Led Zeppelin IV: Runes On The Board

The session for what became Four Sticks was 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 he realised 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 the same 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 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.

By Christie Eliezer

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