Forty five years after the release of Led Zeppelin I, some elements still stand out. There’s a sense of urgency and danger bouncing off a compelling mix of disciplined experience and nervous sloppiness. “The first album is really roaring, the four members came together and created this fifth monster!” Jimmy Page told Uncut magazine in May 2005.
Page always had a strong vision for Led Zeppelin – the music, the approach, even marketing ideas like no official singles. Years of doing sessions had taught him the right and wrong ways of making great music. It was to be a heavy blues trio, with a powerful drummer and a singer who used his voice as another instrument.
But what made Zeppelin I compelling was that the lineup that made it was a far cry from the experienced players that Page initially considered. Page had considered singers as Steve Winwood and Steve Marriott (the Small Faces’ manager Don Arden reportedly sent a message back asking how Page would feel about playing guitar with some of his fingers broken), drummers like Keith Moon and Aynsley Dubar, and bassists as The Who’s John Entwistle and Chris Dreja of The Yardbirds.
Page was enchanted with Terry Reid’s voice on his River album. But he turned down the offer and suggested an unknown teenager Robert Plant from Birmingham. Page, Dreja and manager Peter Grant journeyed up to see him with his band Hobstweedle. They knocked on the backstage door. A big made teenager in a University of Toronto sweatshirt let them in. Page whispered to his manager, “Crikey, they got a big roadie!” It turned out to be Plant.
There’s no doubt that 19-year old Plant was mesmerized by Page. The guitarist had recorded with US bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson.
Three years before, Plant went to see Williamson at Birmingham Town Hall and sneaked backstage afterwards to steal one of his harmonicas. Plant wanted his buddy John Bonham in. Bonzo was reluctant as he was making £35 a week playing with folk singer Tim Rose. But Page dug him as soon as he checked him out “He plays so loud, promoters won’t want to book him!” Page cackled. Page knew John Paul Jones distantly from the session circuit, when he played on Rod Stewart and Lulu records and arranged the strings for The Rolling Stones’ ‘She’s A Rainbow’.
Jones recalled Zeppelin’s first rehearsal in August 1968, in a small room in London’sSoho filled with dusty old amps. Page asked Jones, “Do you know ‘The Train Kept A-Rolling?’ He didn’t. Page said, ‘It’s easy, just G to A.” Jones remembered, “He counted it out and the room just exploded, and we said, ‘Right, we’re on, this is it, this is going to work!’ And we just sort of built it up from there.”
So what Led Zeppelin I had through its nine songs lasting 44 minutes and 26 seconds was a group that locked in, and lucked in, in sheer chemistry. Page said, “The thing about Zeppelin (I) was that we always played as a band.”
They’d already worked in the song list and arrangements during a tour of Scandinavia in September 1968 as The New Yardbirds. As soon as they returned, they changed their name and went into Olympic Studios.
The sessions took 36 hours over a six week period. Page’s and Jones’ discipline from sessions meant recording went quickly. They had still not signed a record deal, so Page had to pay the studio costs of £1,782 himself.
Page: “The first album is a live album, it really is, and it’s done intentionally in that way. It’s got overdubs on it, but the original tracks are live.”
Plant and Bonham were at that stage no more than country bumpkins. Plant remembers being “petrified” in the studio, overwhelmed by the size of the control room and the volume of the music booming out over the huge speakers. But it was also an exhilarating experienced for him. “When we listened to playbacks, it was unbelievable, fantastic, to hear what we’d done in the rehearsal room develop a different perspective and sound, like we know it sounds. It was the most amazing sensation.”
By Led Zeppelin II, he’d start to work on what he’d call the “blue shadow stated” effect. Bonham on the other hand was providing some great work at this early stage, admittedly precise but without the imagination that went into the later records.
Page was in control, using sound innovations as backward echo on ‘You Shook Me’. He used the ambience of the studio room and used techniques as placing additional mics as far as 20 feet from the instruments rather than the traditional approach of putting them right in front.
He drew on an array of guitars for the wide array of styles. Much of the record was done on a Telecaster which Beck gave him. He liked it because it sounded like a Les Paul; with proper mic placings and different amps (in particular the Supro amp) he found that he could get more tones than most. That’s a Leslie on the solo for ‘Good Times Bad Times’. For the acoustic sounds on ‘Black Mountain Side’ and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ he borrowed a Gibson J-200 from English bluesman Big Jim Sullivan.
“It was a beautiful guitar, really great. I’ve never found a guitar of that quality anywhere since. I could play so easily on it, get a really thick sound; it had heavy-gauge strings on it, but it just didn’t seem to feel like it.” ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ features an out-of-tune Fender 10-string steel guitar.
For ‘Communication Breakdown’, he opted for a small room and miked the guitar from a distance. He agrees that the solo on
‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ is sloppy. “There are mistakes in it, but it doesn’t make any difference. I’ll always leave the mistakes in. I can’t help it. The timing bits on the A and Bb parts are right, though it might sound wrong. The timing just sounds off. But there are some wrong notes.”
Peter Grant was in the meantime negotiating with record companies. The British ones like Pye and EMI laughed him out of their offices when he asked for an advance of £17,500. But Atlantic Records in America, who had Cream on their books and knew that audiences were turning for heavier sounds, trumped up $100,000, the highest amount ever given to an unknown act.
Led Zeppelin I was released in the US on January 12, and in the UK two months later. It initially got bad reviews, especially in America where critics accused the band of ripping off Beck’s Truth from six months before. Both albums shared ‘You Shook Me’. There was also annoyance that Page claimed writing credits for ‘Black Mountain Side’ when it was similar to Brit folkie Bert Jansch’s version of the traditional folk song ‘Black Water Side’.
But audiences lapped up the album, especially after Led Zeppeln began touring behind its release. The shows stretched out some songs to epics, much to the crowd’s delight. ‘Dazed And Confused’ crept up to 20 minutes, incorporating the violin bow and a call’n’response between Plant and Page.
‘Communication Breakdown’ had a lengthy jam midway while ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ clearly was a crowd favourite. Little wonder that Zeppelin became the most bootlegged act in the world. Of the bootlegs from shows around that first album, Live On Blueberry Hill, Twinnight/Fillmore West 1969, Plays Pure Blues and Intimidator are recommended.
The cover of Led Zeppelin I, of an exploding zeppelin, also brought attention to the album. It went Top 10 in America, the UK and Australia (where it was certified double platinum) and worked through Europe and Japan.In financial terms, Page’s £1,782 investment made a heavy return. The record grossed US$7million by the mid-70s.
Since then, Led Zeppelin I has gone through appraisal by critics. They now appreciate how good the arrangements were, the subtle inventiveness of Page’s production, and how the playing complemented the style. In 2003 it ranked #29 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time (and #7 on Uncut’s 2006 list of great debut albums).
It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004. It is also remembered for being the first record to be described as “heavy metal.” A US critic used the line “heavy metal thunder” from Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ to convey to his readers the atmospherics of the heavy blues and rock fusion of Led Zeppelin I.
It’s 40 years since the release of Houses of the Holy – wow! Where did that time go? There was a period spanning less than two decades that spawned some remarkable bands and a treasure trove of talent, music and memories. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Supertramp, Yes, Genesis, ELO, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Traffic – the list goes on. Not surprisingly this period was also the golden years of Hi-Fi. A Hi-Fi system was a status symbol – the bigger the better. We keenly anticipated the latest release from our favourite bands, and we shared and talked music.
The last couple of decades have not been kind to the ‘audiophile’ industry. This is partly due to our attention being diverted by other interests such as computer games and video, and by a gradual erosion of quality due to the release of poorer performance playback formats. While it is still a controversial subject most people (including myself) still hold that the release of the CD was a backward step in terms of sound quality. There is no argument that MP3 was a giant step backwards. If we continue to release formats that no longer reproduce the emotion and the excitement in music it is only natural that people lose interest and look elsewhere for their entertainment.
I believe that this is all about to change.
We are entering the age of streaming, and of High Resolution download. The last couple of years have seen remarkable advances in this technology. Today it is common for people to store their music on a hard drive in an uncompressed state, usually on a computer. Recent advances in DAC’s (Digital to Analogue Converters) and associated equipment now makes it possible to replay this music at a quality level equalling or even surpassing the performance of the original CD.
More importantly we witnessing the emergence of a better than CD quality offering, delivered via the internet. A CD is 16-bit PCM encoding at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate per channel. It is now possible to download (legally) music which is 24bit, 192kHz, many times the standard resolution of the CD. It is still early days for this technology but there are already dozens of sites offering this service. There is not a lot of new release material on offer, but there is plenty of classic rock etc. available. For example HDTracks has recently released the entire back catalogue of The Rolling Stones in High Resolution.
Despite the bad rap that Apple get for the performance of their iTunes store, this emerging market has a lot to thank Apple for. The sound quality may not have been great, but it was 1) a very easy technology to navigate, 2) easily accessible and 3) opened up a huge percentage of the population to musical genres that they may have never been exposed to. The compromise in performance was easily outweighed by the convenience and scope of their offering. This has opened the door to the early acceptance of Hi-Res downloads. These have all the convenience and potentially the scope of iTunes, but with an unprecedented level of performance. (Yes – many in the audiophile fraternity are conceding that Hi-Res downloads rival or outperform vinyl!)
So what do you need for this new format? In reality very little, and you probably have most of the ingredients. Apart from the obvious – a very good amplifier and speaker system – you’ll need to be able to store large files as you download them. This is no longer a problem, given the relatively low cost these days of capacious hard drives. Ideally, a network attached multi-drive with mirroring (so if one disc fails the other has already backed it up!) is the way to go.
But then you need to be able to play these HD files back via a streamer incorporating a DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) which is not just capable of decoding the 24bit/192kHz data, but does it in to a quality level that’s worthy of the much improved source material. There are now quite a few DACs and streamers on the market that can do this to varying levels of audiophile quality, and they occupy a number of price points. As with most things in the Hi-Fi universe, your choice might ultimately be constrained by price, but rest assured that whatever the quality of your system, we can find a streaming device to match.
At the low end of the price scale there are the Audioquest Dragonfly DAC ($299) and the Meridian Explorer ($385). These can work straight from your PC or Laptop to get you part of the way to HD, at least up to 96kHz but not to the full 192kHz of the bigger boys. Other economical ones which do the higher rates are the Musical Fidelity V-DAC at $399, the Peachtree DAC.IT at $499, and the Musical Fidelity M1-DAC at $799. We have DACs ranging all the way to the Berkeley Alpha at $5999.
But combining a DAC and a streaming device into the one piece may be more what you need. Naim have a number of these starting with the ND5 XS at $3300, which will handle all the streaming formats and up to 32bit/192kHz resolution. For those who want a compact system which can do the hi-res streaming and be your amplifier and radio source as well, the Naim UnitiQute is a bargain at $2000. That’s just a quick sample.
There’s not room here to cover all the possible combinations of H-Fi gear for the modern, high definition, streaming age that is upon us, but hopefully the message is getting out that it brings you both high quality and improved access to all sorts of music, new and old. We’ve seen even our staff members on occasions taken aback by hearing things in the remastered high definition versions that they hadn’t heard before, even from their beloved LPs!
Modern technology is delivering on all fronts now, not compromising. To paraphrase the famous quote by L. P. Hartley (fortuitous initials there!), the past is another country, they did things differently there. But no longer is it necessary to lament that changes to audio reproduction have been retrograde. The hi-res audio future has arrived.
Australia’s own Whole Lotta Love Led Zeppelin celebration will hit their tenth anniversary this year. Helmed by proven and highly capable director Joseph Calderazzo, Australian Guitar’s Paul Southwell managed to chat to the busy man about all things Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin has such a vast back catalogue. How do you pick and choose songs?
That is really hard and to get that right I think we’d need to do three nights. It is only a two and a half hour show. We’d probably get about 19 songs in as some are quite long. It comes down to picking the song that is most representative of particular styles like folk with “The Battle Of Evermore” to being kind of pressured into doing “Stairway To Heaven”. We have to do “Kashmir” and then “The Rain Song”. We use strings in the last half and that takes it to a different level within the journey. It is only three strings but it is just enough. There is a lot of great string stuff with Zeppelin such as “Four Sticks” and of course “The Rain Song”. We try to cover all of the elements that made Zeppelin what they were.
Have there been any copyright issues with Zep’s management?
No, it is just a cover band so there have been no issues. At a theatre level we have to pay APRA, we have to list the songs we are doing, they take a percentage of the box office and that goes back to the writers. If you are playing it in a pub, you don’t have to worry about that because there is a copyright fee that gets paid by the pubs. Stuart Fraser from Noiseworks will be playing guitar with us and he’ll do it the way he does it.
You’ve got a stack of different guitars in the show. Do you go to great lengths to replicate what was used by Led Zeppelin such as a Telecaster for “Stairway”?
We do use a lot of guitars but that is more about the tunings generally. A Tele for the solo on “Stairway To Heaven” just sounds right. The whole vision for the show started 12 years ago with a weekly music night for original artists to play in acoustic mode. I decided to get a bunch together all on the one night to do a song by a particular band. We did a Beatles thing so I extended that to Zeppelin. So, original artists came in with their own sound and gave it their own style. It is a cover band but our creative direction is about doing the songs with integrity but still putting our own thing into it. Getting back to the guitars, we are not trying to get every guitar that they used like double necks and Danelectros. If somebody has a 12 string Fender electric or similar then we’ll use that.
I seem to remember Jeff Martin had a B-bender Tele which was pretty cool.
Oh, that was amazing and he had the double neck as well. It is great to have that. He used the [violin] bow and the Theremin as well. He is a student of Jimmy Page. It was great to have him in the show with all of that. If people come along with that stuff, it is part of what they do and that is awesome, which was the case with Jeff Martin. We try to do it all in our own way but we do have a lot of guitars because there are lots of tunings.
For the tunings, have you gone back and looked at transcriptions?
No, I do it all by ear. I can usually figure out tunings with the opening chords. Most of the open tuning stuff is basic. Once you’ve got the tunings down, where you put your fingers down is in obvious places. Keith [Richards] from The Rolling Stones wrote on open G tuning with five strings, not six. He is a creative genius but the logistics of playing is easy. “The Rain Song” is the tricky one and it has taken me years to get that.
Has it been difficult to get a drummer that does what John Bonham did because his playing and groove was so unique?
Yeah, he was unique. We’ve used a few guys but Gordon Rytmeister is the guy that we use at the moment. He was brought up on Bonham so he gets it and he gets a pretty big kick drum sound. Before Gordon, there was Peter Drummond, who wasn’t brought up on Bonham but on all of the drummers that were influenced by him. Mick Skelton is another guy that I have seen do other stuff and he is very much like John Bonham in how he plays. There are guys influenced by it that have got it in their DNA.
By Paul Southwell, courtesy Australian Guitar Magazine.
Most guitar collectors, or guitar lovers, will be familiar with the ones that Jimmy Page is famous for playing throughout his illustrious career, especially in his Led Zeppelin days: One being his Gibson SG Double Neck, as used on “Stairway to Heaven”, and another being his Fender Telecaster with Fender Showman amp used on the first Led Zeppelin Album. But over time Jimmy’s own favourite guitar became his 1959 sunburst Gibson Les Paul Standard that he bought from Joe Walsh of The Eagles in 1969.
The first series of Jimmy Page Limited Edition Signature guitars was produced by Gibson USA from 1995 to 1998 as a replica of his favourite instrument.
The project began with Gibson’s luthiers measuring and analysing every aspect of Jimmy’s 1959 Les Paul. They discovered heavy customising and unique characteristics including an unusual hand carved neck profile, that is thinner at the 7th fret than the first whilst becoming fatter at the 12th fret again, and modified electronics allowing each of the four control knobs, two volume and two tone, to be pulled out or pushed in – putting the pickups in and out of phase, series or parallel them and make the humbuckers single coil as well – which enabled some extraordinary tone options. Various combinations create some of Jimmy’s unique sounds.
To replicate the physical characteristics of Jimmy’s guitar Gibson’s luthiers, skilled from an age gone by, carved the neck and body profile to be exactly the same. Each guitar was hand painted individually with a true dark red that perfectly matches Jimmy’s and the authentic flame finish was kept subtle and elegant, the binding was ‘aged’ and the finish hand rubbed to perfection. Grover tuners and gold hardware were installed, just like Jimmy’s, and the proper headstock inlay added. The end result was a labour intensive masterpiece and Jimmy Page was struck by the overall quality. Each guitar was then personally played by Jimmy and received his blessing before being released for sale. Sadly only around 400 received this painstaking treatment and Jimmy’s endorsement. Thankfully the example played by Joseph Calderazzo, in several numbers performed during this 10th Anniversary tour of the Whole Lotta Love Led Zeppelin Celeberation, is fortunate enough to be one of these first 400. This early batch sold out very quickly with the guitars rapidly becoming one of the most collectible Les Pauls ever made. To keep up with market demand however, and introduce a more affordable version, Gibson then decided to introduce a few time saving build changes, and by the end of 1995 had dropped the time consuming hand carving and hand finishing.
The guitars built since 1996 are still excellent players, but the rare beauty, the feel of the specially carved neck and the unmistakable tone variations sadly disappeared. With the quality of the newer instruments not equal to the earlier ones, the ones that Jimmy’s heart and soul were behind, Gibson ceased production at Jimmy’s request.
In 2004, Gibson revisited the project. They borrowed Jimmy’s original again and produced 26 historically accurate reproductions, right down to the electronics and even the strings Jimmy used. The Custom Shop sent these guitars to Tom Murphy, who aged them and even added the dents and dings that were visible on Jimmy’s guitar. Jimmy’s original, as sold to him by Joe Walsh, had also had the original Kluson tuners removed early in its life, and replaced with Grover tuners. The screw holes of the Kluson and Grovers didn’t match up and Tom Murphy put them in just like Jimmy’s guitar, such was his attention to detail. These guitars had a carved maple top, solid mahogany back and one-piece neck, and the finish duplicates Jimmy’s original ‘Burst, including eliptical neck profile. They each come with a certificate of authenticity (COA) signed by Jimmy and a display case with a violin bow like the one that Jimmy used most famously on Dazed And Confused. Jimmy took each of the finished instruments home and played, signed and numbered them individually. He kept number 1 for himself, so there are 25 more of these beautiful guitars out there somewhere.
The second Custom Shop release, also in 2004, was identical to the first except that there were 150 of these guitars produced and none went home with Jimmy, though they were all aged by Tom Murphy. The third Custom Shop release was the same as the first two but were neither sent home with Jimmy nor aged by Tom Murphy. They are a Custom Authentic version and manufactured from 2004 to present. View this interview with Jimmy Page, conducted at his home in London on 17 November 2003, where he shows and talks about his favourite Les Paul.
The commercial and critical success of Led Zeppelin IV changed Led Zeppelin’s fortunes forever. In the early ‘70s, they – and only they – stood alongside The Rolling Stones as the greatest rock and roll band in the world. IV went on to sell 32 million copies worldwide. It sold 23 million in the United States alone, making it the third biggest seller of all time there. Stairway To Heaven, despite never being released as a single in the U.S. (unlike in Australia) was the most played track on FM radio during that decade.
To say that the pressure was on for Led Zeppelin, when they first gathered to start recording the follow up in early 1972, would be a total understatement.
“But we did not let it get in the way,” Jimmy Page recalled. “My main goal was to just keep rolling. It is very dangerous to try and duplicate yourself. I will not name any names, but I am sure you have heard bands that endlessly repeat themselves. After four or five albums they just burn up. With us, you never knew what was coming.”
That explains the abandon and excitement on Houses Of The Holy. They had never made a record like that before. Led Zeppelin’s life was on the road. So it was inevitable that they would sing about the spiritual nature of their shows in ‘houses of the holy’ to their ‘ocean’ of fans. In The Ocean, the three year old girl who won Robert Plant’s heart was his daughter Carmen. Through the years, he would change the lyric onstage to reflect Carmen’s age.
Most of the tracks were designed for their crowd to dance to at shows. The Crunge took a page out of soul man James Brown’s songbook. Page told Guitar World: “I played a Strat on that one – I wanted to get that tight James Brown feel. You have to listen closely, but you can hear me depressing a whammy bar at the end of each phrase. Bonzo started the groove on The Crunge, then Jonesy (John Paul Jones) started playing that descending bass line and I just came in on the rhythm. You can really hear the fun we were having on Houses and Physical Graffiti. And you can also hear the dedication and commitment.”
D’yer Mak’er (a pun on Jamaica from the old English joke “My wife’s on holiday in the West Indies.” “Jamaica?” “No, she went on her own accord”) was a nod to the reggae revolution sweeping the world. Engineer Eddie Kramer recalls that after they finished recording Dancing Days, the four Zeps were out on the lawn dancing along to the first playback on a sunny spring day “celebrating this incredible thing they’d just recorded.”
(This was at Mick Jagger’s country mansion Stargroves where recording began. But they didn’t like the sound they got, so they returned to the cold and primitive Headley Grange as well as Island Studios in London. They spent months working on the mixes at Olympic Studios in London and Electric Lady Studios in New York.)
Despite Zeppelin’s long-time feud with rock critics, they had an amazing sense of their own power and ambitions. Just before an Australian tour, they’d stopped over in India where they did some experimental recording with the Bombay Symphony and taped some street musicians. That visit was evident in the sound of much of Houses Of The Holy.
Another change was that both Page and John Paul Jones had set up studios in their homes. So they could work out many intricate arrangements to some of their compositions. Jones’ No Quarter exhibited his arranging and multi-instrumental prowess, using bass synth, a cocktail piano and jazz guitar. Page’s demos of The Rain Song and Over The Hills And Far Away had complete arrangements. The Song Remains The Same, made up of bits and pieces that Page made on the cassette tape recorder he always kept around and recorded with a Fender 12-string) had begun as an instrumental to open The Rain Song and developed into a song of its own. The Rain Song was written as a response to George Harrison telling Bonzo Bonham that Zeppelin couldn’t write ballads, and embellished with Jones’ newly acquired mellotron.
Houses of the Holy was their first album not to have cover versions. Zeppelin ended with more songs than they could use. Even the title track was dropped, to emerge on Physical Graffiti, as did Black Country Woman and The Rover.
Although intended for release in January 1973, delays in producing the album cover meant that Houses Of The Holy was not released until March, by which time the band had started a European tour. The cover art was designed by Hipgnosis who did Pink Floyd artwork. The company’s first idea, by Storm Thorgerson, featured an electric green tennis court with a tennis racquet on it. Furious that it implied their music was a “racket” they sacked him on the spot (although he later did the sleeve for Presence and In Through the Out Door).
His replacement Aubrey Powell’s design featured scores of naked children climbing up large rocks to a bright orange sky that signified the Apocalypse. It was inspired by the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, which involves several hundred million naked sub-human children. They initially considered Peru for the shoot. But they opted for the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The inner sleeve photo was taken at near-by Dunluce Castle.
A false rumour about the outside cover is that ‘80s pinup girl Samantha Fox is one of the eleven kids. In fact it was just seven year old Samantha Gates and her four year old brother Stefan, courtesy several multiple-exposure shots. Both had done modelling and appeared in ads.
Samantha, now a film screenwriter in South Africa, remembers it was a freezing and raining October day. “I thought it was odd that anyone should expect me to strip off in the cold and climb rocks!” she recalled 37 years later. Stefan, now a celebrity chef with a cooking show on British TV, would for years find the photo, seemingly about kids climbing to their slaughter, disturbing. It was banned in parts of the Deep South of America although it was also nominated for a Grammy in the record packaging division.
The photos of the two children were taken in black and white, and later coloured in, in those pre-digital days. A mistake in the tinting process in post-production made the sky a strikingly bright orange. Page didn’t mind: he always considered the music on Houses Of The Holy orange in colour. No matter what colour, it went to #1 around the world.
Rolling Stone said of it, “The epic scale suited Zeppelin. They had the largest crowds, the loudest rock songs, the most groupies, the fullest manes of hair. Eventually excess would turn into bombast, but on Houses, it still provided inspiration.”
Page himself said: “Houses of the Holy was a very inspired time. There was a lot of imagination on that record. I prefer it much more than the fourth album.”
RIP Storm Thorgerson April 18, 2013 – graphic genius who designed the timeless album covers for Houses Of The Holy and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.
The session for what became “Four Sticks” were hard going. Led Zeppelin, now selling out concerts around the world, wanted to stretch themselves on their fourth record. Frustrated, John Bomham grabbed a second pair of sticks and hit his kit with all four sticks to get the hard sound he wanted.
The session ground to a halt. To loosen the tension, Bomham mischievously kicked into the intro of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Jimmy Page started to play the riff and Robert Plant improvised the words. It was the “spontaneous combustion” (described Page) that marked Led Zeppelin IV. That jam fell in a heap after 12 bars. But the tape was running, and when Page went back to work on it realized there was something special. It became the album’s opener “Rock And Roll”. They brought in Rolling Stones collaborator Ian Stewart to play piano (uncredited). Another track cut around then with Stewart, “Boogie With Stu”, later saw light on Physical Graffiti.
Led Zeppelin IV turned Zeppelin from premier rock band to household names. It was a happy medium between the hard rock of the first two albums and the British folk that dominated Led Zeppelin III and led to scathing criticisms. Page agreed, “We were really playing properly as a group. I must say that when you had four musicians that were really without doubt at the top of their game there and they played really superbly as a band and that whole aspect took on a fifth element — this alchemy of it that was really ripe for creation.”
IV was recorded in four studios between December 1970 to March 1971. Sessions began in Island Records’ new Basing studios in London, where Jethro Tull were working on Aqualung. Fleetwood Mac suggested an old mansion called Headley Grange out in the wilds of Hampshire. Being out there gave them a sense of spontaneity and experimentalism to complement their studio discipline.
For “Battle of Evermore”, Page started to play John Paul Jones’ mandolin, although he’d never played one before. (He’d done that with the banjo on “Gallow’s Pole”). It came together in one sitting. The story was inspired by Plant’s love for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (whose Return Of The King included a mystical Battle of Pelennor). Plant agrees the lyrics seem clichéd these days. “But I was only 23 at the time.” Sandy Denny of British folk band Fairport Convention played the Town Crier character to Plant’s Narrator.
With “Black Dog” John Paul Jones wanted an electric blues so complex that people could not dance to it. He imagined recording in 3/16 time but realised it would be then too difficult to reproduce live. Jones remembered, “We struggled with the turn-around, until Bonham figured out that you just four-time as if there’s no turn-around. That was the secret.” If you play it loud, you can hear Bonham tap his sticks together before each riff, to signal the band. Plant hit the highest note ever reached on a Zep cut. Page triple-tracked each line. The result was titled after the studio’s black Labrador which wandered in and out of the room during the sessions.
On “Misty Mountain Hop”, at the 2:11 mark, the band accidentally fell out of sync with one another. But they left it in.
The original “When The Levee Breaks” was written by husband-wife team Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1927 was about the Great Mississippi Flood of that year which saw 13,000 people lose their homes. To get that menacing apocalyptic tone on their version, Zeppelin recorded at a different tempo then slowed it down. Bonham’s new Ludwig drums were recorded in a three-storey stairwell with the mics placed above on the second floor. Page’s production included backwards echoed harmonica, phased vocals and flanging — many of these not used before, Page claims.
“Stairway To Heaven”, of course, remains the high point, even if Page’s acoustic intro bears more of a passing resemblance to American band Spirit’s 1968 “Taurus”. Initially Page conceived his bits of guitar ideas would go for 15 minutes. Even if Bonham couldn’t get the timing right on the 12-string section before the solo, the rest of the song flowed out. As Page and Jones worked on the arrangement, the words poured out of Plant, many ideas coming from Lewis Spence’s Magic Arts In Celtic Britain which he’d been reading.
According to Page, “He must have written three quarters of the lyrics on the spot. He didn’t have to go away and think about them. Amazing, really.”
Page was asked if he realised they’d just made a classic track. “I knew it was good. I didn’t know it was going to become like an anthem, but I did know it was the gem of the album, sure.”
Angry with the critics’ response to III, Zeppelin wanted their new album to be released anonymously. No title, no band name on the cover, just four symbols chosen by each of the four. Atlantic Records went mad: this was against every rule in the marketing and sales book. But they had to agree. Plant found the 19th century rustic oil painting on the cover in an antique shop in Reading, Berkshire. The inside illustration “The Hermit”, credited to Barrington Colby MOM, was influenced by the design of the card in the Rider-Waite tarot deck. The typeface for “Stairway” lyrics came from the 19th century, which Page discovered.
Led Zeppelin IV went on to sell 32 million copies worldwide. It is also the third biggest selling record in America, where it sold 23 million. In 2006, it was rated #1 on Classic Rock magazine’s 100 Greatest British Albums poll; that same year it was voted #1 in Guitar World 100 Greatest Albums readers’ poll.