Saturday, April 23, 2011

Album Review: Led Zeppelin Four

Some albums will be around 200 years from now, as compositions from Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are now.  This album is one of those timeless classics.

At the time of this album’s release, Led Zeppelin were already superstars.  They were so big that they didn’t have to include sleeve notes, a band image or song titles on the sleeve.  Nor did they include a title for the project.  Thus, the album has been called many names, including “Led Zeppelin Four” or simply “Four”, some have referred to it as “****”, the “rune” album for its many Lord of the Ring references or Zoso because of the medieval symbols on the inner sleeve or even “No Title”. 

Quite simply, this album transformed the British superstars into legendary performers.  It is a perfect album, meaning not only that there is not a bad track on it, but also it isn’t a collection of songs but truly is an album concept.  Led Zeppelin album “Four” has sold over 23 million copies in the United States and near 30 million worldwide.

Led Zeppelin was formed when the Yardbirds, of which Jimmy Page was a member, disbanded.  Page had become a pronounced session player, most famously on the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, in which Page invents one of the most famous guitar riffs of all-time.  Robert Plant embodied what a rock singer looked and sounded like, with his loud, rough wailing, yells and whines.  Bassist John Paul Jones was also well known in music circles as an accomplished session musician.  Word is that John Bonham only went down with Robert Plant from Birmingham, England, to an audition to keep his friend company.  By the time the journey was over, Bonham had been selected as the fourth member of the band. 

The first sound you hear on the album is this:

`Hey, Hey Mama, said the way you move, 
Gonna make You sweat Gonna make You groove, 
My, My Child when You shake that thing,
Gonna make you burn, Gonna make You sting.`...

Robert Plant belts out those lyrics and you know you’re in for something special, only something called rock & roll can deliver, and only a band like Led Zeppelin can give you.  “Black Dog” gets the album kickstarted with one of Jimmy Page’s many famous guitar riffs. 

Jones is credited with writing the main riff of the song and he intentionally set out to write a song that you couldn’t dance to.

I wanted to try an electric blues with a rolling bass part. But it couldn't be too simple. I wanted it to turn back on itself. I showed it to the guys, and we fell into it. We struggled with the turn-around, until John (Bonham) figured out that you just four-time as if there's no turn-around. That was the secret.
The song got its title from a nameless Labrador retriever that had been hanging around Headley Grange studios but said dog has nothing to do with the song itself, which is about the desperate desire for a woman’s love and the happiness forthcoming.  "Black Dog" features a wailing Robert Plant at his best.  The song weaves Plant's pleading lyrics with Page's classic guitar work.  The track begins with acoustic guitar and launches into full-fledged rock and roll.  The song features start-and-stop Plant lyrics followed by responses from the band, a pattern that the group took from the Fleetwood Mac song “Oh Well”.  A complex shifting time signature was used by the band they say to prevent future groups from covering the song.  You can hear Plant belting his a cappella lines with the band kicking in in response.  Bonham taps his sticks together before each riff to “signal” the band. 

Page:  We put my Les Paul through a direct box, and from there into a mic channel. We used the mic amp of the mixing board to get distortion. Then we ran it through two Urei 1176 Universal compressors in series. Then each line was triple-tracked. Curiously, I was listening to that track when we were reviewing the tapes and the guitars almost sound like an analog synthesizer.” 
Page warms up his guitar at the beginning of the track—“waking up the army of guitars” as he put it, which actually are multi-track parts recorded in unison supported by Jones’ bass.  
2.  “Rock and Roll” is an anthem, pure and simple.  It is an anthem to everything loud and raucous, wild and free.  Page gives you one riff after another, building the song to a crescendo.  Meanwhile, Jones is busy frettering away on his base and Bonham is just back there providing the beat for all-time.  The song of course has become a rock standard. 
Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart makes an appearance on the song, which is based on the basic 12-bar blues progression.  Page has said that the song came about in a failed attempt to finish the track “Four Sticks”.  Zeppelin went into a spontaneous jam session, with Bonham playing the intro to Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’” and Page adding a guitar riff.  The tape was rolling, and the sound was so exciting that the group started working on the new song.

"Rock and Roll" grabs you by the throat at the beginning, one of the top Zeppelin tracks in their career.  Page's brilliance was in carving up all these supportive guitar riffs, like the engine that drives the band forward.

3.  "Battle of Evermore"
Plant brings Tolkien influences into the album on this track.  Only someone like Page could play a mandolin that   The song was written when Page picked up Jones’s mandolin, which he had never played before, and wrote the chords in one sitting. 
The song sounds medieval, featuring more harmony for the group than usual.  Ex-Fairport Convention folk singer Sandy Denny contributes to the piece in a duet with Plant.  Fairport shared a gig with Zeppelin in 1970 at the Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music.

4.  "Stairway To Heaven"

Like many of the classics, "Stairway" is composed of several sections, each increasing in volume and tempo.  Jones’ wooden bass recorders lead the song in its beginning as a slow, acoustic song with Page plucking on a six-string.  As “Stairway” progresses, there are several time signature changes, going to ¾, 5/4 and 7/8.  Plant’s vocals get more pleading, giving way to an elaborate and landmark Page guitar solo, recorded on a 1959 Fender guitar he had used often with the Yardbirds. 

The song was written in 1970 following the group's concert tour when Page and Plant were at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales.  Page has said that, while the song had its beginning there, it was the result of putting several taped bits together. 

I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together. I had a whole idea of a piece of music that I really wanted to try and present to everybody and try and come to terms with. Bit difficult really, because it started on acoustic, and as you know it goes through to the electric parts. But we had various run-throughs [at Headley Grange] where I was playing the acoustic guitar and jumping up and picking up the electric guitar. Robert was sitting in the corner, or rather leaning against the wall, and as I was routining the rest of the band with this idea and this piece, he was just writing. And all of a sudden he got up and started singing, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there ... I had these sections, and I knew what order they were going to go in, but it was just a matter of getting everybody to feel comfortable with each gear shift that was going to be coming.
While listening to Page go on with his idea, Plant began writing the words:  'There's a lady is sure (sic), all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven'.  Plant said it was a cynical look about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without ever giving back any consideration.  Plant had been reading the works of Lewis Spence and he later cited Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain as one of the sources for the lyrics.  
According to Page, "Stairway to Heaven":
...crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed the band at its best... as a band, as a unit. Not talking about solos or anything, it had everything there. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with "Stairway". 
Stairway to Heaven has now been played nearly 3 million times on U.S. radio stations.  Although Atlantic Records wanted to release the song as a single, Led Zeppelin to their credit would not compromise on shortening the song and so it remains as the most popular song never released as a single.

Side Two:
1.  "Misty Mountain Hop" 
Jones starts off the second side of the album on electric piano.  The song features layered guitar and keyboard, as well as powerful  drumming from Bonham.  "Misty Mountain" is another reference to Tolkien’s work, specifically The Hobbit. 

2.   “Four Sticks” was so-named when Bonham achieved the sound he wanted for the song when drumming with four sticks simultaneously.  The track takes you on musical chord rides you neither expect nor have ever been on before.

3.  The acoustic ballad “Going to California” features the melodic whines of Plant. 
The song stands in stark contrast to the tracks on side one with acoustic guitar by Page and mandolin by Jones.  Reportedly, it is about Joni Mitchell.  This verse  “To find a Queen without a King, They say she plays guitar and cries, and sings” is believed to be in reference to Joni Mitchell’s 1967 song “I Had a King".

4.  The dark and  bluesy “When the Levee Breaks” closes the album, featuring Plant’s harmonica and vocals.  It  is a blues number originally written and recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 about the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. 

The pounding drum of Bonham in the background, driving guitars and Plant’s wailing harmonica combine to symbolize the storm that threatens to break the levee.  Bonham’s sound was achieved by setting him in front of a Ludwig drum kit at the bottom of a stairwell at Headley Grange, giving it the resonant sound.  Plant’s harmonica was recorded using a backward echo technique, with the echo heard prior to the sound.

In summary, this is a staple in any rock fan's collection, even more so if you like hard rock and the group Led Zeppelin.  Most people will find it to be one of the best albums they own.

Side One:
1.  "Black Dog", written by Page, Plant and Jones (4:54)
2.  "Rock and Roll", written by Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham (3:40)
3.  "The Battle of Evermore", written by Page & Plant (5:51)
4.  "Stairway to Heaven", written by Page & Plant (8:00)

Side Two:
1.  "Misty Mountain Hop", written by Page, Plant and Jones (4:39)
2.  "Four Sticks", written by Page & Plant (4:44)
3.  "Going to California", written by Page & Plant (3:31)
4.  "When the Levee Breaks", written by Memphis Minnie, Page, Plant, Jones & Bonham (4:47)

Robert Plant:  Vocals, Tambourine
Jimmy Page:  Guitars
John Paul Jones:  Bass, Recorder, Electric Piano
John Bonham:  Drums

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