I am a big fan of the RamClub series where a celebrity is asked to listen to an album that they haven’t listened to before. The only trouble is that as I’m not a celebrity I won’t ever get asked to do one. So I have decided to do my own.
The premise is to listen for the first time to a classic album that somehow has slipped past your earholes. The one I have chosen is Led Zeppelin IV – which is the fourth album by, er well you have probably worked that out by now.
First of all – why haven’t I listened to this album before? Basically I was just a bit too young to be an obvious fan of the Zeps. I started buying albums with the proceeds of a paper round I did in 1975 and 1976, so by that time Led Zeppelin were a phenomenon and not one that I necessarily wanted to get into. I was a big fan of Bowie and the Who, and both of them seemed to be antithetical to the ethos of Led Zeppelin. I liked stuff that was arty and creative. Being heavy didn’t really appeal. And what I heard of heavy rock in general didn’t really excite me very much. It was all a bit, well, heavy.
And then there was Stairway to Heaven. This was played so much that it ceased to be a song and became a sort of entity to be avoided. I hated Stairway to Heaven. I don’t have a reason. I don’t need a reason. I just hated it.
But that was then and since that time I have adopted a philosophy of basically trying to like everything. If I find I can’t like it, then I ignore it. So Led Zep ended up in the ignore column.
The trouble is that over the years, their reputation has continued to grow. And the kind of people who like Led Zeppelin often like the stuff I like. So have I been depriving myself of the appreciation of something great? I fired up iTunes music and decided to find out.
Stairway To Heaven
As chance would have it, I started listening in shuffle mode and the first track that came up was THE track, Stairway To Heaven. Now we live in a different world and I don’t think I had heard the full thing for some twenty years. It was a good chance to listen with fresh ears. I tried to imagine I was listening for the first time. The slow introduction with the flutes (flutes? probably some other instrument) was moody and atmospheric. This part at least I liked.
The voice of Robert Plant is not one that I particularly like, but it is very well suited to this kind of song. It has a sort of authority and enough edge to stand out against the background.
We then get into a serious bit of guitariness, followed by the great cliché of seventies rock – a long extended guitar solo. I was expecting to hate it, but to my surprise I found myself enjoying it. It was a close run thing though. Solos are things that can easily outstay their welcome, and this one was just a few notes away from doing just that. I suppose one has to give credit where it is due, and say that this guitar solo is the one that all the other hideous guitar solos are trying to imitate. So for its influence, this is something that can’t be ignored. And the technical skill is undeniable. I think the creativity also has to be admired. It isn’t in any way gratuitous and fits in well with the rest of the song.
Which brings me to the lyrics. The lyrics are crap. What the heck is it about? What does building a stairway to Heaven involve? And what as it got to do with being aware that not everything that glitters is gold? The music and the musicianship could have been used to great effect to tell a great story or convey a great message. But as far as I can tell the words are just some pretty gibberish put in as a place holder. To be a rock and not to roll? To be a verse and come out worse more like.
I still hate Stairway To Heaven. A great song has to have great words. End of.
When The Levee Breaks
This is a bit more what I imagine when I think of Led Zeppelin. It is a basic heavy rock song. I don’t think I would give it a second thought if I heard it on the radio while driving my car. But it is pretty well played and when you pay attention to it, it isn’t as clichéd as it sounds at first hearing. I wouldn’t choose to listen to it, but it wasn’t bad.
The Battle of Evermore
Now I didn’t realise that this kind of song was in their repertoire. It is folky with a hard edge. I quite liked it at first, and it was a track I replayed after first hearing. The lyrics are a bit of a problem, though I think it must be the first mention of ringwraiths in popular culture which must stand for something. Going back to 1971 the Lord of the Rings was probably a bit of a counter culture reference and not one I’d have associated with Led Zeppelin.
In fact, I hadn’t really associated this kind of music with this band and I don’t know if this is a one off but I would like to hear more of this sort of thing.
Misty Mountain Hop
This is a straight rock song with a slight country tinge and mercifully unobtrusive lyrics. As I am finding with a number of the songs on this album, they repay further listening. What at first hearing sounds like an enthusiastic bit of thrash, turns out to have some nice touches that you don’t get first time. For example the drumming is fairly standard for most of the song, but there are odd bursts of intense staccato that gives the whole song more drive and energy than a more standard rock approach. I think the fact that Led Zeppelin have remained talked about while their contemporaries rarely get remembered at all now is down to details like this. They rarely play the rock straight. So thinking of them as simply the ultimate stadium rock group is a bit wide of the mark. They were a lot more distinctive than that.
The structure of Black Dog is reminiscent of bluesmen like Muddy Waters. It starts off with a sort of call and reply thing, and there are a lot of elements that reference fifties rock and roll. The lyrics are straight out of the play book with the singer basically telling a girl how attractive he finds her. But the treatment is not remotely reverential to its obvious source. They have mixed up the elements in a unique way. I’m not sure how they do it, but it sounds like nothing else I have ever heard before or since. Quite impressive. They don’t quite turn base metal into gold, but they certainly aren’t just honouring their influences.
Rock and roll is not a complicated musical form. You’ve got chords, a bass line and drums to give a solid rhythm over which you sing a song and maybe play some tunes on a guitar or other instruments. It’s quite rare to play with the tempo to get an effect. But that is what Led Zep do to great effect on this track. It goes on a bit though.
Going To California
A folky ballad? From Led Zeppelin? This isn’t what I was expecting. Actually again it isn’t quite what it seems. The folky guitar and the melodic tune are just the basis for a song that seems to be describing the weary feeling that ambitious people get when their striving doesn’t seem to be paying off. Or something. It’s quite deep anyway.
Rock and Roll
It’s been a long time since a rock’n’roll apparently. A long long lonely time. This is a powerful and energetic bit of well, rock’n’roll. This is the most straight forward song on the album and the one that is least interesting. But even so it is still a cut above the average bit of thrashy rock. The drumming in particular struck me as very stirring. I don’t like this kind of music much, but if for some reason I was obliged to listen to it this would be my choice track.
I was really impressed with this album. Not that I am ever likely to listen to it again. I basically just don’t like heavy rock even on the rare occasions like this one where it is done well. But I think I can see why this album is so popular and why Led Zep are so highly rated. They have a lot more depth, range and originality than I had previously realised. I was hoping that I’d find a load of stuff to mock and find fault with. Alas respect is something that is commanded, and Led Zeppelin are good enough to command it. This was an experience that was not just illuminating, it was also actually enjoyable, with the exception of S to H. I’ll have to find something else to rant about.