Stairway to Zeppelin's cult status.
Led Zeppelin's harvest album, Runes, Four Symbols, the Zoso album, the fourth Led Zeppelin album, whatever you want to call it, is the pinnacle of success for the legends of proto metal. LZ4 actually surpassed everything the band had done before and was never surpassed by the foursome. It seemed on the making of this album that all the planets were aligned as perfection resulted. The album often sits proudly at the top of top 100 lists, some calling it the best album ever made. I am not sure I would go to this extreme but it certainly is a masterpiece on every level. Musically the album is flawless, the band are simply outstanding on every track, Plant's vocals are influential and have become iconic on this album, and it boasts one of the all time greatest songs ever written.
Side one has been critically acclaimed as being the most perfect side one in history. All of these accolades and here I am reviewing it finally 40 years later. I cannot go back in time and even speculate as to how this album impacted a generation, but it did. The songs became part of the hippy drug induced consciousness and even still stand the test of time today in comparison to recent albums. The album is timeless in many ways and speaks on many levels.
Black Dog begins with a strange guitar effect underplayed and soft, almost ignored. Then Plant powers out "Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove." This is followed by a progressive slice of guitar riffing that measures it's own time sig, almost improv style. The trade off between Plant's acapella and Page's riffing machine hand are trademarks of Zeppelin. There is a crazed lead break with heavy blues influences and the pummeling drums of Bonham. One cannot forget the impact of Jones on bass either, the four are locked in battle and the winner is rock.
As if on cue the song Rock and Roll cranks through the speakers almost destroying them. "Been a long time since I rock and rolled" Plant screams and Page answers with driving hammering riffs. The effect is a blitzkrieg of smashing axes and uncompromised noise levels. This was not one for the parents and teens would have loved turning this up to 11. As a live staple the song opens many concerts for good reason as it gets one in the mood to bang head.
Things settle with a heavy laden acoustic flavour with the mystical Battle of Evermore. "The Queen of light took her bow, And then she turned to go, The prince of peace embraced the gloom, And walked the night alone, Oh, dance in the dark of night, Sing to the morning light." Plant sings with reflective haunting clarity. The enchanting land of Mordor seems to beckon through the music as we hear Paganistic phrases such as "the dark lords rise in force tonight" and the "angels of avalon waiting for the eastern glow", and of course it was thematic content like this that garnered the cult following of the group that still exists. The high harmonies of multi layered Plantisms is a nice touch creating atmospheres of dark forests and full moons. The band were always edgy and full of mystique, even to the point where they remained anonymous in the media and on album covers. This album has a striking gatefold with a sorcerer wielding a magical lamp on a stairway, perhaps showing the way to unwary travellers.
The song Stairway to Heaven may be the most discussed song in rock history, and still remains as enigmatic as ever. The song is very controversial, with its satanic references hidden beneath the words, apparently Page wrote it with a spirit guide and was guided to pen the words subconsciously in a trance. Whether this is true is up for objection but it certainly is a powerful song. Stairway To Heaven is landmark of classic rock. The single sky rocketed them to success. The song has been played live everytime the band appeared and in fact in the reunion for live aid the song was arguably the highlight of the entire event. It is a long song and yet radios worldwide still continue to play it. It has been parodied and indeed the cliche is that music stores will put up signs to the effect that there is not to be any playing of Stairway to Heaven. The intro is the most performed guitar part and really is a 12 string piece of beauty. The main reason Stairway to Heaven captivates is due to the well known spell binding lyrics about finding a way to heaven, but "there are two paths you can go by, in the long run there's still time to change the road you're on." During the 80s many evangelists panned the song for this message stating it was poisonous to think there are two paths to heaven. Then there was the infamous backwards masking of the song, when you would hear phrases such as "here's to my sweet Satan, no other made a path for it makes me sad, whose power is Satan." Suffice it to say the song caused quite a stir in evangelical circles, and I have never forgotten this, especially due to the Message against Rock video that found its way into many churches, and now youtube has many clips with the backmasking. It is downright creepy and of course Zeppelin members deny everything, although Page admitted a high interest in the occult and even resided in the quarters of renowned satanist Alexander Crowley. The song also became legendary in Australia on a special event called 'Stairways to Heaven' where over 20 artists performed live their own version of Stairway to Heaven, many parodying the song with the likes of Rolf Harris and there is also a folk and pirate version on the telecast. The song means many things to different people; it sounds sugar sweet and uplifting, yet has dark overtones of losing the soul. The song has been played to death on radio but never loses its power, love it or hate it.
I will admit I have not played this as much as the first side but I do not think I am alone in this. Hard to beat the first side but there is still an excellent array of tracks that are replenished with delicious guitar augmentations by Page. I had to remind myself again of the music offered here, unlike the unforgettable side one. The intensity of the music is startling, with songs such as Misty Mountain Hop. The layered harmonies of Plant is outstanding. "Walkin in the park just the other day, baby, What do you, what do you think I saw? Crowds of people sitting on the grass with flowers in their hair said, Hey, boy, do you wanna score?" The content was a 70s by product that would speak to the flower power generation but remains endearing and perhaps historically important today. The lyrics are about finding freedom in the same way as woodstock provided sanctuary for a time, and points a middle finger towards authority; "I didn't notice but it had got very dark and I was really, really out of my mind, Just then a policeman stepped up to me and asked us said, Please, hey, would we care to all get in line, get in line". The escapism that was sought in this era was also encapsulated in the movie "Song Remains the Same" with shots of Plant spending time with his flower child in the woods near the lake.
Four Sticks steers towards heavy repetitive rhythm and blues, with a hypnotic riff. Plant improvises on his performance; "oh baby, the river's red, oh baby, in my head, there's a funny feeling going on, I don't think I can hold out long". The repeating riff is fine but I find this one a low point of the album if there is one. It seems to just go nowhere for me like all stoner rock. The African polyrhythms and estranged musical shapes at the end are certainly an ear opener and legend has it is played by Bonham with four sticks.
Next is the quiet and beautiful Going to California. The dream of freedom from the social cocoon to embrace flowers in the hair and living in the woods is captured here. Plant is indelible here; "Took my chances on a big jet plane, Never let them tell you that they're all the same, the sea was red and the sky was grey, wondered how tomorrow could ever follow today, the mountains and the canyons started to tremble and shake, as the children of the sun began to awake." The acoustics are folk induced throughout and it feels like a distant memory or a dream with dream imagery and ethereal vocals, especially the soaring section; "Seems that the wrath of the gods, got a punch on the nose and it started to flow, I think I might be sinking." The Pagan content is really as timeless as the album, and it runs as a thread in every song and from album to album.
Last song is my favourite on side two, When the Levee Breaks. It is a hybrid of blues, swamp rock and folk. The harmonica is a powerful statement that leads the way with a driving AOR signature. The harmonica sounds like a lonesome train whistle on a dark stormy night, and there is a decidedly dark atmosphere. It settles mid way through into a melodic slide guitar dominated section. Plant is terrific singing bluesy melancholy phrases such as, "Lord, mean old levee taught me to weep and moan, Got what it takes to make a mountain man leave his home." The atmosphere generated is once again commanding with a prevailing sense of being transported to another land. Only Zeppelin were able to do this at the time, a trend so ferociously original for a rock band.
So we come to the end of what I thought would be a short review. Well, the album is a landmark, which I have already said, but it cannot be overstated. A lot of the songs have ended up on compilations. No matter how one drinks in this fountain, one thing for sure, an album with this much impact on music will never be repeated. If you only want to own one Led Zeppelin non compilation album, this is the one.