Led Zeppelin IV: Facts, Legends And Mysteries About Zep's Biggest Seller
Led Zeppelin IV is famous not only for "Stairway to Heaven," "Rock and Roll," "Black Dog," and other Zeppelin classics, as well as its lore and trivia. No other band has been able to establish and maintain a mystique quite like Led Zeppelin. By 1971 the four members of the group, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham were superstars, but they wanted more than popularity, they wanted to be rock gods. Led Zeppelin IV (officially untitled, and also known as Runes and Zoso), produced by Page and recorded in the country house Headley Grange, is a cryptic puzzle featuring runes rather than the names of the band members, and songs based on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien and Scottish history. There's magic buried inside Led Zeppelin IV, and we're going to get to the bottom of it.
Headley Grange provided a respite for the group after a disappointing start to the decade
When Zep released Led Zeppelin III in October 1970 they faced backlash from critics even though it contains some of the band's most beloved tracks (among them "Tangerine" and "Immigrant Song"), and rather than tour the album into the ground they started recording its followup. After a writing session at the country house Bron-Yr-Aur they decamped to Basing Street Studios in London in December 1970.
The atmosphere at Basing Street was stifling, and not at all what they were looking for so they moved to Headley Grange with the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio in tow, along with Andy Johns and Ian Stewart to engineer. Jimmy Page explained the change of scenery as necessary as normal recording studios were too stifling:
We needed the sort of facilities where we could have a cup of tea and wander around the garden and go in and do what we had to do.
Robert Plant supposedly bought the painting on the cover at a second hand shop
The cover art of Led Zeppelin IV has long been a source of rumination among fans. A painting of an old man bent over and carrying a collection of sticks adorns a wall with no title and no information. It implores the viewer stare and dream about what it could mean.
As mysterious as it seems, the cover is actually a fairly interesting piece of mixed media. The painting is from the 19th century, purchased in an antique shop in Reading, Berkshire by Robert Plant. Hung on the wall of an abandoned block of flats in the Ladywood district of Birmingham, it juxtaposes the natural world against the modern era where we tear things down to build up something new before tearing it down again. Page has explained that he wanted to create a visual motif that showed the city/country dichotomy that the band explored on their previous album. He later said that he wanted to give fans something to think about rather than to just hit them over the head with a message.
The interior art is based on a tarot card
Aside from Fleetwood Mac, the witchiest band of the '70s is easily Led Zeppelin. Jimmy Page was a disciple of Aleister Crowley, and the group consistently explored mysticism in their lyrics and album art. The inside of the band's untitled fourth album is based on the tarot card known as "The Hermit," painted by Barrington Coleby.
The ninth card of the Rider Waite tarot pack represents prudence and authority, as well as the ability to learn while educating others. The Hermit lives a solitary life, like Page at the time, while shining a light for others to find their way.
Tolkien references and Scottish history are spread throughout the album
Robert Plant's lyrics have always had a poetic, magical quality to them, but on IV he takes his work to new heights. "The Battle of Evermore," a melancholic Celtic folk tune smack dab in the middle of two of the band's most beloved songs, makes reference to the fifteenth and sixteenth century Anglo-Scottish wars, a topic that Plant was reading about at the time. Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention sings on the song, making her to only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin album.
Aside from the stirring mythological stylings of "Evermore," Plant brought his love of Tolkein into the mix with "Misty Mountain Hop," a song about a the clash between students and police over drug possession with a tip of the hat to The Hobbit.
Stairway To Heaven is rumored to feature Satanic back masking
A story that continues to make the rounds about Led Zeppelin's most beloved song, and centerpiece of the untitled album is that "Stairway to Heaven features backmasking with a secret, Satanic message for fans. According to Televangelist Paul Crouch, when Robert Plant sings the line about a "bustle in your hedgerow," if you play that backwards you'll hear the real phrase:
Here's to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.
That seems long, right? Way longer than "a bustle in your hedgerow." When Plant heard about the theory he shot it down immediately, saying:
Who on Earth would have ever thought of doing that? You've got to have a lot of time on your hands to even consider that people would do that.
The band left their names off the album and used runes instead
Adding to the mystical element of the untitled album is the use of runes in the place of band names. Page has said that the band was tired of their newest work being considered alongside their previous albums so when they released IV they did so without any title or even credits on the album. Instead, they opted only for runes that represented each member of the group, and a special fifth rune for Sandy Denny.
Each member of the group picked their own symbol, with Bonham and Jones choosing theirs from Rudolf Koch's Book of Signs, a collection of primitive and medieval symbols, with Jones' triquetra representing someone with confidence and competence, and Bonham's interlocking three rings representing the mother, father and child.
Page and Plant went a different route when choosing symbols and opted to create their own. Plant's symbol, a feather inside of a circle is a reference to the civilization of Mu, a legendary lost continent which has been said to birth the Egyptians and Mayans. Page's symbol contains what appears to be a word, "Zoso," but its meaning has never been fully stated. It's believed that the symbol represents Saturn, but some Zeppelin fans believe that it's a symbol for a tantric sex experience that brings someone close to death in order to unify the living and the dead.
A fifth, smaller symbol was added for Sandy Denny. The three equilateral triangles appears as an asterisk next to "The Battle of Evermore."
Mystery or no, the album is a classic
The mystical mystery of Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album played a major part in making the album one of the most critically acclaimed and best selling albums of the 20th century, with reissues released at least once a decade since it 1971. Aside from being the band's most beloved work, it continues to pose questions to the listener for which there's no real answer - which is why we've got to go back and listen again and again.