The prospect of Led Zeppelin re-releasing their classic album once more is sure to stir excitement among rock fans. We are promised that it will be handsomely remastered and repackaged with an extra album’s worth of alternative mixes. But can you improve upon perfection?
Originally released in 1971 and with sales of more than 37 million, it is hard to imagine anyone hasn’t already heard Led Zeppelin’s fourth and finest album (actually untitled but widely known as Led Zeppelin IV). There are only eight tracks and Zeppelin never put out singles, but at least half of these songs play such a fundamental part in the soundtrack of our times that they would be immediately identifiable by most listeners from just a few bars. Has there ever been a greater opening phrase in rock history than Robert Plant’s wail over the hum of warmed-up amps on Black Dog? “Hey, hey mama, said the way you move/ Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.” It is a threat and a promise that the album resolutely keeps. Black Dog is an ultimate riff, the driving sexual impulse of blues-based electric rock boiled down to its essence, a crowd-baiting call and response between Plant’s keening, crowing stud and Jimmy Page’s sinuous guitar-slinger, the lock-tight rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham pushing that truncated riff as hard as it will go. And you don’t have a moment to recover before dashing into the thrilling high-speed drum roll of Rock and Roll, in which Zeppelin reimagine the already nostalgic style of their youth with the most urgent, exuberant, utterly thrilling 12-bar blast ever heard.And then there’s Stairway to Heaven. I won’t hear a word against Zeppelin’s epic anthem, though there was a time in the late Seventies when it became synonymous with rock’s bloated journey into pretension and excess. In a way, the song has been a victim of its startling originality and intense emotion, over-played on rock radio, badly imitated by legions of lesser bands and worn out by ham-fisted buskers. But it’s still a mind-blowing piece of music, building from delicate folksiness to urgent rock intensity and spiralling upwards into a symphonic guitar fantasia, with a message of mythic truthfulness at its core.
The overall sense of Led Zeppelin IV is of swaggering rock by a band of alpha musicians in full flow, and they certainly riff it up over the percussive shuffle of Four Sticks and let it all hang out on the funky trip of Misty Mountain Hop. But there are other dimensions to the sound, too: the strange folky yearning of The Battle Of Evermore and the wistful beauty of Going To California, where mellifluous acoustic guitars and mandolins frame one of Plant’s most touching and expressive vocals. And then it all comes to a fantastic, stomping, grinding conclusion with their reinvention of Memphis Minnie’s When The Levee Breaks, built on Bonham’s half-tempo thud, Jones’s rolling bass and Plant’s hyperventilating harmonica. By the time Jimmy Page cracks open his solo and Plant wails about going down, you feel like this is the sound of a dam actually crumbling, washing everything away.
The album sounded amazing in 1971 and it sounds amazing now. It has an essential purity, four towering musicians locked together, making music that is setting their spirits free. It arrived at a moment in pop history when rock was reconfiguring itself. The Beatles had broadened the scope of popular music to such an extent that they cannot be considered purely as a rock band but, in their wake, there were a lot of bands trying both to get back to the more primal drive of the original electric music that had inspired them and to carry it into bolder, more adult places. Jimi Hendrix was pushing the guitar towards the sonic outer limits, Pink Floyd were concocting lush space-age soundscapes, The Who were adding keyboards and sequencers to their gobsmacking hard-rock crunch, the Rolling Stones were digging down into the music’s bluesy roots, David Bowie and Mick Ronson were waiting in the wings with their glam sci-fi inventions. But when it comes to the essence of power, sexiness and rhythmic attack of guitar, bass, drums and voice, Led Zeppelin were the ones in the driving seat. They had essentially invented the genre of heavy rock and were at the height of their confidence, creativity and youthful ambition. Led Zeppelin IV threw down the gauntlet for a whole generation. Even when punk came to knock down everything that came before, this album was left standing.
Many bands before Zeppelin rocked everyone’s socks off, and there are absolutely classic albums from The Who, The Doors, the Rolling Stones and Hendrix. In the years since, the Sex Pistols, U2, Nirvana and Radiohead are all guitar bands who have had musical moments that shook the world. But even their best albums cannot stand up against Led Zeppelin IV. It is, quite simply, the greatest rock album ever made.
Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy will be reissued on October 27.