Sunday, 17 January 2021

Led Zeppelin IV - Led Zeppelin

Provenance: My mum owned this on vinyl.

How much of your taste in music is down to your parents? For me, it's a huge factor. I never saw the need to particularly rebel, because by and large my parents knew their onions.

Off the top of my head, in terms of albums my parents own that are mirrored in my collection, there's this and Led Zeppelin III, Tapestry by Carole King, a couple of Alice Cooper albums, ditto Frank Zappa, An Electric Storm by White Noise, a bit of Hawkwind. Not bad.

I didn't really take to Emerson, Lake and Palmer nor Rod Stewart, but although I haven't (yet) purchased Gryphon's Raindance, evidently I'd heard enough to make me curious. It was all very listenable, even if some of my parents' latter day choices (Mika's Life In Cartoon Motion, anyone?) might take a bit of digesting.

However, Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso, if you're so inclined) was not only instantly gettable, it would also prove to be a watershed moment; I recall walking through the door one day after school, and evidently my mum had cued this bad boy up a moment beforehand. What I was to hear would essentially make me go, "yep, playing guitar, that's what I want to do", setting me on a course of joy and lifelong discovery. 

Review: Per the above paragraph; I heard Robert Plant's wailing, sure, but I felt the guitar in 'Black Dog'. It really was a few seconds, that's all it took, to convert me to a guitar player (albeit, at that time, sans guitar). I'd grown up listening to guitar bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream, and although I had liked what I'd heard, this was something different. Listen to Jimmy Page's opening guitar riff in 'Black Dog' again and you can hear a swagger, an arrogance almost, a sound that didn't just groove or roll, but strutted. Underpinned by John Bonham's thunderous drumming, there was only one word that came to mind: power.

Amazingly, given the time and distance between then and now, little has diminished my original teenaged assessment. Since that time I've become better acquainted with Led Zeppelin's overall body of music, which contains its share of missteps, and I must admit my opinions have been occluded by the impression given that they weren't a particularly likeable bunch; I have also wearied of the kind of pub bore who will insist Led Zeppelin are superb, and that everything else is a pile of horseshit created by computers or young people or whatever. Oh yes, and they were massive plagiarists.

But Led Zeppelin IV? A work of rare genius.

What I love about this album is that it jumps from the very 'eavy 'Black Dog' to the nitro-glycerine boogie of 'Rock And Roll' to the pastoral Tolkien-folk of 'Battle Of Evermore' - and then an amalgamation of all these qualities on 'Stairway To Heaven' - yet it still sounds conceptually tight. And that's just side one. An album that covers so many bases could (should?) be a mess, but it hangs together perfectly. The pacing is exquisite, a rollercoaster in the truest sense inasmuch as each track takes the listener in a different direction, whether it's mood, atmosphere, tempo, and yet each oxbow and undulation remains part of the same overall journey.

In my callow youth my favourites were 'Black Dog', 'Rock And Roll', 'Stairway To Heaven' and 'Misty Mountain Hop', all the muscle and blood tracks basically; now, although I cannot say any of the aforementioned have gone stale (yes, even 'Stairway...'), it's the more ruminative moments such as 'Battle Of Evermore' and the swooning 'Going To California' that have wormed their way deepest into my affections. Special mention must go to Sandy Denny's imperious singing on 'Battle...', a performance that alone impelled me to pay closer attention to Fairport Convention. I have, however, omitted one very important track. It ain't 'Four Sticks' (NB: a good song, but it comes across a little fidgety and half-formed for my tastes).

'When The Levee Breaks' may have been an old Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie blues from 1929, but even now the version on IV induces a sense of awe and sublimity. As brilliantly wrought as the rest of the album is, there's sorcery at work here, friends. By a variety of measures there is heavier music out there, but little comes as close to being as weighty or portentous as 'When The Levee Breaks' is. Into the admixture is the haunting, otherworldly harmonica, Page's droning, modal guitar and Plant's anguished vocal; but the true star is Bonham's drumming. Eschewing flash or intricacy, Bonham instead booms away on a beat that sounds like depth charges being detonated. The overall effect is that 'When The Levee Breaks', a song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, comes across every bit as doomy and apocalyptic as its subject matter. Eat that, Randy Newman.

There you have it - simply, in terms of my own personal relationship with popular music, one of the most important landmarks. There's a straight line between IV and me picking up a guitar, which in turn took me down avenues of exploration around blues music, heavy metal and all points in-between. An immense album, and one that has never ceased to be a pleasure. Perhaps those saloon bar stalwarts had a point, eh?

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