music the band recorded.   

 

Well…my favorite piece that isn’t “When The Levee Breaks” that is.  This is the greatest take on the blues that I have ever heard by any band.  It has to be played at FULL VOLUME, windows down, so everyone can know that you don’t give a fuck what they think.  Bonham’s drumming is otherworldly, Plant’s performance is his best, Page’s guitar jumps off the speakers, and Jones holds it all together.  Absolutely spectacular.  One of the best rock songs ever.  Not rock, as in “Rock and Roll,” 50s inspired boogie…I’m talking raunchy without being crude…I’m talking heavy without giving you a hernia.  I’m talking too much.  This is the pinnacle of their career; this is the song they were meant to make.  It really isn’t anything more than a heavily manipulated blues riff with some killer harmonica fills, but the tune is all about attitude, as is the entire album.  As if Zeppelin collectively said, “Fuck your expectations, fuck ‘Led Zeppelin II,’ fuck you.  This is us.”                 

 

And what a statement it was.  This album proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Led Zeppelin were capable of making an artistic masterpiece…That they were anything but just cock-rock pushers…That they were a band that should be mentioned in the same breath as the Stones and the Who.  Ironically, this album also did nothing to establish these new grounds Zeppelin was shooting for.  Critics still labeled them mindless, violent thugs, and their fans (many of whom were indeed mindless, violent, thugs) accepted “Stairway to Heaven” as their powerful new battle cry.  Instead of this album changing the band’s audience, or at least helping them add a new, more refined one, this record further alienated Zeppelin from the type of critical success they had long since dreamed.  Stairway to Heaven” just gave more fuel to the critical firestorm that claimed the band catered their music to fit their listeners, and so, for the next album, Jimmy Page would open up Led Zeppelin’s experimental side even further in an attempt to cleanse the band’s image to the point of them being unrecognizable.

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