Led Zeppelin (Album)

IN EARLY 1971, when Led Zeppelin returned to Headley Grange — a run-down mansion in Hampshire where some of 1970’s Led Zeppelin III had been taped — they took along The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio to record the whole process.

“We needed the sort of facilities where we could have a cup of tea and wander around the garden, and then go in and do what we had to do,” said Jimmy Page. By moving into Headley Grange for the whole period of recording, many of the tracks were made up almost on the spot and committed to tape virtually there and then.

“A recording studio is an immediate imposition as compared to sitting around a re strumming,” said Robert Plant at the time. “With Headley Grange, we can put something down and hear the results immediately.”

Initial sessions for the fourth album began at the new Island studios in December 1970, but the real work was done in the country. Once inside the great hall of Headley Grange, ideas owed freely. It was here that Page stumbled on the monster snare and bass drum sound by spaciously miking Bonzo’s newly acquired kit.

With the basic tracks recorded, many of them live, the band added overdubs at Island and, on the recommendation of engineer Andy Johns, took the completed master tapes to Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Studios for mixing. This mix proved to be a great disappointment, causing a delay in the release of the album. The band had hoped to have it out in time for their late-summer tour of the US, but further mixing back in London put the release back to November.

After the mixed reception that greeted the eclecticism of Led Zeppelin III, the group deliberately played down the new release. There had been talk of releasing a double set and at one stage, Page even came up with the idea of issuing the album as four EPs.

When it came to a title, instead of the expected Led Zeppelin IV, the band decided to set a precedent by selecting four symbols, each representing a member who chose his own symbol to form the title. John Bonham’s came from a book of runes and took the form of three linked circles. Said to represent the man-wife-child trilogy, Plant was heard to remark that it resembled the emblem of

Ballantine beer! John Paul Jones’ came from the same book and was meant to represent confidence and competence. Plant’s feather in a circle design was his own, based on the sign of the ancient Mu civilization. Page’s mysterious symbol, which has often been mistaken for a word that could be pronounced “Zoso”, was also his own work. The group could hardly have known at the time what a deep and lasting impression these symbols would have on their career.

To further throw fans and the music industry, the gatefold sleeve design was entirely wordless, except for a barely decipherable Oxfam poster hanging amid the urban decay depicted on the front. (This cover print was actually bought from a junk shop in Reading by Plant.) A tarot card illustration of the Hermit formed the inner gatefold illustration, and the lyrics to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ were printed on the inner sleeve. Atlantic Records’ reaction to this total lack of information on the sleeve was predictably negative.

As a result of all this mystery, no one has ever been quite sure what to actually call the album, and it has been variously referred to over the years as Led Zeppelin IV, Untitled, Four Symbols, Zoso and The Runes. And since no one from the Zeppelin camp has ever actually confirmed a title, the mystery is unlikely ever to be solved — which is exactly what the increasingly mysterious Led Zeppelin wanted.

In the run-up to the album’s release, a series of teaser adverts depicting each symbol was placed in the music press. It didn’t take fans too long to associate these mystical images with the album, and, title or no title, the fourth Zeppelin LP was an instant massive seller. It entered the UK chart at number one and stayed in the chart for 62 weeks. 

In America, it remained on the chart longer than any other Zeppelin album, though it failed to knock Carole King’s mega-selling Tapestry o the top spot. Ultimately, the fourth Zeppelin album would be the most durable seller in their catalogue and the most impressive critical and commercial success of their career.

In December 1990, this album, along with Def Leppard’s Hysteria, was certified by Billboard magazine as being the biggest-selling rock album in American chart history. By that year’s end it had registered some 10 million sales in the US alone. Not bad for an album whose wordless sleeve artwork was declared commercial suicide when it was first handed to the record company.

Black Dog

(Page, Plant, Jones)

If Zeppelin III had thrown up doubts in some corners as to Led Zeppelin’s continued ability to ex the power displayed on their first two albums, here was the perfect antidote. From the moment Page warms up the Gibson, this is one of the most instantly recognisable Zep tracks.

‘Black Dog’ takes its title from a mutt that hung around at the Grange. The impossible part of the riff was Jones’ input, while the a cappella vocal arrangement, Page would admit years later, was influenced by Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’. The solo was constructed from four overdubbed Les Paul lls. The song is held in great esteem by Plant in particular, who would later add snippets of the song into two of his solo tracks, ‘Tall Cool One’ and ‘Your Ma Said She Cried In Her Sleep Last Night’.

Rock And Roll

(Page, Plant, Jones, Bonham)

Another instantly identiable Zeppelin anthem, and one that would be often used to open their concerts in the future. This track came out of a jam with Rolling Stones’ roadie Ian Stewart on piano. Bonzo played the intro of ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’/’Keep A Knockin”, and Page added a ri. Fifteen minutes later the nucleus of ‘Rock And Roll’ was down on tape — displaying the full benet of recording on location with the tapes left running.

The Battle Of Evermore

(Page, Plant)

The tune for this was written by Page late one night at the Grange while he experimented on Jones’ mandolin. Plant came up with a set of lyrics inspired by a book he was reading on the Scottish wars. Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny was called in to sing the answer lines to Plant’s vocal. Another impressive arrangement, a solo Plant guide vocal out-take remains in the vaults.

This song appeared in the 1992 grunge cult lm Singles, performed by The Love Mongers, who featured Annie and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

Stairway To Heaven

(Page, Plant)

The big one. ‘Stairway’ started out as a fairly complete chord progression that Page brought in when the band commenced recording at Island studios in December 1970. At Headley Grange the song developed around the log re, with Plant composing a set of lyrics full of hippy mysticism that told the tale of a search for spiritual perfection. The song’s arrangement, with Jones contributing bass recorder on the intro and Bonzo entering as the track built to a crescendo, came together very quickly. This left Page to add the solo back at Island, for which he returned to the Telecaster. For the live version, he would invest in a custom-made Gibson SG double-neck guitar.

‘Stairway To Heaven’ was undoubtedly the stand-out track on the fourth album, and was well received when performed on UK and US dates prior to the album’s release. When the band went back to the States in the summer of 1972, Atlantic was naturally keen to issue the track as a single, but manager Peter Grant refused and was to do the same again the next year. The upshot of that decision was that record buyers began to invest in the fourth album as if it were a single.

‘Stairway To Heaven’ went on to become the most requested song on American radio, and achieve truly classic status worldwide. Far from being a mere rock song, it has become something of a people’s favourite, cover-version fodder for symphony orchestras and night- club singers alike. So well known has the dreamy opening riff become that guitarists trying out guitars in British music shops must pay a fine of £5 if they play ‘Stairway’ in the shop!

In 1993, an entire album of cover versions of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ by various Australian performers, instigated by the Australian Money Or The Gun TV show, was released, and a spoof rendering by the inimitable Rolf Harris found its way into the UK Top Ten amid much jocularity.

Alongside songs like ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’, ‘Stairway’ has a pastoral opening cadence that is classical in feel and which has ensured its immortality. This air of respectability may be the reason why Robert Plant has turned away from the song, declaring it a great song written at the right time for all the right reasons, but now sanctimonious in the extreme. Free from the burden of having to interpret the lyrics, Jimmy Page remains justly proud of the composition, happy to celebrate its legacy as an instrumental live showpiece.

On the 20th anniversary of the original release of this song, it was announced via US radio sources that the song had logged up an estimated 2,874,000 radio plays — back to back, that would run for 44 years solid. Its reverence in America remains unparalleled. In the UK there was a strong lobby from both Warners and Radio One to see the track issued as a single for the Christmas market in 1990. Ultimately — and unsurprisingly — the idea was vetoed. Rare original 7” promos pressed at the time, accompanied by a humorous in-house memo (Atlantic LZ3), are among the most sought-after Led Zeppelin UK rarities.

When sitting around that log re all those years ago, the band certainly could never have envisaged the impact ‘Stairway To Heaven’ would have on their career, that the song would become the single most-requested track on American FM radio for most of the Seventies, or that it would inspire a whole album of cover versions.

The appearance of the superb delivery of the song drawn from their Earl’s Court shows in May 1975 on the 2003 Led Zeppelin DVD finally restored some much overdue dignity to a track that, though much maligned, remains the band’s most famous composition.

Misty Mountain Hop

(Page, Plant, Jones)

A happy, uptempo outing, written and recorded at the Grange, with Jones on electric piano and providing the central ri motif the song revolves around. This is another vintage Zeppelin song of which Plant has not grown tired. He has been more than happy to roll out its nostalgic hippy ideals during the Eighties, both on his solo tours and at reunions with Page and Jones.

Four Sticks

(Page, Plant)

A difficult track to record, this required many more takes than usual and is so called because Bonzo employed the use of four drumsticks to create the relentless rhythm track. This was one of the tracks the band recut with members of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1972. It also features Jones on Moog synthesizer. Another song that has enjoyed deserved renewed attention, it was one of the most-played Zep numbers on Page & Plant’s 1995/96 world tour and remains a staple part of Plant’s solo live set.

Going To California

(Page, Plant)

Another acoustic beauty with some memorable Plant lyrics, heavily influenced by Joni Mitchell. This started out as a song about Californian earthquakes and, when Page, Andy Johns and Peter Grant travelled to LA to mix the album, lo and behold the mountains did begin to tremble and shake. The track was then known as ‘Guide To California’. It also tells of an unrequited search for the ultimate lady. “It’s innitely hard,” Plant would often ad lib in the live rendition. Some 20 years later, at the Knebworth 1990 festival, he gave an indication during the show that his own search was ongoing, stating, “Do you know what — it’s still hard…”

When The Levee Breaks

(Page, Plant, Jones, Bonham, Minnie)

On June 18, 1929, in New York, Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy recorded a blues tune called ‘When The Levee Breaks’. Forty years later in leafy Hampshire, Led Zeppelin reconstructed the song to form the spiralling nale of their fourth album. It had already been tried unsuccessfully at Island at the beginning of the sessions but, in Headley Grange it took on a whole new direction.

‘Levee’ goes down in the annals of Zeppelin history for Bonzo’s crushing drum sound, performed, according to Page, on a brand new kit that had only just been delivered from the factory. Andy Johns has revealed that the unique drum sound came about after Bonzo complained that he wasn’t getting the sound he wanted. Johns promptly repositioned the kit in the Headley Grange hallway and hung two M1160 mikes from the staircase. Back in the Stones mobile, he compressed the drum sound through two channels and added echo through Page’s Binson echo unit. The result was the most sampled and envied drum track in rock history. Beyond the millennium it can be heard spinning on DJ turntables the world over as a perennial mixing backing track.

Alongside that drum sound, Page contributes a rampant bottleneck guitar, while Plant blows a mean mouth harp that cleverly winds it all up in a barrage of backwards echo.

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