It was 50 years ago today Led Zeppelin released its legendary untitled fourth album, generally known to the public as “Led Zeppelin IV.” The album, which has never left the FM airwaves, still plays like a greatest hits collection, featuring such instant era-defining classic rock staples as “Black Dog,” “Rock And Roll,” “The Battle Of Evermore,” “Stairway To Heaven,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Four Sticks,” “Going To California,” and “When The Levee Breaks.”
Upon release, “Led Zeppelin IV” spent four weeks at Number Two — unable to displace either Sly & The Family Stone‘s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and then, Carole King‘s Music. It was the last studio album Zeppelin released while still a working band that failed to top the charts.
All told, “Led Zeppelin IV” spent 14 weeks on the Billboard 200 charts, selling 32 million copies worldwide — including 23 million in the U.S. alone. The album is currently the fifth best-selling album of all time in the States.
Jimmy Page explained that it was soon evident that Led Zeppelin couldn’t be lumped in with other UK bands being dubbed heavy metal at the time: “I think we managed to erase that sort of tag and cliche that got put on us around about the fourth album, to anybody that was still doubtful about us and wondering really where we were at and everything. When ‘Stairway To Heaven’ came out, they realized that we were a group that was intent on change and there was a far more dramatic quality within our particular brand of music, than say, the — so to speak — heavy metal groups. Y’know, there was more. . . More going on within it in the framework.”
Peter Frampton became close friends with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in the mid-‘60s, when all three were making the rounds in London as session players. During Zeppelin’s early days at Olympic Studios, while Frampton was recording either with Humble Pie or on his own, he frequently popped in to hear what the band was laying down: “I would walk in the control room on a couple of different albums; I don’t think it was ‘When The Levee Breaks,’ but it was one of the other ones where the drum sound was getting to its largest (laughs). And I remember the engineer George (Chkiantz) was there and we were in Studio One and they were playing back the track of one of them, and I just said, ‘How did you do that?! What is that sound on the drums?!’ It just sounded so huge — and he just smiled.”
Co-founding bassist John Paul Jones told us that band politics never came into play when Zeppelin was working up new material: “We always made music in the same way — we all know whether something works or not. When we wrote music together, y’know, if somebody came up with an idea, if it didn’t work, you didn’t have to be taken to a room quietly to say, ‘Y’know, we can’t use this,’ y’know? Everybody knows, ‘Hey, this is rubbish! Y’know, let’s do something else!’ And we’d go on to something that does work, and then everybody knows it works.”
Jimmy Page recalled Led Zeppelin’s 1970 sessions at Headley Grange that captured “Stairway To Heaven” — but one of the many highlights found on the band’s untitled fourth album: “Well, it was recorded on location at Headley, now, Andy Johns was doing the engineering. I knew it was good — I didn’t know it was going to be, y’know, almost like an anthem, but I knew it was the gem of the album, sure.”
Robert Plant recently chatted with Australia’s The Project TV show and recalled how Led Zeppelin’s massively framed six-foot-five-inch late-manager Peter Grant actually held up cue cards for him: “It’s a long song (laughter), okay? And I also know that I have a little bit of trouble remembering lyrics — this was back in ’72, ’73. So, our manager, who was quite a formidable personality, he’d come to the front of the stage in the middle of it all and he’d have the lyrics, just going — like that Bob Dylan thing (during the promo for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’) Anyway, it was very funny. I can’t remember what verse goes where. I know there’s something about ‘bustle in the hedgerow’ and then all that stuff. . . The conjecture around that song is hysterical.”
When we last caught up with Jimmy Page, he credited the acoustics of Headley Grange, the legendary English manor where the band lived while recording parts of Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses Of The Holy, and Physical Graffiti for helping the band develop their studio sound. Page feels that Zeppelin’s time recording at Headley Grange brought out the best in every one of them: “As far as Led Zeppelin, it was a really important time to go to this house and live there, and it’s a residential recording facility, if you like, with this recording truck outside and as far as I was concerned, I knew that if we got together under those circumstances, we were going to produce some amazing work, and of course we did. It’s the fourth album, quite an amount from the Houses Of The Holy album, and of course, Physical Graffiti — ‘Kashmir’ was done there, as well.”
Robert Plant explained that Led Zeppelin lived its creative life constantly pushing boundaries and exploring new territories: “You would just move off on an angle or a diagonal somewhere and another shape of music would come through, and we would build that and develop it into a new project each time. There was no thought about, ‘What do you think about it now?’ Y’know, I was still thinkin’ about whether or not I finished my French homework!”
Plant still looks back with complete love and admiration for his original friend in the band — the late, great drummer John Bonham: “First of all, it’s what he didn’t play that made it great — but it wasn’t always like that. Then he used to overcook it. He had all those funny things that drummers do, y’know? By he. . . His style was, y’know, he played in dance bands when he was a kid. And then I was playing once at a ballroom someplace and I was pretty cocky and he came up to me and said, ‘You’re alright,’ he said, ‘but you’d be a lot better if I was your drummer.’ I said, ‘So, you already understand that I’m in charge?'”