Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Forty years later . . . Led Zeppelin IV

Music lacks magic these days.  There's nothing special or surprising about listening to a new album today.  You get on your computer and download a bunch of music, there's no wrapping, no packaging, no cover art to stare at.  The purchase is immediate too, within seconds you can be playing your new album, and even if you still buy hard copies of albums (CD's), you can stick those into your CD Player the moment you get in the car.  Listening to new music used to be an experience, because it was so hard to do.  (For musings on Led Zeppelin and the occult experience click here.)

I have several framed album covers on the walls of my townhouse, because LP's were the greatest experience of them all.  They contained music that wasn't super-easy to listen to, you had to want it, you had to be up for going through the ritual of taking the album out of the record jacket, handling it like a baby, placing it carefully on the turntable, and then moving the needle onto the wax.  Playing a record took time, and it was something you listened to from start to finish.  Listening to an album wasn't immediate gratification, it was total immersion in an artist, a world, a vision, a sound.

Very few records change the entire course of rock music*, Led Zeppelin IV was one of them.  I still have daydreams about what it would have been like to tear into that album back in 1971.  Staring at the weird album cover without the band's name on it, puzzling over the runes that graced the record sleeve.  It's possible that in 1971 you could have picked up IV without hearing anything off of it first. What a trip that would have been.  Can you imagine, sitting on your couch, firing up the record player, lighting up a joint, and hearing Stairway to Heaven for the first time, completely unannounced and unprepared for it?  There are no secrets when it comes to music today, you can stream anything before you buy it and but it on Youtube, impossible to do in 1971.  I would have been stoned** as a gourd in 1971 running around my house going ape-shit crazy over the last three minutes of Stairway thinking this is the greatest shit since ever.

One of the things that would have made IV such a mind-fuck in November of 1971 is that no one would have been expecting it.  Yes, Led Zeppelin was one of the biggest bands in the world in 1971 (just three years after they got together), but 1970's mostly acoustic Led Zeppelin III was largely seen as a commercial and artistic disappointment, expectations for Led Zeppelin IV would have been small.  What makes IV the classic it is, is how it takes the acoustic experiments of III and weaves them into an overall big rock sound (like in Stairway), or takes acoustic rock to a grander level, to this day nothing sounds like The Battle of Evermore, except the Battle of Evermore.  

My first memories of listening to IV as an album, and not a few isolated radio hits here and there, dates back to my freshman year of high school.  My brother Chuck in his infinite wisdom got me a copy of the album (on cassette!) for Christmas.  It wasn't something I asked for, he just said it was something I "needed" as a fan of hard rock and heavy metal.  Shortly thereafter I have memories of dancing in my bedroom getting and getting dizzy while listening to Rock and Roll, still my favorite shake your rock bootie track of all time.

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I've written extensively before about how much Led Zeppelin changed my life, but that Christmas was the beginning.  There was a time when it was a rare day in hell when I wasn't wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt.  Nothing sounds like Zeppelin, nothing rocks like Zeppelin, nothing has ever been as consistently great as Zeppelin.  There are some Zep fans who think that Physical Graffiti or perhaps II are their greatest achievement, I disagree, I think it has to be IV just because the album contains every element that made them so great.  There are no throw away tracks, on 1991's boxset, seven of IV's eight tracks made the cut, IV is a greatest hits album, the playlist for every classic rock station of the past thirty years.

Often ignored in the hullabaloo over radio classics like Stairway and Black Dog, what makes IV so interesting and so unlike most rock music in its wake, is the drum sound.  John Bonham just hit the drums harder than any other human being behind a kit, as a result there's a sonic boom behind Zeppelin that no other rock band has ever had.  Forty years later and people are still sampling When the Levee Breaks because it sounds so amazing.  A rock critic I read once described Bonzo as always playing "behind the beat."  He argued that Bonzo was always about a mili-second off from where you thought the beat would fall.  So instead of "pause pause pause beat," you got "pause pause pause pa-BEAT" which always drove the music forward and gave it a sense of urgency that most rock lacked.  As a rock album I find IV to be extremely danceable, when I hear the rock tracks, I want to move and groove.  That's all Bonham.

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It wasn't just Bonzo's urgent drumming that made his drum sound, when you listen to IV you can hear him doing all kinds of things, he wasn't just a time-keeper, he was a full contributor to the bands sound.  He was always playing more than what was needed, giving the music added texture.  You could just listen to the drum tracks on IV and be completely engrossed, no drummer ever gave a better performance.  The boom and echo in the drum sound is also attributable to super-producer Jimmy Page, who knew how to mic a drum a sound in a way that no one else had figured out at the time.  IV was not recorded in a studio, it was recorded at an old country estate (Headley Grange-how much do I love Zeppelin, I don't even have to look this shit up), and Bonham played in the living room allowing his drums to "breathe."

(Working on this piece I spent a lot of time on Youtube, and there are a few nifty videos there just featuring Bonzo's drum tracks.  Even in 1979 Bonham was still nailing it, Fool in the Rain is an overlooked Bonzo masterpiece, there's about 100 things going on during that drum track, and then there's just the deep sound of raw power of the time-keeping.)

It wasn't only Bonham, 1971 found all the members of Led Zeppelin at the peak of their powers.  Robert Plant was a vocal phenomenon (and all of 21 years old), and after IV his voice would change and he'd never again be able to hit the high notes that marked early Zeppelin.  Plant was just soulful on parts of IV, and introspective when he needed to be.  His voice reached heights never before attained in British Blues Rock.  Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny, one of all the time greats, said she "sang herself hoarse" trying to keep up with Plant on The Battle of Evermore.  Lyrically Plant also threw down the gauntlet, creating the genre of wizard-rock, but doing so in a mystical way, and not in a dopey dragons and rainbows sort of way***.

For me it's Bonham who makes this album (and Plant would love hearing that), but everyone contributed.  Who else but Zeppelin would have a bass/keyboard player that also plays recorder?  John Paul Jones was always the icing on the Zeppelin cake.  Not only did he play in lock-step with Bonzo (they were arguably the greatest rhythm section of all time), but he was funky.  While Bonzo grooved, Jones would play these funky bass-lines that were equally bootie shaking, and he did this in a hard rock band without anyone ever calling him out on it, because it was amazingly awesome.  Listen to Zeppelin live, without a rhythm guitar player, it's Jonsey's basslines that Page solos over, and the sound is never compromised.

Led Zeppelin IV marked the moment where Jimmy Page went from being an amazing British Blues Rock guitarist, to being a guitar god.  Think I'm kidding?  You haven't listened to that solo in Stairway in awhile have you?  Between the recorders, the bewildering lyrics, and the drums, Page's guitar solo in that song often gets lost, and it's amazing.  He plays the shit out of it, and there's no need for a rhythm guitar track because the solo is so interesting, and because Bonzo and Jones sound abso-fucking awesome on their own.  Listen to the live version of Stairway, and how Page just masters his 18 string guitar, you can almost imagine him casting a spell over it saying "You will be my bitch, and the world will think Satan is playing rhythm."  After IV, Page would create guitar armies in the studio and on stage, and no one else in the 70's even came close to touching his jock, not even Clapton.

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Due to the emerging chameleon like talents of Page, IV just goes all over the place.  There's the funky hard rock of Misty Mountain Hop, Rock and Roll, and Black Dog, and the Celtic tinged sounds of Four Sticks (featuring another drum workout by Bonzo, and called Four Sticks because he plays the track with four drumsticks, have I mentioned how great Bonham was?), Evermore.  The folk sound of Going to California is completely on target, and a huge step up in sound from earlier experiments on III.  By 1971 Page had mastered what the band would call "light and shade," being able to go from arena rock warriors to folk-hippies without missing a beat (like Bonham would ever miss a beat).

Weirdly, the fortieth anniversary of IV has passed in classic Zeppelin style, quietly, and without the massive reissues that most bands would engage in to mark such an anniversary.  Dark Side of the Moon also turned forty this year, and was re-released in multiple formats, but for Zeppelin, IV stands the test of time as is.  Here's to forty years of the greatest rock album of all time, and in forty years people will still be listening to it.

*How rare is it to make an album that that changes rock history?  In the past twenty years I can only think of three off the top of my head, Pearl Jam's Ten, Nirvana's Nevermind, and The Slim Shady LP by Eminem.  That's it, those albums changed music forever.

**I'm not really a drug guy, but if it was 1971, wouldn't I be smoking pot probably?

***Apologies to Ronnie James Dio.


  1. I profoundly disagree with your opening paragraph. I'm roughly of the same generation as you, I believe, and I have to say that this recent tendency amongst us post-Boomers/Generation X-ers to lionize and romanticize the recent musical past is revisionist at best, and anti-art at its worst. I'm sorry, but to say that "there's nothing special or surprising about listening to a new album today" says a lot more about your listening habits then about the actual quality of albums being released right now.

    Having grown up in a cultural Midwestern backwater where the mainstream musical options were: Classic Rock, Top 40, or Country, to decry the ease in which young people (and us older people) can now acquire new music totally ignores how dissatisfied so many of us actually were with the pre-Internet music industry status quo. The "hunt" for new and different sounds could lead to as many duds as it did great albums, especially if you were only going by word-of-mouth, obscure magazine reviews, or album art. I would never, in a million years, return us to that. It was good music I treasured, not the hunt for it.

    Listening to an album doesn't have to be "hard" to be an "experience." I have met and interacted with so many younger kids who obsess over albums, listening to songs over and over again, posting and writing and speculating about their favorite bands. Tumblr, to name just one example, is wonderland of music fandom. The Internet hasn't ruined music for them. This "walked a mile backwards in the snow to listen to my favorite album" stuff is just a way of saying "we had it better, and you'll never know". Its back-door generational elitism.

    The real truth is that hardcore music fans will always appreciate music differently than people who are casual fans, and that's OK. For every person who obsessed over Led Zep's "IV" looking for hidden meanings, pouring over it like a sacred text, there were millions and millions more who just experienced it as a collection of decent tunes. Who moved on to something else a few months later.

    To paraphrase some other band, the kids are alright. I'm not going to get on a soapbox and tell them that the way they experience and acquire music is deficient, I'm too busy listening to their recommendations and (easily) sharing my own musical obsessions with them.

  2. Jason, you and I are both not old enough to really have been a part of the LP tradition, so perhaps my description of it is wishful thinking. I grew up with cassette tapes, which certainly weren't magickal in anyway. No wonder I mythologized my father's record collection.

    There's no surprise when you listen to a new album today. By the time you hear it, it's already been streamed online, with Youtube videos posted everywhere. It's entirely possible to illegally download almost any album weeks before its released. This is probably exciting to a lot of people, it certainly takes the guess work out of music, but I will say that it takes away the surprise, it's like knowing what's under the Christmas tree before unwrapping the gifts. It doesn't mean the gifts suck, just that there's no mystery.

    I'm not sure I'd call anyone's way of acquiring music deficient, but it certainly was different. Music has turned into a more social experience than it used to be. Instead of having to invite your friends over to listen to something on the turn table, you can post a favorite song on facebook and share it with the world. Even when you and I were younger you could make a cassette copy of your favorite album to pass out to friends, nobody was doing that in 1971. Listening to music was a more intimate experience because there was no other way to have the experience. I'd also argue that with more limited entertainment options, it was easier to immerse yourself in the album experience. Now you are probably more likely to listen to an album while sitting at your computer, typing up something, checking email, etc, perhaps texting a friend about how awesome something is.

    I admit it, I romanticize the 1970's, but that was more my father's era of music than mine. I wasn't even born when Zep IV came out, and by the time I became a full on Zeppelin fanatic they had broken up ten years prior. Even today new generations continually go back and become Pink Floyd, Beatles, and Zeppelin fanatics, those bands transcend the era in which they performed. Part of their appeal is probably because they've broken up and as a result are rather mysterious, but the music is also still fresh.

    Perhaps I'm becoming an old fuddy duddy . . . the advantages of today's system is that I can look up all kinds of music in seconds. The downside is that I tend to listen to all of that music more passively than in year's past.

    Interesting discussion though, and if I've offended anyone with my overly romantic descriptions of 1971 I apologize. To me that era is like a fairy tale.

  3. "...you are probably more likely to listen to an album while sitting at your computer, typing up something, checking email, etc, perhaps texting a friend about how awesome something is."

    I wonder if this is really all that different from any other period in recorded music/radio. Sure, you had "appointment listening" (and you still do), but you also had folks working, playing, and occupying themselves in hundreds of ways while various songs and albums were playing in the background. The Beats wrote while listening to jazz, sitting at their typewriters, as we now sit at our laptops.

    I get that different musical eras can seem epochal, but I work to refuse the impulse to become fixated on them. I don't want to miss the stuff that will someday be seen as classic because I convinced myself that the best days of the album were over. I can't even begin to count how many new albums I've bought/had sent to me this year, and so many of them are worthy of examination and praise.

    Here's the thing, classic albums will still be classic even if I'm not paying attention to them at the moment. Fairport Convention, The Beatles, Joy Division, etc, etc, will be waiting for me whenever I need to reconnect with what they gave me as a listener. In the meantime, I'm going to enjoy as much as I can from the artists who are coming up, testing their limits, and helping to define music for their fans.

    Also, from a personal standpoint, and I'm sure you'll disagree, I think the "classic rock" era has been lionized enough. Their places in the firmament are established, they don't need any of my time or energy to do what they are doing. Meanwhile, so much music since then has gotten lost, and so much new music is being ignored. It was only fairly recently that critics have excavated the post-punk era (1978-1984), a time that was actually far more influential than punk itself, and shaped so much modern music.

    I have no beef with Led Zeppelin or their classic-ness, but I do think that there's something very wrong when they get more airplay than hundreds of deserving young artists who should be enjoying their time, now. Or the fact that "classic" stations are laser-focused on the late sixties and early seventies (with a bit of U2 or neutered grunge thrown in now and then) with nearly 40 years of music vanished from the airwaves.

    The Internet, for all its faults, has acted as a corrective to huge injustices in the music industry. Remember the runaway success of Mp3.com back in the day? How it allowed fans of outsider genres to find stuff? How Internet radio blossomed, returning free-form creativity to an all-but-dead medium? In fact, a main reason we have so much piracy today is because the major labels essentially said "fuck you" to Napster when they approached them to make a deal. At that moment the history of music changed, and the old order signed its death warrant.

    The magical monoculture of yesteryear is a construction. Partially from nostalgia, but partially from a consortium of businesses who dictated what the rules would be. Those simpler times made a small group of people very, very, very rich. It also stifled diversity, destroyed artists, and allowed for the "rock royalty" to rule unchallenged for a long time.

    Anyway, I'm starting to ramble. This is a topic I'm pretty passionate about, so thanks for providing a forum.

  4. I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I still listen to a lot of new music, and go out of my way to seek it out. Most of my favorite bands of the last fifteen years receive no radio airplay: Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, Gaelic Storm, Within Temptation, Nightwish, Kate Rusby, Butch Walker, Blood Ceremony, Fountains of Wayne, and the Old 97's. My favorite bands fit into no radio format, and without the internet I probably wouldn't even know they were still making music.

    The internet has been a godsend when it comes to music. There's more music than ever at your fingertips, and bands can now exist without major labels, and interact with fans more easily. Weirdly, a band from Denmark can seem more "near" to me than a band stationed forty minutes away. I'm not the kind of music fan who ignores the present and only looks back towards the past. I try to listen to everything, but I will admit to enjoying the 70's more than any other decade, a decade I was barely conscious for.

    I do lionize Led Zeppelin. I'm passionate about Zeppelin like people are about their college football teams. I'm a true believer in the power of rock and roll, I cried when Paul McCartney rocked SNL last season, and my world comes to a complete stop when a new Pearl Jam record is released. I'm passionate about rock and roll in a way that borders on scary. It's not just something I like, it's something that's shaped my religious experience. Seeing Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio wasn't just "cool" it was an experience on par with losing my virginity. When I write about music everything is the greatest, especially with classic rock with all of its Pagan/Occult overtones. That being said, it makes me prone to hyperbole.

    Isn't romanticizing the past part of America's DNA? We do it with nearly everything, why should music be any different? It's why there is always such a big market for "nostalgia" and why people watch "Rudolph" every year on TV. Yes, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin (though you'll notice there was no real deal made out of IV's 40th) are pushed down our throats, but they are bands that continually connect with people. My wife is a huge Beatles fan, she loves John Lennon more than any other artist, she was born the year he died. It's certainly easier to mythologize these bands, which is a part of the appeal, but there's something about them to appeals to lots of people regardless of generation. I think it's great that people rediscover them every genration, but it shouldn't be at the expense of contemporary artists.

    I do disagree with some of your points. Record labels were far more patient in the 60's and (especially) the 70's when nurturing artists. You could make four or five albums that didn't sell squat in the 70's and retain your record deal if someone believed in you. (Aerosmith, Kansas, Peter Frampton, and KISS are big examples of this-all initial failures that took years to break through.) Since the 90's it's been "one and done" for most bands on major labels. (XTC was on Virgin records for ten years, and the label lost money on the band every year, but continued to let Andy Partridge release records. Yes, they ended up in debt to Virgin, but at least the chord wasn't just totally cut.)

    I'm not sure earlier eras stifled creativity. There were lots of weird prog-rock experiments (often with Pagan overtones) on major labels. The 70's birthed punk, disco, new wave, and urban cowboy . . .it was a pretty exciting time for music. I think the music business got more cut-throat in the 80's and 90's, especially when they all became units of Seagrams, Sony, etc. As crappy as Metallica is now, Elektra took a big risk with them in the 80's, just as they did with The Doors in the 60's.

    I could ramble about this for hours too . . . .