Top of the Pops: Led Zeppelin IV

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March 2, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Pretty much the only thing that the free world can agree upon is that Led Zeppelin IV (also known by the following: Untitled, Zoso, Runes, The Fourth Album) is the perfect way to introduce someone to the greatest rock band of all time.  We didn’t know it when they were first released, but I, II, and III were merely stepping stones to get to Led Zeppelin IV.  In this case 1 + 2 + 3 = 4, as everything Zeppelin had done before IV had imparted itself into the album to create a masterpiece.  It’s the culmination of everything the band had learned up until that point, and by 1971 it solidified the fact that the rest of the decade would belong to Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin IV might as well be a greatest hits CD.  It’s an eclectic album that is the totality of their first three albums.  “When the Levee Breaks” is the new “Dazed and Confused”, “Black Dog” is an improved sequel to “Whole Lotta Love” and tracks like “Going to California” and “The Battle of Evermore” wouldn’t even be possible without Led Zeppelin III.  Not only is IV a masterpiece, but it’s also an incredibly well-constructed album.  The track arrangement and the pacing of the album only enhance the experience and belay the idea that IV is to rock music as To Kill a Mockingbird is to American literature.

On IV, Zeppelin appeared hell bent to create the perfect rock album, and they maintained a specific regiment as the key to success.  Both sides of the album are incredibly similar in construction and constitution, but the cuts are diverse enough that you might actually miss the methodical madness of IV track listening.  Sides one and two open up with back to back hard rock grooves that seek to distance IV from III as much as tracks like “Gallows Pole” and “That’s the Way” sought to distance III from II.

The album starts off with the one-two punch of “Black Dog”, the second heaviest track on the album, and “Rock and Roll” a highly spirited ode to 50s rock music.  Meticulously enough, side two opens up with the vivacious “Misty Mountain Hop”, a track that showcases John Paul Jones’ skill on the synthesizer, and “Four Sticks”, a roaming tune in the same vain as “Ramble On”.  Both of these pairs are rockers that reassert Zeppelins’ dominance of the music scene, but the all occupy their own specialized niche so that they never impede each other.  “Black Dog” is oozing with sexual potency, “Rock and Roll” is a jovial yet kinetic attack, “Misty Mountain Hop” is laid-back but cautious, and “Four Sticks” is a rolling sojourn.  Between these tracks, which make up half the album, the band proves that there is enough rock and roll to go around, and that there was substance behind the style and the hype.

The third track on both sides (tracks 3 and 7) are acoustic ballads that harken back to Led Zeppelin III.  Where they once caught flack for going acoustic, this time around they serve as a welcome and accepted addition to what is otherwise a straight up rock and roll album.  “Going to California” is the equivalent to the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” in that it is a soft ballad preceding an epic.  Written about Joni Mitchell, it’s a track the expressed grief over unrequited love, essentially making it Robert Plant’s version of “Tangerine”.  While not as beautiful, it is even more wistful than Page’s baby ballad.  Even though it is the ballads that are the weakest part of IV, they have a truer purpose, and that purpose is to set the stage for the epics that close out the albums’ two sides.

“Stairway to Heaven” the band’s most famous opus needs no introduction nor description as everyone has heard it on the radio at least 759 times by the time they turn ten.  It’s adored to the degree that it is because it is quite literally the best escalating song that has ever been written.  “Stairway” constantly adds layers to it as the song goes on making us feel as if we are on a journey that is escalating in intensity.  Everything from Pages’ solo, to Plant’s final verse, to Jones’ atmospheric sythn work is kicked up to 11 on “Stairway”, and that’s why this eight minute masterpiece has become the band’s most recognized work.

The other, heavier and broodier, epic “When the Levee Breaks” closes out IV and from the opening iconic drum beats any argument favoring Plant, Page, or Jones as the MVP of the album is rendered moot and nonexistent.  If “Going to California” is analogous to “Behind Blue Eyes”, then “When the Levee Breaks” is the equivalent of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.  It’s dark and somber, and it very much so creates this feeling of being swept up in a flood during a torrential downpour in Mississippi.

Led Zeppelin IV is an album that prides itself on taking the best parts of their previous albums and improving upon it.  This is the album that you would give to someone who had no idea what rock and roll music was.  If nothing more, Led Zeppelin IV proved that rock music was now Led Zeppelins’ to do as they pleased with.

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