Staff writers Katherine Flynn and Julian Ring work through their love of Led Zeppelin’s self-titled fourth album below, attempting to place it in the larger context of the band’s discography while coming to terms with their own teenage “rock geek” phases.
Katherine Flynn: So, Led Zeppelin IV. What’s your first memory of the album? For me, it was an album that I picked up (on CD) for a few bucks at a used record/video store in my hometown. I was about 15, and as soon as I heard Robert Plant’s voice in “Black Dog”, I knew there was no going back. The song was so visceral, so raw, so bombastic, and so sexual somehow. I listened to the whole album all the way through over and over again, and while my love for Led Zeppelin eventually grew to encompass the band’s whole catalog, nothing else can ever really compare to my love for this particular album. It was my gateway drug, if you will.
Julian Ring: That’s a classic girl-meets-album story if I’ve ever heard one. I wish I could say my initial encounter with Led Zeppelin IV was as romantic or instantly admiring, but it just wasn’t.
I must have heard the record for the first time when I was 15 as well. This was in the midst of my “rock geek” phase, wherein I made it my mission to find out every piece of information about major rock ’n roll acts I could find. I would trawl through discographies and reviews trying to assess which albums were true classics — essential for any self-respecting music aficionado to own. Led Zeppelin were not a foreign entity to me, but I conceived of them as more of a hard rock hit machine, as just that band behind classic rock radio staples like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Whole Lotta Love”. During my search, then, their untitled fourth record inevitably came up (the definitive Zeppelin album, said most every critic). So, I borrowed a CD copy from one of my friends’ dads and gave it a listen.
A few cuts — “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, and especially “When the Levee Breaks” — floored me. The stentorian drumbeat on “Levee”, which John Bonham recorded from the top of a spiral staircase as he played in the foyer, is hard to argue with. But at the time, it was impossible for me to wrench the songs from their salience as singles and consider them as part of a cohesive LP. Led Zeppelin IV seemed to me, in the literal sonic shuffle of the late 2000s, an abridged greatest hits album with a few odd tracks thrown in. It was only after I heard the three eponymous albums which preceded it — after acquiring some musical context — that I understood how much content the band was packing into a single disc.
The great thing about Zeppelin IV is how it works as a synthesis. You’ve got the blues-rock of the band’s first album (as they found their footing post-Yardbirds), their move to hard rock on Led Zeppelin II, and Led Zeppelin III’s acoustic expanse, all in one concise package. Led Zeppelin never shifted their sound wildly the way groups like The Beatles were wont to do, but in opting for a gradual evolution, they honored where they had been instead of trying to shed it for something fresh and new. Those three distinct, equally strong personas are the essence of Led Zeppelin IV. You can hear them all seamlessly meshing on this album, each making itself heard within songs like “Stairway to Heaven” and throughout the 42-minute behemoth that would become the band’s ’70s milestone.
KF: Oh my god, on “When the Levee Breaks”, I love when that drumbeat barrels down like a freight train. An aside: I don’t know if you’ve seen It Might Get Loud, that documentary where Jack White, Jimmy Page, and The Edge (lol) have a love-fest and talk about their respective careers and guitar-playing styles, but there’s this one scene where Page goes to Headley Grange [the house in England where they recorded much of IV] and they show that staircase, and I LOST MY SHIT. It’s really powerful to see that space and to understand how it shaped the sound on that song. Anyway. Great movie.
You mentioned approaching Led Zeppelin very seriously as a part of your musical self-education, and it’s funny because I remember seeing the band that way, too — as an essential component of this very big musical topography that I was first discovering and trying to understand as a teenager. It’s an interesting experience to try to delve deeply into the discography of a band as monstrously famous as Zeppelin and to get to know them on a deeper level. I actually didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about the band or their music going into my first listen of IV, (I think I had only heard “Stairway” a handful of times at that point — imagine that) and that blank slate seems like such a big gift now that I’ve been listening to music seriously for about a decade. My question: we’ve talked a lot about I, II, and III, but how do you think IV sets up the rest of Zeppelin’s career and their more experimental stuff, like Physical Graffiti? Or, alternately, was it all downhill from there?
JR: Yeah, I did see It Might Get Loud, and while I wasn’t as blown away as I was expecting to be, that staircase segment should have made every single Zeppelin fan giddy. A stairway to heavenly sound, if I may bury that pun. There are some great scenes in that documentary, though — Jack White building a guitar from a glass bottle, some nails, and an old wooden board — plus some anticlimactic ones, like when the Edge teaches Page and White the incredibly simplistic “I Will Follow” riff. You can practically see Page thinking to himself, “And the award for Melody I Could Play in Third Grade goes to…”
But back to the album. Led Zeppelin IV cemented the band as superstars for the next decade, but I also agree that, as you said, it set the stage musically for what was to come — their “experimental” or, in my opinion, more assured work. The success of Led Zeppelin IV proved to the band that they could tinker with established blues and rock formulas and still rake in critical accolades. This probably made them less fearful of continuing down that road. While their fourth album has some great tunes, I would argue that some of their best songs came much later. I love almost every song on Houses of the Holy, for example, and it’s only when they really started laying on the synths in 1979’s In Through the Out Door that I think they lost some of their muscle. Jimmy Page is considered a guitar god for a reason, and while Led Zeppelin IV is entirely guitar-driven, some of their late-’70s material doesn’t play up his virtuosity as much as some (including myself) wish it would. The album is also the last truly raw one they would create; I always smile (in a good way) every time I hear Page, Bonham, and John Paul Jones move in and out of sync during the pre-chorus riff in “Black Dog”, and when Robert Plant’s harmonized voice cracks on “The Battle of Evermore”. They’re giving it their absolute all on these tracks, renouncing some of the polish for a whole lot of power.
Looking at their output over the five years following, I guess, makes Led Zeppelin IV even more notable: it’s the sound of the band discovering its own strength. Three years before, they had been playing blues covers in Scandinavia, and now here they are singing about Tolkien iconography over mandolin and acoustic guitar. The album solidified their identity as a collective and then flung the doors open for them once the reviews started trickling in.
KF: I would also agree that some of their best songs came later – some of the cuts off of Physical Graffiti and Houses of the Holy are, in my opinion, some of their best, period – but, to me, it seems like IV is Zeppelin boiled down to their purest form, an “abridged greatest hits” album, as you mentioned earlier. Some of the rawness that you also mention gets polished away on later albums, which is what is supposed to happen as a group of musicians matures naturally together, but I think something can get lost in that process, too. But as a whole work, this one will always be my favorite. If I could only take one Zeppelin album to a desert island with me for the rest of my life, it would be this one.