With its recurring hooks and tidy verse/chorus structure, the opener for the second half of Led Zeppelin's fourth album is a fairly decent pop song that nevertheless is the slightest contribution to that classic LP.
The second half of Led Zeppelin IV is inaugurated with the sprightly “Misty Mountain Hop”, a fairly unassuming number to have follow up the heavenly grandeur of the album’s centerpiece, “Stairway to Heaven”. Compared to “Stairway” and every other cut on the LP, “Misty Mountain Hop” is an perfunctory exercise in pop formalism that doesn’t break the mould. It just gets in, does its business with little fuss, and then wraps up.
Like the 1950s-indebted “Rock and Roll” from the album’s first half, “Misty Mountain Hop” is essentially a stylistic throwback, this time one rooted in ‘60s British Invasion pop/rock (though this song was recorded only a few short years divorced from that period, rock music was evolving by leaps and bounds in late ‘60s and early ‘70s). Based around a jaunty four note riff (originated by guitarist Jimmy Page, refined by bassist John Paul Jones), “Misty Mountain Hop” follows a very straightforward verse/chorus structure, with a middle section set aside for Page’s guitar solo. Suiting its ‘60s air, the lyrics are fixated on a rather topical concern for members of the Woodstock generation: flowers-in-their-hair-sporting hippies caught in a drug bust. The main bit of inventiveness on display in this song is how the verses alternate between multiple tracks of Robert Plant chanting in monotone -- performed in a rhythmic manner that accentuates the quarter notes -- and the singer’s solitary lung-bursting wails. Again, as on “Rock and Roll”, Plant’s performance, plus those of his bandmates (especially John Bonham’s scale-crushing drum beat), modernizes the form the band is playing with to the point where the homage becomes fairly fuzzy, only visible if you squint.
“Misty Mountain Hop” presents Led Zeppelin at the poppier end of its spectrum -- and honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, heavy rock aficionados. As other tracks on the album -- and elsewhere in the Zep songbook -- illustrate, it was healthy for the band to expand its range and tweak expectations. The track’s poppy nature is its virtue; it’s probable that it was the tune’s hookiness that earned it the honor of being selected as the b-side to the “Black Dog” single. No, what makes “Misty Mountain Hop” the least impressive offering from such a monumental album is that it plays far longer than it needs to. This song has the group tackling a form designed for optimal performance at around two and a half minutes, but here Zep extends it to nearly five. Such a basic riff and repetitious structure isn’t designed for that kind of overkill, which means the song gets pretty old before it’s even done.
Like every offering from Led Zeppelin IV, “Misty Mountain Hop” is an undying radio staple and has its share of fans, even if the track isn’t as ambitious or weighty as “Black Dog” or “Stairway to Heaven”. On the whole, it’s a decent, if basic, song -- but imagine how improved it would be as a listening experience if a verse or two were taken out.