Led Zeppelin IV, the fourth release by the legendary hard rocking band Led Zeppelin, which contains some of their most muscular and most remembered songs of all time, including their centerpiece to many, “Stairway to Heaven,” celebrates its 45th anniversary today.
There isn’t anyone who is a fan of rock and roll in general who hasn’t crossed paths with this album at least once, whether it be the constant replay and re-re-replay of almost all the songs on the album on a daily basis on Classic Rock radio, or the various forms of media many of the songs have been included in pop culturally. It’s become a global playbook for the correct and attitudinal way to amplify the original organic blues and its become a global playbook for how to take simple chord rock and enhance it with mixtures and clovers of folk and exotic sounds, stemming from American shores like Memphis (“When the Levee Breaks”) all the way to countries like Morocco and such (“Four Sticks”).
The power of Led Zeppelin IV (also known as Zoso or Runes) lies in its mystery and its heavy mysticism, which creates and enhances the musical landscape the band treads. The ambiguity of the presentment itself, the packaging, with its cover, and debut of the band’s “symbols” only added to the allure and extreme charisma showcased on the prior three albums and crystallized to a sonic apex here on the fourth installment.
For many, and in the folklore of rock and roll history in general, “Stairway to Heaven” remains as recognizable as “Happy Birthday,” especially in its opening notes, which almost acts like guitarist Jimmy Page being a pied piper for the thousands, if not millions of bands that were influenced just on the strength of his 12-string playing here. Bands of the not too distant future in the wake of Led Zeppelin IV and especially “Stairway to Heaven,” like Kansas, Toto, Foghat, Rush, and even Black Sabbath and bands of that ilk, have been influenced and inspired by what many believe is Led Zeppelin’s greatest musical achievement in their rich and adventurous musical canon. “Stairway” also pretty much started the rock arrangement in music in which a song started completely light and airy, melodic and free, and as the song progresses, suddenly deftly moves from its acoustic pressure push to a full on, balls out explosive ending, with a solo as memorable as any other benchmarked iconic musical moment in musical history.
When Led Zeppelin cooks, they are always simmering of course, but when they reach boiling point and beyond, it’s staggering to think how so much amazing energy was able to be harnessed by four individuals and have those same individuals transmit that energy time and time again. The power of Zeppelin is on par with the power of Duke Ellington or Elvis Presley and beyond, and there was a kind of symbiotic quality where it was one of the few times that the expression “in a box” could be used so positively and influentially, but it was. Zeppelin were like a secret club unto themselves, in which nobody could even come close, not even the heaviest of heavyweights, like Black Sabbath or Deep Purple or even The Rolling Stones. Zeppelin IV, while arguably not their greatest album — that distinction may go to Physical Graffiti, released 4 years later and containing an album full of new material and an album full of outtakes, some of which (“Down By The Seaside,” “Boogie With Stu”) were originally supposed to appear on Zeppelin IV — still carries the expected wallop and reputation on the sky high bar the British quartet set each and every time for itself.
But of course the songs that make up Led Zeppelin IV are monumental in their own way, almost playing out at this point like a greatest hits album. Hammer attack to the chest songs like “Black Dog” blend nicely with the ethereal intoxicating sex grooves of “Four Sticks” (aptly named because the late powerhouse drummer John Bonham used that amount of percussive tools to execute the piece) and “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s the quiet yet with equal weight musical posturing of “Going to California” and the intense “Battle of Evermore,” in which golden-tressed and wailing lead singer Robert Plant does a rare duet, here with the late Sandy Denny from the British folk group Fairport Convention, both of them channeling Janis Joplin in only the most loving and sincere way, to the final expert heavy bring back and touchdown with the blues fried wallop of “When the Levee Breaks.” By record’s end, the listener has in a way, listened to all the styles Led Zeppelin was able to muster up on the prior three releases, coupled with a maturity and a sure-footed musical eye on the future, using its roots to propel itself into the nether regions of the galaxy and beyond.
Led Zeppelin IV was a crowning achievement in so many ways and remains for so many fans of the genre an absolute essential piece of music that to this day endures and sounds and attacks the listener’s senses as fresh and intense as it did fresh out of the vinyl sleeve 45 years ago.
And as we wind on down the road to the start of the next 45 years, the purpose of today is to celebrate or initiate a record that is timeless and has rightly secured its place in rock and roll history. It’s a simple equation regarding such a complex power by a band that effortlessly and jaw-droppingly knew not only how to harness that complexity, but how to keep the power on sky-high every time.