Name a Led Zepplin song. There’s a 75 percent chance you chose a song from Led Zeppelin IV, be it Black Dog or Stairway to Heaven or Rock and Roll. Led Zeppelin IV sold 23 million copies, making it their best selling album. Rolling Stone names Led Zeppelin IV as the 69th best album of all time. Ah, but do such praises and stats truly mean anything? After all…Rolling Stone named a Billy Joel album as number 70. Besides, an albums sales figures hardly reflect the quality of the album.
Personally, I like Led Zeppelin, but I do wonder if they’re a bit overhyped. In fact, Led Zeppelin almost made my most overhyped artists of all time list. Then again, my favorite version of Winter Wonderland is the Fleming and John version that incorporates “Misty Mountain Hop’s” melody.
Long story short, we’re left with the question – how good (or bad) is Led Zeppelin IV. Does the album get more hype than it deserve? Or does Led Zeppelin IV achieve utter transcendence?
Black Dog’s verses goes back and forth between Robert Plant’s acapella vocals and the rest of the band playing their instruments – almost like a call and response. The two sides join forces for the chorus, in a complex sound. With that said, the lyrics of the chorus are far from complex.
During the ending of Black Dog, we finally get a full lead section by Jimmy Page’s guitars, and it rocks our socks off. Said lead guitars breaks the monotony and repetition of Black Dog. Don’t get me wrong – the repetition isn’t bad, but we just wonder where the song is heading until the guitar led section.
So, where does Black Dog go? Ultimately, we find out the song is the welcome mat to the rest of the album. Black Dog primes us for the other songs of Led Zeppelin IV. Black Dog loosens our restraints and gets us ready for full on rock and roll.
In short, Black Dog leaves us wanting more…but that’s a good thing.
Rock and Roll
And yes, we do mean rock and freaking roll. Rock and Roll gives us a fast, danceable beat and guitars strung in 12 bar blues progression. The vocals have a simple thesis – Led Zepplin can rock and roll. Seriously, Plant wrote the lyrics in response to critics that said Led Zeppelin was not rock and roll.
There really isn’t much else to say about Rock and Roll. The song rocks, and we love it. Honestly, Rock and Roll might be one of the best song about rock and roll ever created.
The Battle of Evermore
The Battle of Evermore might be one of the earliest known example of geek/ nerd rock, as the song gets its inspiration from Celtic Mythology, not to mention Lord of the Rings. A fun fact, The Battle of Evermore is the only Led Zepplin to feature a guest vocalist (Sandy Denny).
Songfacts aside, The Battle of Evermore features a different sound than the first two tracks on Led Zeppelin IV. Jimmy Page wrote and played The Battle of Evermore on a mandolin. The overall tempo and sound of The Battle of Evermore gives us more of a folk feeling than a rock and roll feeling. Honestly, part of me feels bored while listening to The Battle of Evermore…and yet I still want to hear the rest of the song. Why? Because the story of the song, coupled with Sandy Denny’s haunting vocals – they make me want to fight any boredom and see what else The Battle of Evermore gives. Besides, we have dragons and orcs and ancient queens. These are enough to keep me interested, and enough to make me love The Battle of Evermore.
Stairway to Heaven
Let’s get this out of the way….I feel like Stairway to Heaven just might be one of the most overrated songs of all time. Stairway to Heaven isn’t a bad song per say, but. it. is. so. damned. freaking. slow. to. start. That ending part though, wow! The last third of Stairway to Heaven really rocks, but that third of the song is just too short. I will even give the song this – the beginning really doesn’t suck. I love progressive rock, and Stairway to Heaven certainly progresses – eventually….
Still, there lies the problem. Stairway to Heaven takes so bloody long to progress, and with hardly enough of a payout, that I just assume turn the song off. Maybe if the middle section of Stairway to Heaven picked up a little more speed – and maybe if the ending third was not so short, Stairway to Heaven might be one of the best rock songs ever recorded.
That being said…the beginning section flows nicely from The Battle of Evermore. We get a sense of continuity between the two songs. But again…this continuity just takes too long.
By the way – Stairway to Heaven really does sound cool when you listen to it backwards – though …there’s no escaping it.…the supposed lyrics don’t make a lot of sense.
Misty Mountain Hop
Misty Mountain Hop describes a love-in. During the course of the song, police come and break up the peaceful gathering. While the tone of Misty Mountain Hop keeps a groovy vibe throughout the song, the lyrics described show something dark. Misty Mountain Hop serves as an outcry to unnecessary police enforcement. Led Zeppelin gives us a protest song in disguise with Misty Mountain Hop.
An interesting feature of Misty Mountain Hop – the vocals during the verses have a repeating two note pattern and mimic a police siren. Meanwhile, the electric piano played repeatedly throughout the song gives the song its initial groovy, upbeat sound. Juxtaposition the two sounds, one of peace, one of conflict, gives Misty Mountain Hop a layered dynamic.
Again, my favorite cover of Winter Wonderland uses the tune from Misty Mountain Hop – so I obviously like Misty Mountain Hop. I think I like it more now, though. As I disect Misty Mountain Hop, I see the layers, the subtext, and the subtleties.
The name “Four Sticks” reflects drummer John Bonham’s drumming style on the song – as he played with two sets of drumsticks. The drum heavy sound of Four Sticks, coupled with the repetitive guitars, makes Four Sticks sound like a good traveling song. Well…I guess Four sticks kind of is a traveling song – traveling away from a lover.
Yep…Four Sticks talks about “got to get away” from the speaker’s lover. Way, far away. Essentially…that’s all the meaning Four Sticks offers. Four Sticks gives us a road trip song of a different kind.
Going to California
Going to California holds an interesting physical place on the album as it juxtaposes itself against Four Sticks. Four Sticks, relies heavily on drums, Going to California has no drums. Four Sticks talks about traveling away from a lover, Going to California talks about traveling to find a lover (or possibly Joni Mitchell). A very mellow song, Going to California relies heavily on the mandolin of John Paul Jones and the 12 string guitar of Jimmy Page.
Ultimately, Going to California gives us a nice song to reflect upon on an idol afternoon while contemplating life.
When the Levee Breaks
Originally recorded in 1929 by Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie, Led Zeppelin reworks the blues song to be more rock and roll oriented with heavy electric guitar usage. Still, Led Zeppelin retains the blues stylings of the song with vocal effects and backwards harmonicas.
An apocalyptic song, When the Levee Breaks describes – well….when a levee breaks. The Mississippi flood of 1927, much like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, devastated the Mississippi Delta region, Thousands of people lost their lives – When the Levee Breaks just tries to make sense of this act of natural violence.
As an updated heavy rock version of the song, we get an extra sense of violence. The guitars especially give us a bit of a chill. While a different sound from the rest of the songs on Led Zeppelin IV , When the Levee Breaks fits well into the set. More importantly, When the Levee Breaks serves as an important reminder of the power of nature.
Is Led Zeppelin IV overrated?
Firstly, I said my piece about Stairway to Heaven already. While the song really works well, I don’t believe the song deserves as much praise as it gets. That being said, Stairway to Heaven works on it’s spot on the album as a bridge between The Battle of Evermore and Misty Mountain Hop. Likewise, the juxtaposition on Four Sticks and Going to California works extremely well. In fact, all the songs fit well, save for maybe Rock and Roll – but whatever. Rock and Roll works well on it’s own regardless of what songs surround the song.
The cover of When the Levee Breaks gives me chills, as the similarities to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and The Mississippi flood of 1927 are eerily similar. History really does repeat itself. Of course, Led Zeppelin had no idea a similar disaster would happen a littler more than 30 years after their recording session – but that’s what makes When the Levee Breaks a timeless song. The song is even more relevant today, and it will find relevance when the next disaster hits New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi Delta.
As far as innovation goes – Led Zeppelin IV feels like it really stretches itself for all its worth. I can’t quite comment on the guitars of Stairway to Heaven as I don’t really have the training. I know what sounds good, but I don’t know the technicals as I don’t play guitar. With that said, every guitarist I respect seems to think Jimmy Page does something amazing.
So…with all that in mind does Led Zeppelin hold out? Should we crown it one of the best albums of all time? Maybe – I would say that a ranking of the 69th best album of all time might just be a fair assessment. So yes…maybe Led Zeppelin IV does deserve the praise it gets. But don’t feel guilty if you don’t like the album. Led Zeppelin IV might be amazing, but not everyone will understand the album.
Now if we could just find out what ZoSo actually means….I don’t buy the Saturn Theory.