Of all of the albums on my list, there is probably not a single album I would be more capable of fully writing about completely from memory than today’s choice, the 4th album from Led Zeppelin. This was the first Led Zeppelin album I owned on vinyl, and as a single project, their creative and performing high point as a rock band. It is no secret that the editorial forces at Rolling Stone have never been big fans of Led Zeppelin. This album reaches #58 on their list of Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Not surprisingly, I would probably move this one up many spots higher.
This record is eight songs of Led Zeppelin at their finest. Each song is different and unique. We have Robert Plant’s sexual swagger, an ode to their past, both in rock and roll and the blues, folk ballads, mystic mythology, and light and shade at its most remarkable and impactful. The album opens with “Black Dog”, a well-known rocker based on a riff from John Paul Jones. It took me many years to realize this song actually has a story to it, as Plant goes from desire to heartbreak to searching once again, all in a single song. Next comes “Rock and Roll”, featuring the blistering drums of John Bonham and a guest piano appearance from Rolling Stones piano player Ian Stewart. A clear tribute to “Keep A Knockin’” by Little Richard, this song often serves as the first or last song they play in a concert. The opener to their show in “The Song Remains the Same”, and the last song they played together in their final reunion show in 2007, you just can’t overstate how good both Bonham and Plant are on this song.
The third song on side one is the “The Battle of Evermore”, the only Led Zeppelin song to feature a guest vocalist, Sandy Denny from the Fairport Convention. Jimmy Page does great work on this song borrowing Jones’ mandolin, furthering the mythological connection for the band. Side one closes with the epic light and shade build of “Stairway to Heaven”. One of the most played songs in rock music history, many to include Plant himself, have grown weary of this really big song. For years, I was in that category as well. However, in recent years, I have gone back to the roots of this song, and remain wholly impressed by the powerful build and blend of instruments as the track gains power and speed. When John Bonham crashes in with the fifth verse, you realize this song is about to really take off, and that it does. Overhyped and overplayed? Perhaps. That being said, it is a triumphant piece and one of the greatest guitar rock songs of all time.
Side two opens with another raw rocker, “Misty Mountain Hop”, with Plant reliving his days of peaceful protests and marijuana pursuits in the country parks. Once again, the song is dominated by another iconic Jimmy Page riff and John Bonham’s unmatched drum fills. The next song, “Four Sticks”, is named for Bonham’s unique drum technique with four drumsticks on the song. This song has historically been my least favorite on the album, and may still be, but it has gained new appreciation for me after I heard Page and Plant perform it with an Egyptian orchestra and drum entourage.
The third song on side two is more proof of the band at their very best. They have recorded acoustic tracks on each of their previous albums, but none reach the balance of beauty and melody as this song, “Going to California”. Earlier this year, we looked at Joni Mitchell and her triumphant album, “Blue”. This song is their ode to Joni, as they sing, “Someone told me there’s a girl out there, with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair”. The mix of Plant’s voice, Page’s guitar, and Jones’ timeless mandolin makes for perfect music. If you need more proof, listen to the “deluxe” version of this album for the “Mandolin/Guitar” mix version of this song, which is the instrumental component only. It really is a stunning track, and I took great comfort listening to this song walking in the warm sun as I fight to overcome a rare summer cold.
Led Zeppelin began as a blues rock band, and they revisit that legacy one more time with the explosive “When the Levee Breaks”. It is not heavy metal, and it is not hard rock, but it is heavier and harder hitting than anything else out there. The intensity of Bonham’s opening drum beat is without comparison. Page and Jones pound the rhythm track in perfect sync and tone, and Plant’s wailing vocals and harmonica fills raise this song to unreached heights. It may be taken from roots and a world that was not theirs, but no band ever was able to more completely translate and elevate this music to a higher form than Led Zeppelin.
The unnamed fourth album will always be a high-water mark for the band, and is simply, one of the greatest albums of my life. I look forward to many more years listening to this record again and again.