The album cover:
The image of the old man bent beneath the weight of the load of wood on his back is from a 19th Century oil painting Zeppelin singer Robert Plant bought at an antique shop. The painting was hung on the disheveled walls of a suburban house that was slated for demolition, and then the photo that became the cover was taken. The album cover is most notable for displaying neither an album title nor the band’s name, which was unique for its time, 1971, and which the band did in part as a response to the poor reviews for Led Zeppelin III. Officially the album has no title, although it’s most commonly referred to as either IV or ZoSo, after the four symbols the bandmates chose to represent themselves with on the back sleeve.
One other important note on the album: The band recorded it at Headley Grange, an English country mansion, which ended up influencing the songs in ways Page talked about in the documentary It Might Get Loud.
The first sound you hear:
A quiet guitar lick that sounds like a tape rewinding, followed by Plant howling out “Hey hey mama, said the way you move/Gon’ make you sweat, gon’ make you groove,” the famous opening line of Black Dog.
The last sound you hear:
A crunching, echoing, note sliding off a guitar and fading out, the end to the epic, powerful blues of When the Levee Breaks.
Track by Track:
Black Dog, one of Zeppelin’s signature songs and a staple of their live performances, opens the album. It’s a thunderous song, drums pounding, lyrics blatantly sexual an electric guitar riff that Jimmy Page triple-tracked to give it more weight.
The second track of Side A is another uptempo rocker, Rock and Roll. Everything about this song is frenetic, from John Bonham’s unparalleled drumming to Page’s famous 12-bar blues guitar riff to Plant’s almost screamingly insistent vocal, “Open your arms, opens your arms, Open your arms/Baby, let my love come running in.”
The uptempo rockers give way to the band’s inclination toward mythology and Tolkien-inspired lyrics on The Battle of Evermore. Even within Led Zep’s multi-faceted catalog, it’s a truly unique song, it’s signature sound a ringing, instantly recognizable mandolin riff (which Page came up with while plucking bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones’s mandolin) and a multi-tracked vocal that’s one of Plant’s best on wax, the duet with English folk-singer Sandy Denny bringing out the best in him. And of course there are the lyrics, about ringwraiths, dragons, magic runes, the usual Zeppelin gobbledygook. It’s awesome.
Side A ends with the band’s most famous song and arguably the greatest rock song ever, Stairway to Heaven. There’s so much mythology surrounding this song that I’m not going to rehash it all. Page come up with the riff on an acoustic guitar (Some people claim that they stole it from the Spirit song Taurus, but I think the similarities are only superficial. Not to say Led Zeppelin never stole anything–as just one example, Whole Lotta Love is a direct rip-off of a Willie Dixon song), Plant wrote most of the lyrics in a single quick session, and the band cut the song, with Page playing the solo on his old custom-painted Fender Telecaster.
It’s the band’s signature song in part because, at exactly eight minutes long, it’s an emblematic Led Zeppelin song. It starts out acoustic, with weird instruments (pan flute), it has weird lyrics that at least make me think of Lord of the Rings, and it builds to a crescendo of electric guitar with powerful drums, an epic guitar solo, and that famous hard rock outro with Page walloping his guitar strings, Bonham trying to break his drum kit, and Plant screaming “As we wind on down the road…” It’s a song that, if you’ve been listening to rock music as long as I have, you never need to put on, because you’ve heard it a million times. But when it does come on, you sit there and listen to it and find yourself shaking your head and saying, This is fucking awesome. Also, check out this deleted scene from Almost Famous, which is just too ridiculous for words.
Side B opens with Misty Mountain Hop, a heavy electric guitar-driven song about escaping the hassles of the city (I’ll be honest, this is the one track on the album I can live without). The following track, Four Sticks, features an even heavier electric guitar riff, which seems almost to be racing against Bonham’s rapid fire drums. It’s impossible to stay still in your seat while this song is playing.
The following song is the lovely, acoustic, folk-influenced Going to California, which Page and Plant wrote about the singer Joni Mitchell. It’s a spot of softness, almost the eye of the storm in this album, and serves as a lovely respite. (Aside: I’ve always wanted to learn to play this song, but the guitar, aside from being heavily interspersed with mandolin, is in double drop-D tuning, which is annoying. Also, I suck at finger picking. But I still love listening to the tune.)
The album closes with When the Levee Breaks. Everything about this song is thunderous: the drums, which got that sound because the band recorded Bonham playing them in the wide open front hall of Headley Grange; the slide guitar, which comes in waves like a flooding river spilling over its shores; and Plant’s echoing blues harp and wailing vocal about “Going down to Chicago.” The song was originally written about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and recorded by Memphis Minnie in 1929. I had a hard time listening to this song for a while after Hurricane Katrina, when a shattered levee caused the flooding of one of my favorite cities in the world. But as New Orleans has recovered, When the Levee Breaks has returned to being what it’s long been for me: A song that gets me so fired up, every time I hear it I want to tear the walls off whatever room I’m in.
The signature track:
The signature lyric:
There are so many famous songs and lyrics on this album. I think the signature lyric would have to come from Stairway, and I’d say there are actually two: the diametrically opposed first and last verses, the first of which is softly sang over acoustic guitar and pan flute (“There’s a lady whose sure/All that glitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”), and the last, which is screamed over heavy drums and electric guitar (“As we wind on down the road/Our shadows taller than our soul/There walks a lady we all know/Who shines white light and wants to show/How everything still turns to gold/And if you listen very hard/The tune will come to you at last/How all are one and one is all/To be a Rock and Not to Roll … And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”).
The essence of the album:
Led Zeppelin is a great, great rock ‘n’ roll band, one I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to, and one that I absolutely would need to have to help me headbang away my loneliness. And it is seriously hard to choose one Zeppelin album. My favorite Zep tune, Your Time is Gonna Come, is on I. Many fans believe that II, with Whole Lotta Love, Heartbreaker, and Ramble On, among others, is the band’s best, and if I could take a second Led Zep album, it’d probably be that one. But what about III, which features The Immigrant Song, which my sister and I used to scream at each other while snowboarding, and Tangerine, which I sang while drunkenly stumbling arm-in-arm through the streets of Tijuana with one of my best friends? Or Houses of the Holy, with the amazing Rain Song and Over the Hills and Far Away? Or the double album Physical Graffiti, with all its classic longform songs, In My Time of Dying, Ten Years Gone, Kashmir?
Basically, you can’t go wrong with a Zeppelin album. I chose IV because I think it’s the most solid across the board, with the greatest number of iconic tracks. What would your Led Zeppelin album be?
Find all my Desert Island Albums here.