Essential Records: Led Zeppelin's 'IV'

Posted by Billy Gil, October 29, 2014 04:26pm | Post a Comment

Too much has been written about Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album. Its songs have so permeated every pore of popular culture that it’s nearly impossible to think of it with a clear head. But its ubiquity should not count against it.

Led Zeppelin IV is as wonderful and album to revisit on its new reissues as it is to discover for the first time. It is the sound of four of the greatest rock musicians of all time at the height of their powers. People who don’t listen to this are depriving themselves of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest thrill ride.

I remember hearing it for the first time when I was 12. My dad bought us the tape to listen to in the car on the way to guitar lessons with my brothers. (Yes, my dad was very cool for getting me and my brothers guitar lessons, but it was his way of making peace with us after he made us move from Southern California to Florida—FLORIDA.)

My older brother was 15 or 16 at the time and immediately fell in love. I didn’t. He was at the right age to appreciate. I liked it all right, but I kind of shrugged. Led Zeppelin sounded so old to me, and too boyish. It was 1994, and I was too busy listening to Green Day, The Cranberries, Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots, my taste leaning toward punk-influenced grunge and female-fronted bands. My brother played that tape incessantly in the car, and we didn’t get along too well at the time, as teenage brothers often don’t, so I kind of hated it sometimes, to be honest. And there Led Zeppelin remained for me, a relic to be vaguely appreciated but not loved.

Fast forward to high school and college, and I got Led Zeppelin, or at least I thought I did. I liked “Stairway to Heaven,” anyway, and I remember making friends leave it on in the car instead of switching over to Shaggy or whatever other garbage we were listening to in 2000.

But it wasn’t until a few years later, in my early 20s, that suddenly Led Zeppelin hit me hard. I was 23 and living alone in Chicago for grad school. I had gotten a huge number of CDs stolen out of my car and was slowly replenishing my supply at Reckless Records. I picked up a used copy of Led Zeppelin III, which I’d never heard before and totally fell in love—shout out to III, which is a perfect album for Led Zep neophytes. I slowly made my way back to IV, which I realized I’d been wrong about all along. It was Led Zeppelin’s best albums. In fact, it was one of the best albums ever made.

“Black Dog’s” heavy blues strut is flat out audacious. Has there ever been so concise, so exacting, so perfect a rock drum performance as John Bonham’s on “Rock And Rolls”?

Though on any other album, medieval canticle “The Battle of Evermore” would seem a misplaced momentum killer, but it is a breath of fresh air after the first two full-throttle tracks. Listening now brings back fond memories of playing “Dungeons & Dragons” with my brothers and dorky friends, of ruby rings and longswords-plus-one and Keeps on the Borderland. And it perfectly introduces “Stairway to Heaven,” a song so massive, so ambitious and so complete that it almost warrants its own album.

You could say “Stairway to Heaven” is overrated and be right, and it would still be undeniably great. But “Stairway to Heaven’s” only crime is that it so towers over everything that it threatens to dwarf the rest of Led Zeppelin IV, which is equally wonderful.

This album doesn’t even need “Stairway to Heaven.” To me, the song doesn’t compare with the two that immediately follow it. “Misty Mountain Hop” focuses all of Led Zeppelin’s estimable kinetic energy into a singular three-note boogie that absolutely pulverizes. That moment when Robert Plant pulls back and Jimmy Page lays harmonic notes over it and the whole band falls into complete lockstep is so exciting that it makes you feel happy to be alive when you hear it. John Bonham’s rumbling beat and Plant’s absolutely possessed vocals on “Four Sticks” are hypnotic, spiritual even. Those two songs alone make IV one of the all-time great car albums.

On an album that is perfectly paced, “Going to California” again provides a breather. It is a simple yet emotionally pleasing folk song befitting of Joni Mitchell, something that showed the band could write delicate songs alongside massive rock epics. And “When the Levee Breaks,” the album’s final track, serves a similar purpose to “Stairway to Heaven” but was always my favorite, combining all of the bands strains into a psychedelic jam that explodes into the auditory equivalent of fireworks.

Listening to Led Zeppelin IV now, every aspect of it feels triumphant to me. It’s a piece of music that feels blessed, so moving, so accomplished that it makes you feel like that you could do anything.


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