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The Greatest Songs Ever!
How a week in a haunted English manor in the dead of winter inspired Led Zeppelin’s smoldering blues-rock come-on. “Hey, hey, mama…” By Michael Odell Blender, Jan/Feb 2005
By winter 1970, rock-god avatars Led Zeppelin were three blockbuster albums into their career.
Comprising former Yardbird and session guitarist Jimmy Page, classically trained John Paul Jones and two working-class Midlanders in singer Robert Plant and drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham, album number four should have seen them cruising. Instead it was, as Jimmy Page remarked, “make or break,” a riposte to their critics who, despite the band’s huge success in America, saw them as derivative and opportunistic.
After initial sessions at Island Studios in London, they decamped to Headley Grange, a three-story manor house in the Hampshire countryside in southern England. They’d rehearsed there previously, but now, in the depths of winter, John Bonham sensed the place had deteriorated. Tour manager Richard Cole, in his Stairway to Heaven memoir, recalled reminding Bonham “that during our last visit we had sacrificed a banister to the gods when we needed firewood.” Perhaps it was the cold, but Led Zeppelin kept to a grueling schedule. They would write and rehearse for a week. Then the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio was booked to record the album. They hired it for just six days. “Jimmy had the nickname ‘Led Wallet,’ and it’s true, he was a bit tight,” says Andy Johns, brother of legendary producer Glyn Johns and engineer on Led Zeppelin IV. “Mick Jagger had offered us his baronial mansion Stargroves for £1,000 a week and Jimmy wouldn’t pay it. So we ended up in this 20-by-25-foot room with Bonzo playing drums in the hallway.”
Chief songwriters Page and Plant arrived with 12 taped songs, including fragments of a tune that would evolve into the epic “Stairway to Heaven.” But uncharacteristically, Jones stepped in with a riff inspired by a track on the Muddy Waters LP Electric Mud. “I wanted to try electric blues with a rolling bass part,” Jones said. “Black Dog” was born. Zep fans knew of Page’s keen interest in occultist Aleister Crowley. But any of them believing “Black Dog” carried some satanic resonance were off-base. “There was a black dog hanging around Headley Grange,” the guitarist says with a shrug. “Jimmy thought he’d seen a ghost there too,” Johns adds. “The rest of us moaned about being cold, but Jimmy was more concerned with creepy noises or flying fucking furniture.” It was agreed that Jones’s idea would provide an ideal opener for the new album. To get the intense, dense sound, Page’s guitars were triple-tracked and recorded directly from the mixing desk rather than amplified. “I stole the idea from Bill Halverson, who worked with Buffalo Springfield,” Johns says. “And you never had any problem convincing Jimmy his guitar should be as loud as possible.” “That’s the guitar army waking up: Rise and shine,” Page said of the song’s intro. But raw power wasn’t what they were after. That would obliterate Plant’s erotic “Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move.” Page suggested an a cappella stop-start vocal after hearing Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well.”
Meanwhile, Bonham, who often approached his drum kit like it was an old piece of furniture that needed smashing into more manageable pieces, proved capable of great subtlety. Ensconced in Headley Grange’s vast hallway, he perfected the song’s deceptively simple time-signature variations (4/4 with a 5/4 variation), inspired in part by his knowledge of Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’.” “The band is getting really attuned to time slips,” Plant enthused. “We were messing around when the other lads suddenly came up with that passage on ‘Black Dog.’ They just played it, fell about all over the floor for 20 minutes in fits of laughter, played it again, burst into more laughter, then put it down on tape.” All they needed now was a suitable banshee wail. “Black Dog” was a primal howl that nodded to the blues greats who inspired so much British ’60s rock. Plant’s lyrics followed this tradition: Essentially an essay on relationships that could’ve been written by a caveman, the author bemoans a long-legged girl who’s good at sex but otherwise unreliable. “There are moguls of lyrics-writing in every generation, and I guess I’m just below the mogul zone,” Plant later manfully conceded. “Black Dog” embodied the sound of a peerless drummer, a transcendent vocalist and two multitalented musicians pushing each other to new heights. “Before Zeppelin, when I’d played with Bonzo, we felt we were the best,” Plant said. “With Page and Jonesy, suddenly we weren’t. You were challenged and everything you wanted was in that room.”
The album was completed in August 1971, and its artwork would arouse a fair amount of controversy. Page decided the new record would eschew all marketing considerations: Its sleeve would bear no title, no band name, no record-label logo. “If the music was good, we could call ourselves ‘The Cabbage’ and still get across to our audience,” Page explained. But the cover’s cryptic runic symbolism would give rise to all manner of dark, occultist speculation. Atlantic Records executives believed the band was committing commercial suicide. Nevertheless, after prolonged mixing difficulties, the officially untitled album was released in November 1971. The album has since become known as “Led Zeppelin IV,” the “Runes album,” “Zoso” (after a misreading of the album’s symbols) or “Untitled.” With “Stairway to Heaven,” the band wrote the pomp-rock ballad par excellence. And “Black Dog” became an instant FM hit; it remains playlisted more than 30 years on. “When I was 14,” remembers Velvet Revolver guitarist and Guns N’ Roses alum Slash, “I stayed with my grandmother in L.A. She was a middleclass black woman with fine Southern manners. I’d play ‘Black Dog’ full volume, and she’d shout, ‘Stop playing that honky-tonk music!’ It was the biggest, baddest, sexiest riff out there.” It was also an unforgettable opening to 42 minutes of music, which, at 22 million copies sold, became the fourth-highest-selling album in history.
Led Zeppelin IV
Robert Plant's wailing voice was a vital part of that sound, effectively becoming a fourth and unique instrument unto itself. This is obvious on "Black Dog," the album's opening track with a stop-and-go arrangement that relies completely on the singer's well-paced and screeching delivery. The energy shifts into overdrive with "Rock and Roll," another signature tune that would eventually be mutilated by every garage band in existence. And then in one grand swoop, a mystical mood settles in, mandolins and acoustic guitars howl at the moon, and Plant and Sandy Denny - a member of the seminal English folk group, Fairport Convention - exchange verses in the dramatic, "The Battle Of Evermore." As if everything for this band climaxes during the fourth round, the first three songs meticulously set the stage for the album's magnum opus, "Stairway To Heaven."
Despite the fact that "Stairway To Heaven" would go on to be the most
overplayed song in the history of FM radio, it was never released as a
single. This undoubtedly helped push the fourth album up the charts, peaking
at number two in the U.S. Beyond the first four cuts, there's a bountiful
helping of prime-cut Zep to maintain the momentum. The invincible keyboard
work of John Paul Jones, weaving in and out of Page's smooth guitar lines,
tastefully eases "Misty Mountain Hop" forward; four drumsticks and the
powerful foot of John Bonham drives "Four Sticks;" the folksy meanderings
of Page and Plant reveal yet another side on "Going To California."
Amazon.com essential recording
Led Zeppelin: Robert Plant (vocals, harmonica); Jimmy Page (electric, acoustic & 12-string guitar, mandolin); John Paul Jones (bass, keyboards); John Bonham (drums, percussion). Additional personnel: Sandy Denny (vocals); Ian Stewart (piano). Recorded at Headley, Grange, Hampshire, Island Studios, London, England; Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, California. All tracks have been digitally remastered. LED ZEPPELIN IV is the definitive Led Zeppelin recording. It was on LED ZEPPELIN IV that the band's sound and concept, Plant's vocals, and Page's arranging skills finally crystallized into something completely distinct and original. The earthy hedonism of their earlier work was deepened and extended on rockers like "Black Dog," "Rock And Roll" and "Misty Mountain Hop." Their interest in traditional folk music (and a more tender form of sentiment) found fresh expression on "Going To California" and "The Battle Of Evermore" (with Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention). And "When The Levee Breaks" was yet another powerhouse blues. LED ZEPPELIN IV was also the recording which produced Led Zeppelin's most celebrated composition, "Stairway To Heaven". From its familiar opening chord progression, the song steadily grows in intensity, reflecting Led Zeppelin's growing interest in metaphysical imagery, gradually transforming itself from a folkish ballad into a rocking anthem.
This much they evidently did, as you could tell from the opening bars of 'Black Dog' and 'Rock And Roll' on 'Led Zeppelin IV'. Fantastic electrified riffs, and the world was Led once more. Then, of course, came 'Stairway To Heaven'. OK, mystical hippy bollocks on the one hand, but, hey!, great guitar 'work', and extensive air guitar duties were expected of every teenage boy during the last fast bit. And finally, of course, there was 'When The Levee Breaks', and the drumbeat that ate a continent. They just don't write them as big as that any more.
You bought Remasters. You bought Boxed Set-2 to mop up. You went mad,
bought The Complete Studio Recordings. And now you can buy each album,
digitally reupholstered, separately. Who are you, exactly? Not Tony Blair,
surely. Anyway - note III's release is delayed due to sleeve restoration
- the first one (1969) is the rites of passage, Marquee-style bluesbreaker
album, recorded in just 30 hours (no record contract, no cash), its peak
Dazed And Confused, wherein half-inched blues explodes into riffology.
II (1969) streaks ahead, recorded en route in America, swollen rock excursions
Whole Lotta Love and The Lemon Song its keystones, Bonham's Moby Dick
a happy indulgence. IV or Four Symbols (1971) abides the unbeaten classic,
its Headley Grange big-room ambience still best described by When The
Levee Breaks - Bonzo in excelsis. Survive Stairway To Heaven and you'll
know why it's the best seller of the lot. Houses Of The Holy (1973) is
the sound of a band whose cup overfloweth - Plant and Jones couldn't get
the individual stuff down fast enough. Disparate and less earthy, the
latter's No Quarter is an involving mantra and The Ocean is funky, but
it is a sickly whole when you know what came next . . .
It might seem a bit incongruous to say that Led Zeppelin-a band never particularly known for its tendency to understate matters-has produced an album which is remarkable for its low-keyed and tasteful subtlety, but that's just the case here. The march of the dinosaurs that broke the ground for their first epic release has apparently vanished, taking along with it the splattering electronics of their second effort and the leaden acoustic moves that seemed to weigh down their third. What's been saved is the pumping adrenaline drive that held the key to such classics as "Communication Breakdown" and "Whole Lotta Love," the incredibly sharp and precise vocal dynamism of Robert Plant, and some of the tightest arranging and producing Jimmy Page has yet seen his way toward doing. If this thing with the semi-metaphysical title isn't quite their best to date, since the very chances that the others took meant they would visit some outrageous highs as well as some overbearing lows, it certainly comes off as their most consistently good.
One of the ways in which this is demonstrated is the sheer variety of the album: out of eight cuts, there isn't one that steps on another's toes, that tries to do too much all at once. There are Olde Englishe ballads ("The Battle of Evermore" with a lovely performance by Sandy Denny), a kind of pseudo-blues just to keep in touch ("Four Sticks"), a pair of authentic Zeppelinania ("Black Dog" and "Misty Mountain Hop"), some stuff that I might actually call shy and poetic if it didn't carry itself off so well ("Stairway to Heaven" and "Going To California") ... ... and a couple of songs that when all is said and done, will probably be right up there in the gold-starred hierarchy of put 'em on and play 'em again. The first, coyly titled "Rock And Roll," is the Zeppelin's slightly-late attempt at tribute to the mother of us all, but here it's definitely a case of better late than never. This sonuvabitch moves, with Plant musing vocally on how "It's been a long, lonely lonely time" since last he rock & rolled, the rhythm section soaring underneath. Page strides up to take a nice lead during the break, one of the all-too-few times he flashes his guitar prowess during the record, and its note-for-note simplicity says a lot for the ways in which he's come of age over the past couple of years.
The end of the album is saved for "When The Levee Breaks," strangely
credited to all the members of the band plus Memphis Minnie, and it's
a dazzler. Basing themselves around one honey of a chord progression,
the group constructs an air of tunnel-long depth, full of stunning resolves
and a majesty that sets up as a perfect climax. Led Zep have had a lot
of imitators over the past few years, but it takes cuts like this to show
that most of them have only picked up the style, lacking any real knowledge
of the meat underneath. Uh huh, they got it down all right. And since
the latest issue of Cashbox noted that this 'un was a gold disc on its
first day of release, I guess they're about to nicely keep it up. Not
bad for a pack of Limey lemon squeezers. (RS 98)
Barnes & Noble
Rightfully renowned for the powerful crunch of their blues-based hard
rock, Led Zeppelin are regarded as an important stylistic template for
everything from heavy metal to grunge. But the softer, folk-rock side
of Zeppelin proved to be equally influential, and it was the band's fourth
album that achieved the finest balance between bucolic strums and ear-smashing
bombast. "Black Dog" opens the album, with vocalist Robert Plant boasting
about how he's "gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove," and the
band backs up the bravado with the hard rock of "Rock and Roll" and "Misty
Mountain Hop," songs that remain touchstones to generations of head-bangers.
But guitarist Jimmy Page was also drawn to softer textures, and he shrewdly
enlisted Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny to duet with Plant on
"The Battle of Evermore," over mandolins riffling around the pulsing folk
melody. Soft meets hard on Zeppelin's most famous song, the epic "Stairway
to Heaven," with verses strung upon arpeggiated guitar lines that ultimately
lead to an explosive, finely-chiseled blues-rock solo. Led Zeppelin made
other fine albums, but this one remains the core of their canon.
All Music Guide
Encompassing heavy metal, folk, pure rock & roll, and blues, Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album is a monolithic record, defining not only Led Zeppelin but the sound and style of '70s hard rock. Expanding on the breakthroughs of III, Zeppelin fuse their majestic hard rock with a mystical, rural English folk that gives the record an epic scope. Even at its most basic -- the muscular, traditionalist "Rock & Roll" -- the album has a grand sense of drama, which is only deepened by Plant's burgeoning obsession with mythology, religion, and the occult. Plant's mysticism comes to a head on the eerie folk ballad "The Ballad of Evermore," a mandolin-driven song with haunting vocals from Sandy Denny, and on the epic "Stairway to Heaven." Of all of Zeppelin's songs, "Stairway to Heaven" is the most famous, and not unjustly. Building from a simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar to a storming torrent of guitar riffs and solos, it encapsulates the entire album in one song. Which, of course, isn't discounting the rest of the album. "Going to California" is the group's best folk song, and the rockers are endlessly inventive, whether it's the complex, multi-layered "Black Dog," the pounding hippie satire "Misty Mountain Hop," or the funky riffs of "Four Sticks." But the closer, "When the Levee Breaks," is the one song truly equal to "Stairway," helping give IV the feeling of an epic. An apocalyptic slice of urban blues, "When the Levee Breaks" is as forceful and frightening as Zeppelin ever got, and its seismic rhythms and layered dynamics illustrate why none of their imitators could ever equal them. Stephen Thomas Erlewine RW New York New York: Why the hell is this so low down in the list?! I can't understand it! This is the greatest album of all time! 10/10:
SBRV chelt england:
Undeniably the best album ever written, and the boys were British- where true rock/punk/folk and metal originated. It is practically impossible to find fault in any track, because the four pillared power house that was Led Zeppelin, knew exactly what it was playing at. It screams; pick up a guitar, learn the drums, buy a bass and get some singing lessons. 10/10:
This is an inside peek into Led Zeppelin's untitled album
as told by Jimmy Page. It is from a BBC series entitled "Classic
Q: And what's that noise on the front of the track?
JP: That's the guitar's warming up. To me, the most important part about anything is to have a really good bass and drum sound because I knew after that I'd be working on the guitar. So, I did all the rest of the guitar overdubs in Ireland .
Q: But the basic tracks were done at Headley Grange?
JP: Yes. We had the drums in the hall and sometimes the drums were in
the room as well, (in the sitting room with the fireplace) and the amplifiers
were all over. When Bonzo was in the hall, Jones and I were out there
with earphones, the two sets of amps were in the other rooms and other
parts such as cupboards and things. A very odd way of recording but it
certainly worked. When you've got the whole live creative process going
on, that's how things like "Rock and Roll" come out.