All through the past year, there’s been no shortage of writing produced to commemorate the 20th anniversaries of several key records originally issued in 1991, certainly not here at PopMatters. For the next eight weeks, however, I’m going to take the opportunity here at Sound Affects to look back two decades further at a staggering work of music that’s more popular and arguably more influential than Nirvana’s 20-year-old Nevermind. Ladies and gentlemen, say happy 40th birthday to Led Zeppelin’s fourth album.
Then and now, the mighty Led Zeppelin towers imposingly as one of rock’s elite groups. The source of at minimum four must-own LPs, dozens of classic rock radio staples, and enough legendary guitar riffs to make Keith Richards look like a slacker—not to mention being the inspiration for entire genres, from glam metal to grunge to stoner rock—it could be argued that the British quartet is just one notch below the Beatles in the rock hierarchy, and is an entity that defined the 1970s as much as the Fab Four defined the preceding decade. Led by guitarist Jimmy Page, the assured, larger-than-life Zeppelin blended hard-edged British Invasion guitar riffage, heady post-psychedelia, and Mississippi Delta blues together in a manner, when amped up to the sonic extremes the technology of the day would allow, resulted in the style the world would come to know as heavy metal. For that alone the band earns a hallowed place in musical lore. However, Zeppelin always refused to restrict itself to bludgeoning caveman headbangers (something which would result in metal fans often positioning Black Sabbath—an ensemble that is on record as being enamored by and taking cues from Zep—as the “proper” founding father of metal), instead maintaining a broad stylistic palette that incorporated acoustic instruments and diverse ethnic sounds to realize the “light and shade” dynamics Page strove for.
Nowhere is Led Zeppelin’s carefully balanced blend of eardrum-bursting heavy rock and delicate folk strains better realized than on its untitled fourth album, an LP that has become one of the biggest-selling and most-disseminated albums of all time, in any genre. Issued without a name or any identifying details on the sleeve in a pointed attempt to let the music speak for itself amid press accusations that the band’s fortunes were the result of hype, the record is most commonly labeled as Led Zeppelin IV in reference to numbered titles of the first three Zep full-lengths (for the sake of clarity, it will be referred to by that name for the purposes of this series); it has also been afforded monikers including Four Symbols, Runes, and ZoSo due to the mysterious icons representing each band member that adorn the record’s packaging.
Though worldwide sales figures for any record are tricky to verify, in 2007 The Independent cited the fourth Zep LP as selling 37 million copies globally, an amount that has few plausible challengers. National figures are much more reliable: in the United States, the album is certified 23 times platinum by the RIAA for that many millions of copies shipped, making it the fourth most-abundant LP in the country, below only works by Michael Jackson, the Eagles, and Pink Floyd. This album isn’t just a blockbuster; it’s an essential text in popular music; a rite of passage for budding guitarists and suburban stoners; a record that with every single one of its eight cuts being perennials on rock radio playlists it’s nigh-unfathomable to imagine one not having an opinion on it, be it favorable or dismissive. If you are a diehard rock music fan who’s gone his or her life without hearing Led Zeppelin IV, I can quite justifiably demand to know what the hell your problem is.
The stature of Led Zeppelin IV is astounding to consider, especially since its sales outstrip those of not only virtually any other record in existence, but anything else in Zep’s discography by at least 2-to-1. The inclusion of “Stairway to Heaven”, the insanely-overplayed FM radio epic that is an eternal candidate in the “greatest song of all time” sweepstakes, is certainly a factor that helps explain the LP’s massive popularity. Further legitimizing its success is the collective strength of every other composition on the album, the end result outshining everything other full-length the band issued. Never a group to waste material on b-sides, Zeppelin assembled its wares with deft precision and loaded them with bountiful heaps of indelible guitar licks, drum fills, and sex-charged wails that ended up inspiring several successive generations of artists (and continue to do so). One can spend ages pouring over every little musical nuance of Led Zeppelin IV, and the mysteries surrounding its quixotic packaging (who is the man on the cover and the hermit in the fold-out poster, and what exactly do those runes represent?) and the debated influence of black magick stemming from Page’s sizable interest in the occult (Black Sabbath more often than not cautioned against dealing with dark forces; Zeppelin reveled in them) only add to its mesmerizing appeal.
An album as weighty as Led Zeppelin IV warrants a brash, ear-grabbing opener, a criteria “Black Dog” ably fulfills. After a few seconds of incidental studio noise, the disembodied voice of Robert Plants pops out of nowhere, singing the couplet “Hey hey Mama, said the way you move / Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove”. Then BAM, Page, bassist John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham burst out with enough force and volume liable to lay the listener flat (as it did to this author the first time he heard it when he was just about 13—it’s still one of the very few musical discoveries that genuinely blew my mind). It’s all undoubtedly, resolutely heavy, but there is also a finesse to the track that critics of the day often overlooked as it slated the group as being crass and excessive.
“Black Dog” is structured around a call-and-response routine (inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well”) that contrasts Plant’s a cappella come-ons against the band’s heavy metal riffage, where Page and Jones play the same notes an octave apart to create that massive sound. Written by Jones, the Muddy Waters-indebted “Black Dog” riff is a nimble five-bar work of ingenuity that tosses in a measure in 5/4 time instead of standard 4/4 for extra punch. Coupled with Bonham’s earth-shaking drum beats, the result is what’s been termed the “stomp groove”. As “Black Dog” proves, grooves aren’t only supposed to static or hypnotic; what ultimately defines a great groove is its ability to overwhelm the body and make it move in time with the music. “Black Dog” makes the listener twist and contort with its displaced beat accents, with the end result being fist-pumping or headbanging instead of busting a move.
About the only reasonable criticism that can be leveled at “Black Dog” is one that can be raised against Led Zeppelin on a broader level, and much ‘70s rock as a whole. In an era when macho swagger and boasts of sexual prowess were seen as fundamental to rock iconography, Led Zep was a thoroughly masculine, alpha-male enterprise, often skirting the line of casual sexism as it regularly relegated women to the roles of pleasure props or witchy offenders both on and off-stage. In “Black Dog”, Plant is almost demonically possessed by lust (“Eyes that shine, burning red / Dreams of you all through my head”), but it quick with criticisms of the object of his desires (“I won’t know but I’ve been told / Big-legged woman ain’t got no soul”). Though Plant’s final verses of “Need a woman, gonna hold my hand / And tell me no lies, be a happy man” suggest a wounded sensitivity, the feline sensuality of his delivery betrays his true intentions—he’s kidding no one that he’s not just upset that a woman used him like he wanted to use her, especially given the way he orgasmically moans in the transition to the outro section.
With those sweaty, thrusting rhythms and Plant’s banshee cries, “Black Dog” is undoubtedly sex music. Yet it’s so accomplished that even if we can’t forgive Zep for thinking with its collective nether region, we can marvel at the awesome musicianship that ensures the composition continues to outshine much hard rock that has emerged in the 40 years since the public first heard it initiate the start of this band’s magnum opus. It’s easy to be heavy, but doing it with style is another matter entirely.