Tomorrow is a momentous occasion for my fellow Americans and I, but not one that all of us are enthused about. It comes as no surprise that many people, including myself, are looking forward to this 2016 election day to be over and done with so that we can finally be free from the flurry and fury of political projectile vomiting that has consumed our major media sources over the last… uh, it feels like this has gone on since I first started forming memories, actually. I’m not sure what I remember existing in my life before this election started winding up, yet I do remember a happier time, even in the political process. I think regardless of your general governmental sentiment, you probably agree that this presidential election is, putting it mildly, a rough one.
As unbelievable as it may seem, there is hope on the horizon. My friends! We are at the precipice, ready to cast our vote and finish this dreaded decision and all the others listed with it. Let us not allow tomorrow to be remembered as the day America had to pick between a Douche and a Turd Sandwich, let us remember it as the 45th anniversary of one of the greatest compilations of eight of the greatest songs ever produced. Enough with the election from Hell, let us climb the Stairway to Heaven!
Tomorrow, November 8, 2016, marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin IV, universally regarded as not simply one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time, but as one of the greatest albums of all time. Dropping into record stores in 1971, this was Led Zeppelin in their prime. Okay, Led Zeppelin was in their prime for a few albums, which is a major reason why they are my favorite band, however, this album is generally considered the best and most complete of their works, and it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. It has a seamless flow from one song to the next, and features many of Zeppelin’s best songs ever recorded. A perfect balance of power and calm, with poetic lyrics, intricate musical styling on multiple instruments, especially Jimmy Page’s always brilliant string work, this was the album that brought Led Zeppelin back to and propelled them beyond the acclaim they received for their first two albums. Like most Zeppelin fans, I love their first six albums, and greatly appreciate much of their final three, but many critics were underwhelmed by Led Zeppelin III. They felt differently after hearing IV.
While commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, the album is actually untitled. Partly in reaction to the lackluster critical reception of III, Jimmy Page – who in addition to founding the band, playing guitar, and writing or co-writing most of the music, produced every album – wanted to leave a title off of the album cover. And the band’s name. And everything else. The tracks aren’t even listed on the cover! A painting of an old man carrying a bundle of sticks on his back hanging in a dilapidated shack of a house is the only thing that graces the front and back of the album, thereby giving no indication of what it is beyond an enigmatic record. (Atlantic Records, the company that released the album, had to slap a sticker on the back plastic covering listing what order the songs were in.) Ironically, nowadays this image is synonymous with the band’s, and it is instantly recognizable. Everybody who has listened to Led Zeppelin knows that somewhere in that ramshackle house is the grandest rock and roll song ever made, along with its friends who are magnificent company. The bandmates chose this cover art to not only throw those who were critical of their art off the scent until the album established itself, but to also capture the blend of influence from the city and county that they felt in their creative process, especially on their previous album, Led Zeppelin III.
A couple of years ago, I was going through a stack of my parents’ old records from over the years because my mother had purchased a multimedia music player that is able to play vinyl records. I was beyond overjoyed when I found two Led Zeppelin albums. The first was my favorite album ever, Physical Graffiti, the double album that I wrote about last year. The second was Led Zeppelin IV, still unopened and wrapped in plastic. I almost screamed like I was watching The Beatles step off a plane in America for the first time (I was also quite happy to find a few of their records!). On the back was the aforementioned track listing sticker; on the front a price sticker declaring the album to be a whopping $4.99 (I’m sure I could resell it for more today, but NEVER will), and a bright, yellow sun of a sticker that announces “Contains ‘Stairway to Heaven'”. Looking at this for the first time with a widely open jaw, I’d felt like I’d just ascended that stairway.
Now, let us walk up it together as we listen more closely to each of the eight incredible songs that fill this classic piece of rock history.
“Black Dog” – Obviously quite a salacious song, the meaning of the title is less apparent. Story goes that it was inspired by a black Labrador retriever that was old yet active in a way that matches the tune. Robert Plant explained at a concert how everyday at their recording studio at Headley Grange Mansion the band would watch this dog make its way to its girlfriend’s place, do its thing, and be so worn out on its return home, that occasionally the band members would carry him back to his dwelling.
The song endures as one of Led Zeppelin’s most well known and often played tunes, and just might be my favorite on the album, although it has some competition from the next song….
“Rock and Roll” – If you’re going to name a song after the most popular music genre of the day you’d better make sure it nails everything that genre stands for. Mission fucking accomplished. “Rock and Roll” is just that, a great rock and roll jam that stands at the top of a long list of songs that makes you subconsciously accelerate irresponsibly on the highway until after it ends and you scream out, “Holy shit! I was going how fast?!”
The song is a send up to early fast-paced rock and roll hits like the ones Little Richard used to wail, but not one that took a long time to craft. In all, the song was laid down in about a half hour with credited composition contributions from all four members of the band. When they recorded it, they enlisted Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart to accompany the almost pure jam on the ivories.
“The Battle of Evermore” – Tapping into their Tolkien influence and Jimmy Page’s enjoyment of John Paul Jones’ mandolin, this song brings our racing hearts down from the previous explosion of adrenaline to a manageable level to hold us captivated as if we are hearing a song retelling a tale of medieval heroes fighting dark forces. Some specific mentions of beings such as ringwraiths tie directly to the band’s favorite fantasy book, The Lord of the Rings, but other pieces were made up by Page and Robert Plant. Plant felt he needed an additional voice to help him properly convey the storytelling theme, so they brought in folk singer Sandy Denny for the only duet the band would ever record.
The song serves as a perfect return to calm to prepare us for the build back up to full on rock and roll we will get with the next song, which is for many people the greatest song ever made.
“Stairway to Heaven” – This song sends chills down the spine with its first acoustic notes, especially if you’ve heard it before and are anticipating the guitar solo ahead. This song better than any other builds anticipation for what is coming, and then executes it perfectly as it shifts gears from easy acoustic with other instruments chiming in, to full on power electric as it blasts the greatest guitar solo ever played. If someone asks you what the best rock and roll song of all time is you probably will think of this one first. Even if you pick something else (“Purple Haze” for me), “Stairway to Heaven” will enter into your mind and it is thanks almost exclusively to that brilliant guitar solo. The solo works so well because the build to it works so well, and the faster pace and louder vocals that follow it work so well. The whole song is a symphony of Led Zeppelin’s design that is so masterfully put together that it’s easy to overlook how empty the lyrics are at times because who cares when the music sounds so good? I mean, John Bonham is playing a recorder and making it fit the theme like the perfect flavors intertwining in a cake. Yes, the first instrument you and your fellow first-grade music class horrendously butchered “Hot Cross Buns”, a song made to be butchered by children, features in one of the greatest rock songs ever made.
“Misty Mountain Hop” – I just wondered why the recording on this link was so loud before I remembered that I cranked my headphone volume all the way up during “Stairway to Heaven.” Which begs the answer to the question, how do you follow “Stairway”? Why not finish with that masterful piece? We will get to the latter question in due time, but the answer to the former is you follow “Stairway” the same way you followed “Rock and Roll”, a lighter song, but this time the bouncier “Misty Mountain Hop” is the perfect following course to the meal that was “Stairway”. Didn’t I just call it a cake? I’ve got to keep my food metaphors consistent. Man, I must be hungry! Maybe a reason why is because in addition to the even more obvious Tolkien influence of this song is the lesser known toking influence. The narrative within the song is a loose description of the goings-on of marijuana legalization rally in Hyde Park in London in 1968. Robert Plant invoked memories of the friendliness of that day that was quashed by the authorities in the hope that someday we wouldn’t worry about silly little things like pot. Spirit of the Sixties Led Zeppelin style.
“Four Sticks” – Another unusual rhythm for another unusual title. The unique timing on this track wreaked plenty of havoc for the band. Page at one point during recording went off script and improvised a riff that they would later turn into “Rock and Roll”. The signature role of time issues for this song though no doubt came in the form of repeated screw ups from drummer John Bonham. Okay, not screw ups, but takes that he was not satisfied with because the drum sound just was not right. He eventually grabbed a second pair of drumsticks and pounded the living hell out of it, and that is the track they kept. Because he had double the drumsticks, they called the song “Four Sticks”.
“Going to California” – After the mild pickup with “Four Sticks”, “Going to California” keeps it mellow with a fairly self-explanatory song about longing for escape from the wildness of life as a rock star. Not sure if 1970’s California is the place to go for that, but then I’m not the rock star. Robert Plant apparently was pining for folk singer Joni Mitchell and wrote the song with her in mind. Plant said in an interview that the song was a bit embarrassing at when looking back at it, but he is still proud of it as it “did sum up a period of my life when I was 22.” I don’t know about you, but I like it and how it melds into the end of the album which is capped off excellently with a classic Led Zeppelin hard rock infusion of the blues.
“When the Levee Breaks” – Originally a blues song written and recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 about the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood. The husband and wife duo’s song has been covered by many artists over the years, but none as iconically as Led Zeppelin, whose retooled version is frequently assumed to be an original song. I guess you could say they made it their own. The pounding drumbeats, warping harmonica, and heavy metal guitar. The song’s tempo was slowed down post-recording to give it a slow churning sound reminiscent of an overflowing river. The drumwork is what is most notable and sets it apart from other versions. The characteristic sound of the drumming came from an inspired idea by sound engineer Andy Johns to set Bonham and his set at the base of a stairway and the microphone on the floor above. After adding an echo, it gave the track its signature percussive sound.
I’ve said it a lot with this album, (on half of it, in fact) but this may be the best and my favorite song on the amazing album. I remember hearing it for the first time early on during my freshman year of college and thinking that I had better dig deeper into Led Zeppelin’s discography. I’m glad I did, even if my personal discovery of most of Led Zeppelin’s works took precedence over my studies. How often do you use differential calculus anyway?
Thanks for reading and listening! If the election gets you down, just remember you can always give a listen to this masterwork from four men across the pond to help you take flight up above the shitstorm. Not to mention, you can always write-in the candidate who is as mellow as a glass of bourbon. And you can always reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or suggestions.
Rock that vote,
P.S. I understand that differential calculus is exceptionally important and actually rather enjoyed derivatives. It even plays a role in recording the same music I just discussed. I hope any mathematicians will understand my desire to end on a spirited joke. I will not, however, under any circumstances, now or ever, apologize for my disgust of logs. Fuck you, logarithms, and your inverse operation to exponentiation!