“Call it Led Zeppelin IV, since it carries no printed information on its cover, only a picture of a bent old gent bearing a great faggot of sticks. Inside are four arcane-looking symbols that, word has it, are ancient runes that Jimmy Page may have used to represent each of the four members of the group. But the real mystery here is that the old Zepp has become so good. The group finally has made its own brand of high-volume tastelessness into great rock, and not all of it is at high volume, either. Besides the flamboyant Page solos and the typical, heavily layered sounds of tunes such as “Rock and Roll,” there are subtle instrumental effects (the dulcimer on “The Battle of Evermore,” for example). With “Stairway to Heaven,” the group ascends into the realm of seriousness — getting into madrigals…”
-Playboy, March 1972
Before Lenny Kaye compiled influential garage rock collection Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era and became a key figure in CBGB’s punk ground zero (as guitarist for The Patti Smith Group), he wrote for rock rags. Amongst his pieces for Crawdaddy, Melody Maker and Creem, one of his best known reviews was in the 98th issue of Rolling Stone (December 23, 1971): Led Zeppelin (IV).
Circa 1969-1971 Led Zeppelin was notoriously panned by Rolling Stone. It all started when John Mendelsohn criticized their debut as “dull,” “very redundant,” and “sadly reminiscent of [Jeff Beck Group’s] Truth.” Lester Bangs summed up the magazine’s attitude towards the band in his review of III, beginning: “I keep nursing this love-hate attitude toward Led Zeppelin. Partly from genuine interest and mostly indefensible hopes, in part from the conviction that nobody that crass could be all that bad…”
That was the most positive Rolling Stone review of Zep to date.
Then came Kaye’s praise of IV…read the full review:
“It might seem a bit incongruous to say that Led Zeppelin — a band never particularly known for its tendency to understate matters — has produced an album which is remarkable for its low-keyed and tasteful subtlety, but that’s just the case here. The march of the dinosaurs that broke the ground for their first epic release has apparently vanished, taking along with it the splattering electronics of their second effort and the leaden acoustic moves that seemed to weigh down their third. What’s been saved is the pumping adrenaline drive that held the key to such classics as “Communication Breakdown” and “Whole Lotta Love,” the incredibly sharp and precise vocal dynamism of Robert Plant, and some of the tightest arranging and producing Jimmy Page has yet seen his way toward doing. If this thing with the semi-metaphysical title isn’t quite their best to date, since the very chances that the others took meant they would visit some outrageous highs as well as some overbearing lows, it certainly comes off as their most consistently good.
One of the ways in which this is demonstrated is the sheer variety of the album: out of eight cuts, there isn’t one that steps on another’s toes, that tries to do too much all at once. There are Olde Englishe ballads (“The Battle of Evermore” with a lovely performance by Sandy Denny), a kind of pseudo-blues just to keep in touch (“Four Sticks”), a pair of authentic Zeppelinania (“Black Dog” and “Misty Mountain Hop”), some stuff that I might actually call shy and poetic if it didn’t carry itself off so well (“Stairway to Heaven” and “Going To California”)..
… and a couple of songs that when all is said and done, will probably be right up there in the gold-starred hierarchy of put ’em on and play ’em again. The first, coyly titled “Rock And Roll,” is the Zeppelin’s slightly-late attempt at tribute to the mother of us all, but here it’s definitely a case of better late than never. This sonuvabitch moves, with Plant musing vocally on how “It’s been a long, lonely lonely time” since last he rock & rolled, the rhythm section soaring underneath. Page strides up to take a nice lead during the break, one of the all-too-few times he flashes his guitar prowess during the record, and its note-for-note simplicity says a lot for the ways in which he’s come of age over the past couple of years.
The end of the album is saved for “When The Levee Breaks,” strangely credited to all the members of the band plus Memphis Minnie, and it’s a dazzler. Basing themselves around one honey of a chord progression, the group constructs an air of tunnel-long depth, full of stunning resolves and a majesty that sets up as a perfect climax. Led Zep have had a lot of imitators over the past few years, but it takes cuts like this to show that most of them have only picked up the style, lacking any real knowledge of the meat underneath.
Uh huh, they got it down all right. And since the latest issue of Cashbox noted that this ‘un was a gold disc on its first day of release, I guess they’re about to nicely keep it up. Not bad for a pack of Limey lemon squeezers.”
Below: Autumn 1971 magazine ad
Kaye was not alone in recognizing IV as an instant classic that marked Led Zeppelin’s evolution in the studio. Check the quote from Playboy at the top of this page and Billboard‘s brief review below for other examples (tip: click on image for larger view):
Needless to say, in the past 40 years the mere 8 songs on this LP have proven their “classic” status again and again. From The Beastie Boys to Alison Kraus, The White Stripes to The Black Crowes, AC/DC to Phish, A Perfect Circle to Heart, Foo Fighters to Bjork, The Flaming Lips to, hell… Whitesnake…
Who hasn’t tried stealin’ a bit of the Zeppelin magic perfected on IV…
And yes, both Dolly Parton and Mary J. Blige have covered “Stairway to Heaven”…
Which all goes to show Kaye was never more on the mark in his long, fabulous career than writing for Rolling Stone “when all is said and done…” Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP will be “right up there in the gold-starred hierarchy of put ’em on and play ’em again.”
Now if only we could finally have a consensus on what to call it (IV is awkward, “Zoso” more so, and “Four Symbols” just plain lame)…
“When I hear Led Zeppelin IV, I guess that’s where I discovered that idea of a rock group. So for me, Led Zeppelin never really evokes anything other than these dudes playing this bad ass music… Such cool drumming, such cool effects on the guitars… You can’t take Robert Plant’s screeching out of that and get the same effect. It’s just what the song is. That song ‘Rock N Roll’ [sings] “been a long time since I rock ‘n rolled”… if you don’t sing it like that, it doesn’t have the same effect.”
-Read more in Wayne Coyne’s Life in Music
What’s Wayne’s favorite Led Zeppelin song? Asked that question by Jaan Uhelszki in his Rhapsody interview he singled out “Black Dog.”
“I guess I never lost the John Bonham thing. I’ve always loved that. What people don’t realize is a lot of his stuff is so subtle. His fills are technically easy in some ways, but they are so tasteful at the same time. I really got into that. Even after I got into prog rock, then new wave, and then grunge… just real stripped down, straightforward kind of stuff…”
-Steven Drozd to Modern Drummer