July 28, 2022

In late 2021 the book Led Zeppelin On Track: Every Album, Every Song was published by Velvet Thunder writer Steve Pilkington via Sonicbond Publishing, telling the story of the band via each album, going into them track by track, and also looking into the stories behind the album covers. We present here an exclusive sample chapter of the book for anyone to get a feel for what it contains.

The chapter chosen is the one covering the classic fourth album, normally referred to as Led Zeppelin IV but also sometimes as ‘Untitled’ or with reference to the four runic symbols which form the title on the record label. The album was a watershed moment for the band, not only because of ‘that’ song, but also the quality throughout, the significance of the runic symbols and the iconic cover design featuring no mention of either band name or title…

Led Zeppelin IV (A.K.A ‘Four Symbols’, ‘Untitled’)

Robert Plant: vocals, harmonica
Jimmy Page: guitars, mandolin
John Paul Jones: bass guitar, keyboards, mandolin, recorder
John Bonham: drums, percussion

Additional Musicians:
Sandy Denny: vocals on ‘The Battle of Evermore’
Ian Stewart: piano on ‘Rock And Roll’

Produced by Jimmy Page
Record Label: Atlantic
Recorded: December 1970-February 1971
Release date: 8 November 1971
Highest chart places: UK: 1; USA: 2
Running time: 42:34

Sometimes, a band must wonder just what they have to do. Led Zeppelin III had hit the number one spot in the UK and the US, as well as Australia, Italy, Denmark and Canada. It had made the top six in five other countries in Europe alone. According to the bean-counters at Atlantic Records, however, the album was not considered a commercial success! The fact that it stayed on the chart for a shorter time than Led Zeppelin II, probably largely to do with the more varied and acoustic material dividing some fans, meant that demands were laid down for Zeppelin to return to the harder rock of the first two albums, and improve on the ‘poor commercial showing’ of the globally dominant third record. Nothing like having a high bar placed in your way, is there?

While this could have seriously damaged the morale of many lesser bands and caused a disappointing follow-up, Led Zeppelin were collectively having none of this. Instead, they simply rolled up their metaphorical sleeves and delivered a career-defining masterpiece, which still contained two entirely acoustic tracks out of a total of eight. That’s the way to step up to the plate, then…

As soon as this pressure began being applied, the experienced Peter Grant had a plan to ratchet up the demand, which was essentially to starve the public of Led Zeppelin in every conceivable way. After two years or so of constant touring, after the band finished the final date of their US Summer 1970 tour, at Madison Square Garden on 19 September, he spirited them away from any live or television appearances, with the band not appearing in the flesh or the visual media again until the 1971 UK tour opened on 5 March in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He even found a way to turn down the apparently unrefusable offer of a million dollars for a single television appearance on New Year’s Day 1971, to be filmed in West Germany for transmission by satellite to movie theatres across the USA. His justification? He claimed to have heard that snow could sometimes affect satellite broadcasts, and as such, it wasn’t right to risk it! Now, a million dollars was an absolutely vast amount of money at the dawn of the 1970s, but Grant had his vision for the audience – he was ‘treating them mean and keeping them keen’ so that they would be salivating for anything Zeppelin-related. In fact, so successful was this media embargo that rumours even began circulating at the time that Zeppelin had actually split up following the disappointing critical response to the third album! In fact, the critical mauling which III had received would indeed cause a reaction, as we will see, but certainly not to split.

The band were far from idle themselves during this time, however. Indeed, Plant and Page retired to Bron-Yr-Aur again in the Autumn of 1970, once again working up some formative material, and recording sessions at Island Studios followed in early December, with rough drafts of ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’ being worked on, but these sessions did not go as well as hoped, so it was time to relocate early in 1971. The plan was to once again record using the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, and together with that came the suggestion of working at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s manor house in Hampshire, which would allow them to work with the recording unit at their leisure. This hit an impasse, however, when Jagger offered the place to them for £1000 per week, and Page flatly refused to pay it! They ended up paying only for the hire of the recording truck, and so it was that the band found themselves back at the cold, bleak and possibly haunted surroundings of Headley Grange again. Road manager Richard Cole has reiterated that Page was the only one of the four who liked working there – being fascinated by its haunted reputation – and happily settled into a top floor room with a small electric fire to make the most of the atmosphere. The other three were less enthused by the prospect of freezing cold temperatures and hot and cold running ghosts, but they went along with it anyway, and work commenced in January.

Page’s choice paid off, as the sessions went very well, and a week later, when the Stones truck arrived (driven by Ian Stewart, original Stones piano player in their early days), backing tracks were recorded for a host of songs. There were reportedly enough to consider a double album, but after consideration, the band vetoed that idea (it would happen four years later, of course, with Physical Graffiti revisiting several old abandoned songs). Finishing touches and overdubs took place at Island studios around the early part of February, after which just the mixing remained to be done. Page, Grant and engineer Andy Johns flew out to Los Angeles on 9 February – and thereby hangs yet another tale…

Part of the reason that Johns was so keen to head over to California was that he had recently worked at Sunset Studios on an album by an American rock band by the name of Sky (featuring Doug Fieger, future frontman of The Knack), and he had loved the sound he got from the studio. Also, a part of his reason was a young lady of his acquaintance, with whom he was very anxious to re-acquaint. Whether this preoccupation had any bearing on the matter is unknown, but he did apparently manage to lose two of the Zeppelin tapes he was bringing over! Still, they pressed on to the studio, only to discover that it had been completely refurbished with new equipment, and Johns found himself struggling to get the sound he wanted anymore. Rather than coming straight back, they stayed on and mixed the tapes, incurring something of a hefty bill in the process. When they returned to London and the rest of the band heard the result, they were as furious as Page and Johns were disappointed – what had sounded okay through the Sunset speakers sounded flat and uninspiring now, and most was unusable. Plant and Bonham were particularly irate, especially as the band now had a UK tour to do, and it would be April before the mess could be remixed again, causing the release to be put back six months, to November. To cut a long story short, that marked the end of Andy Johns’ glorious association with Led Zeppelin.

Part of the problem might have been the monitors at Sunset, which sounded very alien to Andy Johns compared to his previous visits there. However, some of the equipment was notably out of date by comparison to some of the better-equipped English studios. A clear and very amusing example of this was the panning system, which enables sounds to be placed in a specific location within the stereo range. Having been used to quite compact and sophisticated equipment, Johns explained in an interview with Tape Op in 2004:

‘I’ll never forget at Sunset Sound, mixing Zeppelin stuff, and I said, ‘Excuse me, I need to pan something’. And the guy went ‘Oh, hang on’, and he got on the phone and said ‘Bring Andy the pan pot!’ (laughter) – and they brought this thing in the size of a woman’s handbag, very proudly; a big knob on a gurney, and they presented it!’

One odd thing to note about the disastrous Sunset tapes is the peculiarity that the mix of ‘When The Levee Breaks’, famed for its sonic quality, is the very one done over there, so the fact that the rest of the tracks were unusably poor remains very odd. It has even been suggested by some more fanciful commentators that demonic intervention arising from Page’s interest in the occult may have been at large, but that can probably be taken with a large pinch of salt (thrown over one’s shoulder, just in case!)

The remainder of the mixing was done at Island in April, and the album was released in November, famously lacking one thing: namely, a title. Officially untitled, the album is variously known either as Led Zeppelin IV (my personal choice), or Four Symbols, due to the presence of four runic-style symbols representing the four band members which appeared on the inner sleeve and also some pressings of the record label. We shall address these below.

Album Cover
After the critical mauling given to Led Zeppelin III in many quarters, the band decided that they would make a statement with the release of the follow-up, and so they did! Against the imploring wishes of Atlantic Records, who believed them to be committing commercial suicide, Zeppelin were adamant that the album would be released without a single word of writing on the cover, even within the inner gatefold. And so it was – in fact, there is not even an Atlantic Records logo or even a catalogue number to be seen. The idea was to prove the point that the music could stand on its own merit, without people just buying the album because of the band name. Contrary to the fears of Atlantic’s accountants, who were metaphorically hopping from one foot to another in panic, the album was an overwhelming success. It reached number one in five countries (including the UK), hit the top three in twelve others, and spent a total of 90 weeks in the UK charts. Of course, people would have been aware that the cover was the new Zeppelin album from advertising and word of mouth, but it is still a pretty impressive point to have made nonetheless. In the USA, the album stalled at Number Two for four weeks, being kept off the top firstly by There’s A Riot Goin’ On by Sly and the Family Stone, and then, just as Sly and the gang dropped down the list, the New Year was ushered in by Carole King’s Music swooping in to steal the top spot for two more weeks, before Led Zeppelin IV seemed to give up in disgust. Strangely, a kind of ‘Urban Myth’ has grown up around this fact, with a large number of sources claiming that it was Carole King’s Tapestry album which kept Zeppelin off the top, but this is patently false as, although that album held the top spot for an unfeasible-sounding fifteen weeks throughout the entire summer, its marathon run came to an end in September, two months before Led Zeppelin IV arrived on the scene.

A ‘black dog’?

The front cover shows a framed picture of an old man bent over, carrying a huge bundle of sticks on his back; the picture is clearly hanging on a wall, with faded and peeling wallpaper. When opening the gatefold out, however, the back cover reveals the startling image of the wall being part of a partially demolished house, with a suburban landscape including a monstrous concrete tower block visible behind, giving a powerful impression of the march of progress, not always for the better. There are three stages represented – the rural past with the old man, the crumbling house from a century or so ago, and the ugly face of the present day (or, at least, what was the present day in 1971). Jimmy Page has talked about it being the old man’s cottage being demolished, but that seems to be a rather urban location for his clearly rural lifestyle. Page also claimed, in Robert Godwin’s book The Making Of Led Zeppelin’s IV, that the old man represented The Hermit from the tarot card deck by way of being ‘a symbol of self-reliance and mystical wisdom’, so make of that what you will. The tower block on the back cover is, in fact, the Salisbury Tower, located in the inner-city district of Ladywood, in Birmingham. The wall is a real one, from a real half-demolished house, and the painting hung upon it is also a real picture, which was bought by Plant from a second-hand shop in Reading – Page has said he was with him at the time.

The inside cover has a much more literal representation of the Hermit, being an illustration of the figure looking down from a mountain, lamp in hand, onto a village below. This image would be revisited by Page later for his fantasy sequence in the film The Song Remains The Same, of course. The painting is credited to Barrington Colby, a mysterious figure whose lack of available information led to several theories about the picture being done by Page himself under a pseudonym. In actual fact, this is partly to do with the fact that the artist’s name is misspelt in the album credits – it is actually Barrington Coleby, and he was an artist of Page’s acquaintance who went over to live in some seclusion in Switzerland, where he passed away in 2014. The picture is actually titled ‘View in Half or Varying Light’ and has been the subject of several claims about hidden images. If you hold it up lengthways against a mirror (with the hermit’s back to the glass), the mountain becomes what many have claimed to be the head of a bull, goat or a black dog. Towards the foot of the mountainside, there is also what can be interpreted as a bearded man’s face looking out, with some having claimed it to be the face of Christ. All very interesting but, of course, pure conjecture.

The inner sleeve is where things get arguably even more interesting, not least because we finally get some actual writing, in the shape of the credits and tracklist on one side and the words to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on the other. On the side with the credits, we get the infamous symbols, which have some interesting facts behind their selection by the members concerned. The first one is Jimmy Page’s symbol, the famous ‘Zoso’. Of course, although it resembles those letters, it isn’t actually a word at all. The symbol references the planet Saturn, which is the ruling planet of the star sign Capricorn, which is Page’s ‘sun sign’. Not that this particular symbol can be found in your average astrological textbook, as it is (or was then, at least!) much more difficult to unearth, and before it was plastered all over the internet as the Zeppelin Zoso symbol, you had to get your hands dirty in some seriously arcane magical literature. The book most likely to have provided the symbol to Page is the cheerful sounding black magic grimoire (magical textbook) entitled Le Dragon Rouge,  first published around the sixteenth century. This incredibly expensive volume was also referenced in a slightly more recent work (1847) entitled Le Triple Vocabulaire Infernal: Manuel du Demonomane. See, not exactly ‘Astrology for Dummies’. Page’s symbol can clearly be found in these volumes, pretty much exactly as it is depicted on the album. Of course, with his interest in the occult and attendant literature (he would go on to purchase an occult bookshop called Equinox in 1974), these books would have been very much known to him. It has also been speculated that the idea of ‘Zoso’ appealed to Page in another way, as his first electric guitar was a Grazioso (the native Czech name of the guitar marketed internationally as the Futurama), and the ‘Zoso’ could have reminded him of this – but this may be far too earthbound an explanation for Page’s fertile arcane thought processes!

Original ‘Merchant’ illustration, Chatterbox magazine,1880

The next symbol belongs to Jones. Consisting of a single circle intersecting three triquetra (the sort of ovoid shapes), which could also be looked at as a variant of a trefoil, it was selected by him from a 1933 volume called The Book Of Signs by a German typographer named Rudolf Koch (1876-1934). Much simpler in its origin and meaning than Page’s, it relates to a competent and confident person. John Bonham also chose his symbol from the same book. The simplest of the four, it consists of three interlocking circles, which, according to the book, represent a version of the Christian Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). In this context, they were apparently chosen to depict the relationship between man, woman and child. In an amusing follow-on from this, during a concert in Pittsburgh not long afterwards, the band discovered that the symbol was also the emblem of Ballantine Beer – it is entirely conceivable that this may not have been coincidental on the part of the hop-friendly Bonham! In any case, it looked good on his drumkit…

Finally, Plant’s symbol is the distinctive feather inside a circle. It was found by him in a book entitled The Sacred Symbols Of Mu by occultist author Colonel James Churchward, originally published in 1933, though the symbol originates from the ancient Mu civilisation, which existed over 15,000 years ago on a supposedly lost continent in the Pacific Ocean. Churchward put forward the theory that Mu had been ‘the cradle of civilisation’ before being swallowed up into the ocean by vengeful gods, as a punishment for lapsing into decadence, which would certainly put a crimp in your day, one would imagine. To the ancient Egyptians, the symbol was also used to represent ‘the feather of Ma’at’ (the goddess of justice, harmony and balance). Interestingly, the ostrich feather, which was the feather weighed against the hearts of the dead to judge them, was so chosen because of its supposedly being the only bird feather which is of equal breadth on each side, suggesting evenness and fairness. The circle around the feather in Plant’s symbol has been taken to represent the circle of life and death. On a more prosaic level, being the band’s lyricist, the feather could also represent a quill pen, but again this is conjecture.

There is actually a fifth symbol representing Sandy Denny, the Fairport Convention singer who guests on the track ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, and it appears in small form next to her credit on the inner sleeve, as three triangles. She also chose the symbol from The Book of Signs, but the only information given in that work is that it signifies an ancient representation of the godhead. The typography of the credits is a peculiar one, including small raised letter ‘o’s, which is slightly reminiscent of Page’s symbol.

The reverse side, of course, has the words to ‘Stairway To Heaven’, the first time a Zeppelin lyric had been reproduced on an album cover. The typography, in this case, has been explained by Page, who commented in Brad Tolinski’s book that he found it in a very old Arts and Crafts magazine called Studio, which he claimed originated from the 1880s, and he liked it so much that he got someone to make up a whole alphabet. The text is accompanied by a small picture of a man with a book, next to some packages bearing symbols and the word ‘London’. This unidentified picture has been speculated to be of John Dee, the 16th-century astrologer, or of an alchemist, but both of those theories are incorrect. It is, in fact, a depiction of The Merchant from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from a magazine for children entitled Chatterbox, which was edited by clergyman John Erskine Clarke. The issue dates from 1880, and the picture is one of 23 such representations of the book’s characters. The Merchant probably represents ‘buying’ the stairway to heaven.

‘Black Dog’ (Page, Plant, Jones)
One of Led Zeppelin’s most enduring songs, and a constant presence in the live set. Some initial work on the song was done in December 1970 at Island, but effectively all of the recording used was done at Headley Grange in January, and Island in February. In fact, Plant’s timeless a cappella vocal lines on the track were recorded at Headley Grange in a couple of takes, with the walls being lined with egg boxes as makeshift soundproofing. The opening ‘Hey hey mama, see the way you move’ is so iconic and recognisable in its own right that it drags the listener helplessly in for the ride. The main hook of the song, apart from Plant’s vocal, is the complex, circular guitar riff, which is in 9/8, 5/8 and 4/4 – an astonishing number of time signature changes for a single riff – and even more remarkable that it is so memorable. The complex made to sound deceptively simple, which is a very good trick.

The riff was actually contributed by Jones, who came up with it after hearing the similarly circular riff in ‘Smokestack Lightning’ from the album The Howlin’ Wolf Album. In fact, the whole world was misled by the nose for decades by Jones’s claim that he was inspired by the 1968 Muddy Waters album Electric Mud before he admitted in Mojo in 2007 that he had in fact been confusing it with the Howlin’ Wolf album from the following year. To record the riff, Page, along with Andy Johns, went to elaborate lengths to get the guitar sound he wanted. The sort of sound he was after was that used by Neil Young, specifically on the track ‘Cinammon Girl’ from his album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. To achieve this as closely as he could, he began by playing the riff recorded through the mic amp of the mixing console to distort it a little. It was then fed through two Universal Audio 1176LN Limiting Amplifier Compressors in series, the first one functioning as an amplifier – with no compression – and the second as a compressor. Finally, the resulting mangled sound was recorded on three different guitar tracks – left, right, and centre in the mix.

Even when the band had the riff nailed, they still weren’t entirely sure what to do with the song until Page had the idea to do something similar to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’, with the unaccompanied vocals working as a call-and-response with the riff. After the last of the vocals, roughly three-quarters of the way through the track, Page plays it out until the end with an excellent extended guitar solo, this time using his guitar through a Leslie amp, and miked up in the usual way, as he wanted to get a completely different tone to that in the riff.

A couple of things to listen out for in the track are as follows. Firstly, there are some random sounding guitar bits before Plant enters that don’t seem to entirely belong. This is Page again using his trick of studio ambience, using the start of several guitar tracks to make up a sort of sonic collage, which Page referred to as ‘the guitars warming up’. Secondly, to help the band come in correctly at the end of each unaccompanied Plant vocal line, John Bonham tapped his sticks to mark time. Although these were mostly erased, it proved impossible to do so completely, and stray stick-taps can still be made out after several of the vocal lines.

Lyrically, the track has no connection whatsoever in literal terms to any dogs, black or otherwise, but there is a tenuous link. The lyric is, of course, another Plant Special concerning how his woman, who has him under her spell as he outlines his lascivious desires, ends up causing him the usual misery and pain with the regular menu items, including lies, cheating, and once again having ‘no soul’. Of course, by the end, he appeals for a woman who will ‘tell him no lies’ and make him ‘a happy man’. Now, while the band were at Headley Grange, there was a black labrador who used to hang around there all day. They never knew its name or origin, and just called it ‘black dog’. Every evening, after resting up all day, it would go off only to return exhausted in the morning, and recharge its batteries for the day again. Obviously, the idea grew of the dog going off every evening to, well, be a bit of a dog, and so the song was named.

‘Rock And Roll’ (Page, Plant, Jones, Bonham)
A real 24-carat Zeppelin classic, ‘Rock And Roll’, actually first took shape as an ad-hoc jam during the Headley Grange sessions in January. The band were attempting to work on the song ‘Four Sticks’ at the time, but things really weren’t progressing at all, in a frustrating session all round. They took a break, and John Bonham started playing New Orleans drummer Charles Connor’s rhythm from Little Richard’s 1958 hit, ‘Keep a-Knockin”, and the rest of the band simply joined in one by one: first Page, then Jones, Ian Stewart on the piano, and finally Plant. According to Page years later, they got a whole first verse down roughly, before they took time out to listen to it. They knew right away that there was a spark there, so they immediately put ‘Four Sticks’ on the back burner and threw their creative energies into this new song. According to Page, in Robert Godwin’s book about the making of the album, once they had improvised that first section, they got the structure of the song worked out in around fifteen minutes.

Bonham opens the track, with his drum intro clearly taken pretty much as-is from Connor’s 1958 recording with Little Richard, but there is no songwriting challenge, as that tribute, left in from the embryonic jam that birthed the track, is the only thing which is not 100% original Zeppelin. Page’s riff is simple but incredibly effective, leaving space for Jones and, especially, the powerhouse drumming of Bonham, to drive things along. There are four guitar tracks on the recording: the opening riff is double-tracked in stereo, and then a third – more distorted – guitar in the centre comes in with counter-chords. After the second verse, a fourth guitar enters, playing some nice rock and roll licks before Page takes it for a solo. The third and final verse sees Ian Stewart coming in on piano as the band hurtle joyously to the finish line, heralded by a short drum solo of a few seconds by Bonham, leading into the final crash to end. There is some very ramshackle playing, with the solo being far from Page’s precision technical best, but the track is all about the feel and the excitement, which is delivered in spades. Bonham is so metronomically powerful that you get the impression that his snare drum and hi-hat between them could resurface the M6 motorway. Small wonder that the song often opened Zeppelin shows. Plant plays along on tambourine, but the effect is rather like a balloon deflating in the teeth of a hurricane next to the rampaging Bonham.

Plant’s vocal, however, is astonishing, showing him at the very peak of his powers here. The lyric is, like the instrumentation, more about the sound than the verbal complexity, as he sings joyously about a nostalgic past when rock and roll was king in a way which Elton John and Bernie Taupin must have surely taken as their template when coming up with their own classic ‘Crocodile Rock’. Like ‘Black Dog’ before it, the opening line of ‘It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled…’ generates enough electricity on its own to practically power the whole song. The line ‘it’s been a long time since the book of love’ is a reference to the 1958 song ‘The Book Of Love’ by US group The Monotones.

‘The Battle Of Evermore’ (Page, Plant)
…In which Robert Plant casts off his clumsy ‘Ramble On’ references and fully embraces Tolkien into his lyric writing. The song was first inspired by a book the singer had read about Scottish history, which of course has more massed battles than you can shake a sporran at, but it is clear that the finished work has less to do with Culloden and everything to do with The Battle of the Pelennor Fields from the final book in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Return Of The King. Numerous characters are directly named or clearly referenced: Sauron, the Dark Lord himself is namechecked in the line ‘The Dark Lord rides in force tonight’, while ‘the Queen of Light’ is either Galadriel or possibly Eowyn, and ‘The Prince of Peace embraced the gloom, and walked the night alone’ refers to either Frodo, and his trek through Mordor to destroy the ring, or more likely Aragorn, whose nickname of Strider itself named Plant’s dog. There is also mention of runic writing in the line ‘the magic runes are writ in gold, to bring the balance back’. Finally, Sauron’s ‘henchmen’ the Nazgul, or the Black Riders, get their own mention in the line ‘The drums will shake the castle wall, the Ringwraiths ride in black’. To a world of Tolkien-obsessed youths in the ‘70s, this was heady stuff indeed!

The Hermit tarot card

For the only recorded instance, Led Zeppelin were joined by a female vocalist: Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. After writing the lyrics, Plant realised that he needed another voice apart from his own to make the call-and-response element work, and Denny, who had just left Fairport to form her own band Fotheringay, was a friend of his, and so was the ideal person to ask. Her incredibly pure tones made the result a perfect marriage, and it is hard to imagine the song without her. Her part was, as Plant put it, as the sort of ‘town crier’, responding to his descriptions of the events unfolding by urging the people how to act.

The song was very quickly written and recorded, though there is a discrepancy in accounts of just how it came about. Andy Johns remembers all of the four members sitting beside the fire drinking tea as Page began playing, but Page himself later said in an interview with Trouser Press that he remembered it as being just him and Plant present, thinking that perhaps the others may have retired for the night. In any case, what is certain is that Page picked up Jones’s mandolin – once again having never played the instrument before – and began experimenting and playing a few chords. These led to the song being written straight off in a single, incredibly productive sitting.

The only instrumentation on the song is mandolin and acoustic guitar, and both of these are played by Page, as neither Jones nor Bonham are believed to have taken part in the recording. There are three overdubbed mandolin parts in the introduction, two arpeggiated in different registers, and a third supplying the bass notes. Strummed mandolin chords enter after around half a minute, and when Plant’s vocal comes in, it is joined, and the sound expanded, by the Harmony Sovereign acoustic guitar, providing extra chordal backing. Page’s mandolin playing is remarkable, considering his previous lack of familiarity with the instrument, but he himself was rather self-deprecating about it, saying in a 1977 interview with Guitar Player magazine that he was simply transposing the finger-picking skills he had learned as a session musician onto the instrument, and describing his playing – far too modestly – as ‘a mixture of Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs and total incompetence’!

The song was never played live by Zeppelin until the 1977 US tour, where it was played around 40 times, and then never again thereafter (although Page and Plant did it when they united in the 1990s, and Plant also performed it later when he collaborated with Alison Krauss). In the Zeppelin performances, Page played the mandolin while Jones provided the guitar ­– and more bizarrely handled Denny’s distinctive vocal parts. On one occasion, Bonham also joined in with him on the vocals, which becomes even more surreal!

The whole thing was recorded quickly at Headley Grange, except for Denny’s vocals, which were added later at Island Studios. For such a quick writing and recording time, the delicate intricacy of the song is quite remarkable, and takes the folky experimentation of the previous album to another level, and a natural continuation.

‘Stairway To Heaven'(Page, Plant)
It’s hard to know where to start with this one. Loathed by some fans – and Robert Plant – for its sheer ubiquity, the song is nevertheless a genuine milestone in rock history. There can be few people without at least a rough knowledge of the tracks, as undiscovered tribes from villages in Africa, which have never seen an outsider or electricity, have been known to ask ‘what do you think of the solo?’ Despite this, claiming to have a full understanding of the song is far more difficult, if not impossible – Plant himself claimed that he simply ‘started writing the words’ one night without knowing quite why, as if guided by an unseen hand, and even if such a claim is fanciful nonsense, the words are still shrouded in wildly interpretable imagery.

In general terms, most people concur that the song is, at least on the surface, some kind of allegory relating to a materialist society, in which anything, even a path to heaven, can be ‘bought’. But there’s so much below the surface which is argued about that going into them all would involve a book so heavy you could put your back out getting it off the shelf. So let’s just look at a few of the claims.

Firstly, there is the religious imagery and references some claim to be in the song. The ‘lady’ at the beginning is taken to be the Virgin Mary by some, backed up with the reference to ‘the May Queen’, with May being the month traditionally dedicated to Mary. These people claim that ‘the piper’ refers to the melody which plays as the gates to paradise open, the ‘bustle in your hedgerow’ refers to the confusion regarding spiritual beliefs, and even that ‘there’s a feeling I get when I look to the West’ is in some way a reference to Cain fleeing east from Eden after killing Abel. Personally, I lean towards these interpretations being variously ‘simplistic’ and ‘outright twaddle’.

Even more in the ‘twaddle’ camp are the ‘satanist’ theories, leading to the infamous ‘backwards messages’ claimed by those who like to listen to their music while wearing tinfoil hats. ‘The piper’, they tell us apropos of nothing, is Lucifer, and playing the song backwards seems to have been a favourite pastime of some of these odd individuals. It is possible to hear something backwards that sounds like the unlikely phrase ‘here’s to my sweet Satan’, if you really listen for it, but some of the claims are far more extreme than that. In fact, one particularly strange American preacher made the startling claim that playing the ‘If there’s a bustle…’ verse backwards results in the rather dubious ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan / The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan / He’ll give you, he’ll give you 666 / There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan’. So there you have it. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is not only about the Lord of Darkness but is about him spending time in a shed. Quite. Personally, I believe that, had such a serious occultist scholar as Page wanted to include a backward message, he would have come up with something better than his ‘sweet Satan’ getting up to no good in a tool shed, but everyone’s beliefs are their own…

Of course, leaving all of this white/black, religious/occultist theorising apart, there is the matter of an influence for which Plant has actual form, especially on this album. Namely, Tolkien again. There are numerous references in the song which can easily be claimed. ‘There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west’ could easily be the journeying of the elves across the sea to the Western land of Valinor, and the port city of Avallónë (as in ‘the angels of Avallónë’ in the previous song), with the notably long-lived elves being ‘those who stand long’, whose new day will dawn in their spiritual home of Valinor. The ‘lady’ who ‘shines white light’ can clearly be taken to be Galadriel, with her phial of white light. ‘Rings of smoke through the trees’ could well be Gandalf blowing smoke rings with his pipe, while the two paths and ‘time to change the road you’re on’ could be the parting of the Fellowship when Frodo and Sam head east to Mordor. It may not all be about Tolkien’s world literally, but it is entirely reasonable to see Middle Earth imagery contributing to the thrust of the lyric.

In the final analysis, even Plant has said that his own interpretation changes on a daily basis, and he actually wrote it, which should be good enough to draw a line under the admittedly entertaining conjecture, one would think. What of the actual development and musical essence of the song though? Jimmy Page spoke about the song in vague terms as early as April 1970 in the NME, referring to a planned ‘epic’ song for the next album, which would build gradually and encompass all of the elements of the band within it. The aim then was to produce something lasting around fifteen minutes, which is roughly double the length of the completed track, so it changed quite a bit from concept to execution.

The initial idea, as a rough sketch, was worked on in December without much success. At Headley Grange in January, the piece was moulded into its familiar form, with Page playing it for Jones, who added ideas on the recorder. Page has said that Plant, having written a rough draft of ideas, went away and finished the completed lyric in around half an hour, sitting in the corner of the studio and writing ‘three-quarters of the lyrics on the spot’. With the song fully constructed and developed, recording took place at Island Studios in February 1971, with the initial backing track of acoustic guitar, electric piano, and drums, before the rest of the instrumentation and vocals were overdubbed.

The song opens with Page playing the familiar descending motif on the acoustic, with a bass recorder entering after four bars, followed by soprano and tenor recorders, all played by Jones, who was adamant that the instrument should be used in preference to Page’s idea of a keyboard. After the second verse, the first added instrument comes in, with Page adding a twelve-string rhythm guitar part using his 1965 Fender Electric XII Sunburst. Jones also enters on two instruments at once – the bass guitar and also the Hohner electric piano. After the fourth verse, Page adds his Les Paul as the tempo begins to speed up, before the fifth verse when John Bonham makes another classic entrance on drums, kicking the whole thing up a massive notch. The drum work from Bonham here is perfect, giving the song a whole new drive and swing, while also managing not to overpower it. Jones joins him with a new part on his Fender Jazz bass.

After two more verses, the arrival of the guitar solo is introduced by a chiming rhythmic phrase using several overdubbed, reverb-drenched guitar parts using the twelve-string and the Les Paul – interestingly, this was reportedly the only part of the song which Bonham had trouble getting quite right for a while. This triumphant part resolves itself into Page’s solo, one of the most well-known in all of rock music. You can pretty much ‘sing’ the opening few bars. Apart from that opening, and a few linking phrases, Page has claimed that it was largely improvised. To get the sound he wanted, Page went back to the Supro combo amplifier he had used on the first Zeppelin album and played the solo on his Telecaster, which he also had not used for some time. The setup may be the same as the debut album, but the sound is far different, with the distortion coming naturally from the amplifier rather than the Tone Bender fuzz. Towards the end of the solo are two masterful slide phrases, which are doubled and positioned apart in the stereo field, which herald the final section with perfection. By this time, it is out and out heavy rock, with an insistent riff being hammered home by the ‘power trio’, before it winds down to a conclusion, and Plant’s final, unaccompanied ‘and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…’ to finish it off.

 Over the years, Plant has repeatedly reiterated his dislike of the song, referring to it as a ‘wedding song’ and consistently refusing to perform it, except on notable occasions such as Live Aid and the O2 Reunion Show – he has regularly claimed ‘Kashmir’ to be his choice of the quintessential Zeppelin track. Page, however, thought differently, rearranging it as an instrumental in shows that he played, and in one notable interview with Rolling Stone in 1975, he waxed particularly lyrical about the piece:

‘To me, I thought ‘Stairway’ crystallised 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’. Townshend probably thought that he got it with Tommy. I don’t know whether I have the ability to come up with more. I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance’.

…which may not be the guitarist taking the most modest, self-effacing position he ever adopted, but since he wrote ‘Stairway To Heaven’ when he was 23, we can perhaps let him off! In actual fact, he was incorrect about the song never having been released as a single, as it apparently was, for some inexplicable reason, in the Philippines!

The song has entered the public consciousness even more with its use in things such as the Wayne’s World film, in which Wayne begins playing the intro in a guitar shop, as so many budding players have done, only for his attention to be drawn to a sign reading ‘No Stairway To Heaven’! There was yet another plagiarism suit in recent years after it was claimed that the introduction to the song bore too close a resemblance to the Spirit tune ‘Taurus’, but even though the jury in the case refused to give any credence to the ludicrous claims that Page had never heard it, despite the album containing the song being in his own record collection, it was nevertheless ruled that the part in question was in too-common usage to be plagiarised. Two other pieces recorded much earlier and both sharing the same descending chromatic scale were introduced as evidence, and probably tipped the balance. In truth, the two are disturbingly similar and, even though there should not be a case of a songwriting credit being given out, an acknowledgement perhaps could have been given. The song’s composer, the brilliant if eccentric guitarist Randy California, never mentioned the subject until a year before his tragic death by drowning in 1997, when he expressed his sadness at never having received ‘a thank you’. The legal case was eventually brought by his estate years later, and it was an unfortunate event all round.

On a lighter note, the amount of airplay the song has received on radio over the years can be summed up and put into context, with one quite remarkable statistic. In recent years, it has been estimated (by people who estimate these kinds of things that is) that if every play of the song on the radio worldwide since its release was played sequentially back to back, 24 hours a day, it would play for almost 44 years. By which time we would probably all join Robert Plant and never want to hear it again!

The song was first performed in Belfast on 5 March 1971, but oddly enough, this retrospectively historic event saw the song get a rather lukewarm reaction, according to witnesses present, including the band themselves. At the time, the city was in the grip of one of the worst periods of the Irish ‘troubles’, and it has been reported that the crowd were in no mood for a new, peaceful and pastoral piece, with John Paul Jones having said that they were clearly ‘bored to tears’! Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing. By way of contrast, the last time the original foursome performed the song, at their last show in Berlin, 1980, was also coincidentally the longest version ever performed, coming in at fifteen minutes, including a seven-minute guitar solo.

‘Misty Mountain Hop’ (Page, Plant, Jones)
Side two of the album opens with yet another appearance of the looming spectre of Tolkien, at least in the overt reference of the song title. However, the song itself is rather less concerned with great mountain ranges spreading down the spine of Middle Earth, and the affairs of Orcs, Hobbits and Elves, as it is with the slightly more prosaic matter of hippies getting busted for sitting on the grass smoking dope! Plant writes the lyrics as a participant in this bust, as he describes being at the scene, and the general thrust of the song has him lamenting the end of the ’60s hippie dream, as embodied in this example. He seemingly uses the Tolkien reference merely as a metaphor for somewhere better, where the world’s innocence and beauty have not been tarnished, as he sings in the final chorus, ‘So I’m packing my bags for the Misty Mountains… Over the hills where the spirits fly’.

The song itself opens with an insistent riff played by Jones on the electric piano, the propulsive feel of which drives the whole track along with an unstoppable momentum, only broken up by the fittingly open, expansive feel of the chorus. Page quickly joins in on his Les Paul, followed by another rampaging Bonham performance, supported by Jones on the Jazz Bass. The vocal is very unusual in the verses, with every other line sung in a rather flat, monotonous tone low in Plant’s register, before he delivers the next line as a higher, half-spoken answer to himself. In truth, it does drag a little and becomes something of a tiresome affectation by the end. The outstanding performance on the track is probably Bonham again, in particular a frankly astonishing drum fill he delivers in the final chorus. A lesser song on the album, certainly, but not a bad one.

One interesting thing to listen to is around the 2:37 mark, when there can distinctly be heard a ‘oh-oh-oh’ exclamation from Plant in the background, which clearly does not belong, but it is so audible that it must surely be Page leaving it in as a happy accident because it sounded good, as he had a habit of doing when the mood took him!

Page and Jones, who wrote the music, have demonstrated differing recollections of the song’s composition. Jones said, as reported in 2013, that he remembered coming up with the opening riff when he was playing about on the electric piano one day, then showing it to the rest of the band when they came in. However, talking on a BBC Radio ‘Classic Albums’ show in 1990, Page said that he himself wrote that riff, and Jones came up with the chorus.

On an early pressing of the album, the song title was mistakenly printed as ‘Misty Mountain Top’. This was rectified with the subsequent pressing but bizarrely reoccurred on a late ’70s reissue.

‘Four Sticks’ (Page, Plant)
In addition to Bonham’s astonishing drumkit heroics, Page’s guitar sound on the track is also particularly noteworthy. The main riff features three tracks of his Les Paul, recorded left, right and centre in the mix, while the chorus has his Harmony Sovereign acoustic playing a rhythm part, over which are overlaid heavily reverbed, double-tracked chords on his Fender Electric XII twelve-string, giving an impressive effect. Jones also plays synthesiser on the track.

The words, of course, have no connection with sticks, as the title came entirely from the beer-fuelled machine that was Bonham. In fact, it is an image-laden tale of the narrator wanting to go his own way, but possibly without success, as things such as ‘when the owls cry in the night, when the pines begin to cry’, ‘the river’s red… inside my head’ and ‘the rainbow’s end… it’s just a den for those who hide their love in depths of lies’ don’t sound like someone who is having a carefree time.

The song was played only once live – in Copenhagen on 3 May 1971. Owing to the Indian sort of feel to the rhythm, Page recorded a version of the song (along with ‘Friends’) in Bombay in 1972 with Plant and some local musicians. He wasn’t convinced by the results, and the recording went unreleased until it cropped up on the deluxe reissue of Coda in 2015. The version of ‘Four Sticks’ is titled ‘Four Hands’.

‘Going To California’ (Page, Plant)
It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast between Bonham’s four-drumstick madness and this gentle, acoustic number which has Plant musing about leaving his troubles behind and heading for the promised hippie vision of California – in particular LA, as the Canyon referenced in the lyric is of course the Laurel Canyon area, synonymous with Joni Mitchell, who is widely thought to have partly inspired the song. In fact, Bonham takes no part in this one, as with ‘The Battle of Evermore’, though Jones is present this time. Our percussive hero will be back front and centre in the next song up, but we get ahead of ourselves…

The song has very sparse instrumentation, just acoustic six- and twelve-string guitars from Page and mandolin from Jones. Plant switches impressively from balls-out rock god vocal to gentle balladry – one of his major strengths – and he does an impressive job. He is, of course, seeking to get away from ‘a woman unkind’ (isn’t he always), who he informs us rather inconsiderately ‘smoked my stuff and drank all my wine’. No doubt she was also cheating, lying and hanging around in those bars with the men who play guitars again, but we aren’t informed about this. Midway through the song, it changes from a major to a minor key, and Plant’s voice changes with it, taking on a higher tone; this breaks the song up nicely, just when it could have been in danger of getting a little one-dimensional. In truth, there’s nothing particularly remarkable here, but it’s very pleasantly done and works perfectly as a nice palate-cleanser in between the heavier assaults.

Interestingly, and quite amusingly, Page got spooked by a minor earthquake which happened during the early stages of mixing in the Sunset Sound studio in LA, and he said later in Brad Tolinski’s book of conversations with him:

‘I remember lying in bed while it was shaking up and down. I immediately flashed on ‘Going to California’ where Robert sings ‘The mountains and the canyons start to tremble and shake’, and all I could think was ‘Bloody hell! I’m not taking any chances – I’m going to mix that one last. Which I did!”

Andy Johns, meanwhile, showed less concern, with his memorable retort to Page’s warning that the song could jinx things and cause another earthquake reportedly being ‘Oh, don’t be so bloody stupid, gimme a break!’

The song was regularly played in the band’s acoustic segments for the next four years. The first performance was that same Belfast show which saw the underwhelming ‘Stairway To Heaven’ premiere. One can’t help but think that if they were in no mood for a new, laid-back, peaceful vibe like ‘Stairway’, they must have been positively mutinous when the band sat on stools and started doing this one!

At the very start of the song, someone can be heard drawing a deep breath before the music starts. That’s not really of any significance, and I have been unable to track down who it is, but I suspect few people will lose too much sleep over it. Still, there it is. Another of Page’s favoured ‘studio ambience’ openings. The track was entirely recorded at Headley Grange this time, with no overdubs later.

‘When The Levee Breaks’ (Page, Plant, Jones, Bonham, Memphis Minnie)
Yes, that’s right, ‘Memphis Minnie’. For those unfamiliar with their old bluesmen and women, Minnie recorded the original version of the song, which inspired this one, with her husband Joe McCoy. Also called ‘When the Levee Breaks’, it was recorded in 1929, two years after the disaster known as the Great Mississippi Flood. The huge river had burst its banks and breached the levees (anti-flood embankments), leading to an unbelievable 27,000 square miles being submerged. 500 people were killed, and 630,000 left homeless by the disaster, the tale of which was told by the song.

When Led Zeppelin tackled it, they kept some of the original but constructed a mostly new song around it. Plant retained some of the original words but changes the rest to make it a more universal story of possible impending disaster, as well as the migration of black workers to the bigger cities such as Chicago at the time, which is inspired by, but less rooted in, the 1927 event. Also, the twelve-bar structure of the original is replaced by a more grinding rock feel, still with a blues heart, but with a sort of remorseless drone effect to it. The co-credit to Memphis Minnie and the group is, in this case, exactly the correct one.

No disrespect to the performances of Page, Plant or Jones on here, but the big talking point with regards to this track has always been John Bonham’s incredible drum sound. In fact, the two-bar snippet at the start of the song has become one of the most widely sampled pieces of sound in the history of rock music. It has been used by artists as wide-ranging and diverse as Mike Oldfield, Dr Dre, Beyonce, the Beastie Boys, Bjork, Massive Attack, Eminem, and Sophie B Hawkins, among others. The way the drums were recorded is a tale in itself, involving Bonham setting up his drumkit in almost every available room in Headley Grange, with a host of different microphone placements by the obsessive audiophile Page, all without producing that magical je ne sais quoi that they were searching for. Finally, inspiration struck by pure accident. A second, new Ludwig ‘Green Sparkle’ drumkit (as he always called it) had been delivered for Bonham, and was temporarily left in the entrance hall. During a break in proceedings, Bonham went to try it out and the sound was immediately and obviously spectacular as a chance result of the particular acoustics there. Page claimed that the band immediately said that the drums were staying there, whereas Andy Johns claimed it was his idea, but whichever version is correct, what happened was that Johns set up two microphones on the stairway landing above the drums and recorded it from there. Two compressors were used, as well as an echo generated by Page’s Binson Echorec 2, and the result was history. John Bonham’s son Jason has described it as ‘the drum intro of the Gods’, and few would argue. Page and Jones played the riff in the key of G, but it is in F on the final version because they were slowed down by a full tone to make the sound more intense and to emphasise the drums even more. Plant also provides distorted harmonica work as well as his vocal, in a tour de force of sound.

 When the song reaches its ‘outro’, just before the six-minute mark, Page goes a little wild, introducing all manner of production trickery. Guitars wander all over the stereo field, backwards guitar is introduced, and Plant’s vocal is distorted by heavy phasing. It makes for a densely layered soup, all wrapped around that remorseless drum sound. The song has been occasionally criticised, a little harshly, as ‘a great drum sound in search of a song’, but although it may be said to overstay its welcome a little before it reaches its end, it is still a recording milestone of no little significance.

As a final interesting side-note about the record, Led Zeppelin IV must surely be one of the very few mainstream rock albums without a single song containing an actual chorus. Unless one counts hook phrases such as ‘Been a long time, been a long time’ or ‘When the levee breaks, we’ll have no place to go’, which are effectively part of the verses, there is not a single repeated chorus refrain throughout the entire album. And yet, the songs are still somehow catchy and memorable, which is a very unusual trick to pull off.