Led Zeppelin's fourth studio album, released in 1971, officially doesn't have a title, so it's best known as Led Zeppelin IV. This decision represented a clean slate for the band, who wanted to write an album completely different from the rest of their material. It also served as a retaliation against critics who believed the band had no substance after the mostly negative reactions to Led Zeppelin III the previous year. Recorded in isolation in the English countryside with support from contemporaries The Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac, the album usually ranks at the pinnacle of Led Zeppelin's songwriting abilities, due to its impressive Genre Roulette and accessibility.
In lieu of indicating their names, the band members each used a symbol since they believed that titles did not matter. Jimmy Page's is probably the most notable, given that he has not given a meaning behind it despite extensive speculation, and the symbol (ZoSo) is not even meant to be spoken. This hasn't stopped most fans from coining the album after Page's symbol, or Four Symbols, The Hermit, and Runes, among others. Nevertheless, the record company, against the band's interests, released a series of ads hinting that it was indeed a Led Zeppelin record. It has since become one of the best-selling albums of all time.
The record is best known for the fan favorites "Black Dog", "Rock And Roll", "Going To California", "Misty Mountain Hop"... and their Signature Song "Stairway To Heaven". The latter has become somewhat of a Black Sheep Hit to the band, as it's not really indicative of their usual style and has been played, covered and referenced so often that even Robert Plant is sick of it. The songs have been cited to codify the Metal and Hard Rock genres as they exist today, using spare instrumentation and complex song structures.
This album was a critical and commercial success from the start. It has sold 30 million copies to date, which is no small feat to begin with. It ranked at #69 in Rolling Stone' 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time, #106 on NME' list of the same name, and even ended up in Time's 2006 list of their 100 essential albums. With all this critical acclaim, it is currently the 29th-most acclaimed album ever on Acclaimed Music's compilation of critics' lists.
- "Black Dog" (4:54)
- "Rock And Roll" (3:40)
- "The Battle Of Evermore" (5:51)
- "Stairway to Heaven" (8:01)
- "Misty Mountain Hop" (4:38)
- "Four Sticks" (3:31)
- "Going To California" (3:31)
- "When The Levee Breaks" (7:07)
- John Bonham - drums, percussion
- John Paul Jones - bass, piano, mellotron, mandolin, recorder, synthesizer, VCS3, guitar
- Jimmy Page - guitar, mandolin
- Robert Plant - lead vocals, tambourine, harmonica
When The Levee Tropes:
- Alliterative Title: "Misty Mountain Hop".
- Break Up Song: "When the Levee Breaks", ostensibly. "Going to California" and "Four Sticks" count too.
- While "California" opens up with the singer breaking off a bad relationship, the song itself is about heading out that way to find a woman he's heard about "with love in her eyes and flowers in her hair" so that he could begin anew in a better one.
- But Now I Must Go:
There's a feeling I get, when I look to the west / And my spirit is crying for leaving...
- "Stairway With Heaven"
So I've decided what I'm gonna do now
- "Misty Mountain Hop"
So I'm packing my bags for the misty mountains
Where the spirits go now
Over the hills where the spirits fly, ooh
I really don't know
- Call-and-Response Song: "Black Dog" is an interesting example, where the instrumental sections are meant to respond to the verses.
- Cover Version: "When The Levee Breaks" is a cover of a song by blues singer Memphis Minnie.
- Design Student's Orgasm: The outside cover shows a demolished wall. Hanging on it is a 19th-century rustic oil painting of an old man carrying a bundle of sticks on his back. The back shows that the wall is standing in a bleak Birmingham city-scape. Inside the gatefold is a drawing of a hermit standing on a jagged rock-formation, holding a lamp with the Star of David in it and looking down at a medieval city with a cathedral, while, in some versions of the album, a ragged figure looks up at him. Some also say they can see a face when the rock-formation is held to a mirror, while others see a huge dog's head. The resemblance to a Rorschach test might not be accidental.
- Downer Ending: Both sides of the LP end with an Epic Rocking song about something sad: "Stairway to Heaven" and "When the Levee Breaks".
- Double Meaning: "Stairway To Heaven"There's a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
- Echoing Acoustics: The album was famously recorded in an old mansion, and has a massive, echoing sound as a result. This is especially noticeable with the huge drum sound on "When the Levee Breaks", which had its drum part recorded at the bottom of a stairwell with microphones positioned on the third floor landing.
- Epic Rocking: The 8-minute "Stairway To Heaven" and the 7-minute "When The Levee Breaks".
- Erudite Stoner: "Misty Mountain Hop" interlaces a J. R. R. Tolkien reference in a song mostly about smoking pot. This could parody the fact that hippies are Acceptable Targets despite being rather intelligent.
- Filk Song/Heavy Mithril: "The Battle Of Evermore", inspired by The Hobbit, talks about an epic Tolkien-esque battle between good and evil, and references the Ringwraiths by name.
- Some have identified the "Lady" in "Stairway to Heaven" with Galadriel, probably because another Led Zeppelin song ("Ramble On") quotes a poem Galadriel wrote in "Fellowship of the Ring."
- The Great Flood: "When The Levee Breaks" was inspired by the Mississippi Floods in the original context of Memphis Minnie song of the same name.
- Heavy Meta: "Rock And Roll", a rock 'n' roll song about that very topic.
- In the Style of...: "Going to California" is an introspective folk song inspired by Joni Mitchell.
- Indecipherable Lyrics: A lot of the lyrics on this album are difficult to comprehend, thanks to Robert Plant's screeching voice.
- Last Note Nightmare: The abbreviated crashing guitar squall of "When the Levee Breaks".
- Let's Duet: "The Battle Of Evermore", a duet between Robert Plant and Sandy Denny, the only guest vocalist to appear on any of the band's albums. She even got her own symbol for her contributions, making her a fifth ranger in this case.
- Lucky Charms Title: Technically, the name of their fourth album is the symbols on the spine. It's just easier to say "Untitled" or "IV".
- Meaningless Meaningful Words: The lyrics of "Stairway to Heaven".
- Mother Nature: Referenced somewhat in "Stairway to Heaven":If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now
It's just a spring clean for the May queen
- Mundane Made Awesome: "Black Dog" about a... well... black Labrador Retriever. "Four Sticks" was inspired by the fact that John Bonham played the songs with two sets of two drumsticks.
- No Guy Wants an Amazon: From "Black Dog":"I don't know but I've been told
Big leg woman ain't got no soul"
- Non-Appearing Title: The album has no title, in reaction to the lukewarm press reviews of their previous album Led Zeppelin III (1971). The band decided not including a title, band name of any other indication would make people judge the record on its on terms. The title of "Black Dog", "The Battle Of Evermore" and "Four Sticks" don't appear in the lyrics either.
- The Power of Rock: "Rock 'N' Roll"It's been a long time since I rock and rolled
It's been a long time since I did the stroll
- Real Life Writes the Plot: "Black Dog" was inspired by a black Labrador retriever who wandered around the studio when the band recorded this album. "Misty Mountain Hop" took its lyrics from events during the "Legalize Pot Rally" in Hyde Park, London in 1968, where the police arrested several people for marijuana possession.
- Numerous J. R. R. Tolkien references. "Battle of Evermore" refers to things and places that are not found in The Lord of the Rings, but it also references Ringwraiths and seems to hearken back to the siege of Minas Tirith in "Return of the King." "Misty Mountain Hop" also seems to reference a location from The Hobbit in its title and lyrics.
- "Going To California" was featured in the series' finale of Entourage, playing over the end credits.
- Wayne's World has a joke where a guitar store owner has a sign forbidding customers to try out a guitar by playing "Stairway To Heaven" on it.note
- "Stairway To Heaven" has been covered by artists as varied as Heart, Frank Zappa (on The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life (1991), in a reggae style), Mary J. Blige and even Dolly Parton, whose version received praise from Robert Plant.
- "Stairway To Heaven" has also lead to subversions, including "Hairway To Steven" by Butthole Surfers and "Highway To Hell" by AC/DC from Highway to Hell (1979).
- "When The Levee Breaks" has been sampled in "Rhymin' And Stealin'" from Licensed to Ill by The Beastie Boys and "B-Boy Bouillabaisse" from their second album Paul's Boutique. Massive Attack sampled the same song for their track "Man Next Door" on Mezzanine.
- Arjen Anthony Lucassen covered "The Battle Of Evermore" on his solo album Lost in the New Real (2012).
- The Soulless: "Black Dog"I don't know but I been told
A big legged woman ain't got no soul.
- Special Guest: Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention duets with Robert Plant during "The Battle of Evermore". She is the only guest vocalist ever to perform with Led Zeppelin.
- Subliminal Seduction: Conspiracy theorists often allege that "Stairway to Heaven" has a Satanic message hidden in the "Bustle in your hedgerow" section. Plant and the rest of the band have vigorously denied any such intent.
- Tarot Motifs: The cover is strongly reminiscent of the way the Ten of Wands is interpreted in some decks, sometimes featuring a figure bearing a bundle of sticks.
- Textless Album Cover: Just an image, no band name or title.
- Title by Number: This album is often referred to as "Led Zeppelin IV".
- Uncommon Time:
- The main "call-and-response" section in "Black Dog" is in what sounds like (3/4 + 4/4 + 5/4).
- "Four Sticks" switches between 5/8 and 6/8 for most of the song. The synthesizer section in the middle is in 3/4.
- Word Salad Lyrics: The verses of "Stairway to Heaven" are laden with these, by Robert Plant's own admission. This hasn't stopped millions from trying to guess the meaning.