To be a rock and not to roll…
1971 saw the release of a hard rock album that helped define the path of rock & roll music for generations to come. If hard rock was sailing gently along on a timid lake, this album was the storm that would change the course of guitar-driven rock music for ever.
It has no name. It is the nameless album. If you were to inspect the front and back covers, all you might find would be the record label’s logo and (depending on where you bought it) the distributor’s details. There is no band name either, no slogan, no logo. When you look at it, it looks like a blown-up, wartime photograph…of a photograph…of an old, hunched-over man, leaning on a walking stick, carrying a large stack of branches on his aching back. This photo is adorned by a chipped, heavy-looking, rusty, bronze or copper frame. It hangs on a nail on a wall who’s floral-themed wallpaper is peeling and has been, it seems, for some time now. The back cover is an extension of the front image, and when you spread the whole image out, you see that the peeling wall is part of a crumbling house that has been neglected and almost torn down. Trees, bushes, other crumbling houses and a large, tall, grey building are in the background.
Flip open the album (I am referring to the original vinyl cover because the CD and cassette versions have only the same front) and spread over both sides is a black and white drawing of a hill, with an old, hooded man atop it, holding a large walking stick and lantern, looking down upon a village in the distance. Images from Tolkien may quickly spring to mind, which would probably not be accidental.
The album I speak of is the fourth studio album by the British band Led Zeppelin. Since the album was not given an “official title”, it’s chronological order (following the first three albums, aptly named I, II and III) dictates it “unofficially” be known as “IV”. By 1971 the band were influential and popular enough to release an album with no name, no band name on the sleeve and not even a photo of the band members. The mystery that was Led Zeppelin was undeniable.
Visually, the album was simple, plain, even bland and dull some may say (yet one cannot help feel the imagery is meant to provoke debate and discussion about “deeper meanings” and so on). Musically, however, it was the storm that would send rock music hurtling into a new dimension.
In 1998, I was 17 and in high school. My English teacher, Mr. Patterson, was a classic rock aficionado. Often after or before class, in which I would struggle to stay awake and listen to Shakespeare, we would talk about music. Rock music in particular. Classic rock, to be even more specific. While at the time I was heavily into my Nirvana, Metallica, Oasis and Pearl Jam, I knew little about this time-induced genre that was classic rock. Sure, I had heard of Hendrix, The Beatles, Queen, The Rolling Stones…you know, the popular names that even my parents knew. These pre and post-Shakespeare class talks would speak of bands I had never heard of; Pink Floyd, The Clash, Iron Butterfly, The Who and one band in particular, Led Zeppelin. Mr. Patterson, or Andrew as I can call him now, noticed my growing fascination with these “rock titans” and one day he brought me a cassette (which I have to this day) to listen to. He didn’t say much about, merely placed it in my hand and said “Listen to this and we will speak about it next week.” I looked down at the cassette in my hand and stared blankly at the cover for a moment. It was quite plain and bland. Boring even. A photo of a man, carrying sticks, on a wall whose wallpaper was peeling off. I stuffed the tape into my pocket and went to try and understand Shakespeare.
Living in a house where privacy wasn’t something that was considered worthy of respecting, listening to music without being disturbed was almost impossible. That is, until I came upon the idea of taking my Walkman with me to the “men’s room”, where I could do my business and listen to my music in peace. That night I grabbed the boring-looking tape and my Walkman and locked myself in the bathroom. Popped in side A, put on my headphones and hit the play button. Little did I know that a storm was brewing from inside my little Walkman. A strange, faint gargled guitar sound came out of one earphone and then a voice, an eerie, chilling, echoey, voice screamed out of the other “Hey hey mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you grove…”
Goosebumps. My arms were covered in goosebumps. Drums kicked in and fuzz-filled guitar riff ripped through my ear drums. “Black Dog” was the first song on the album and I was stunned. The melodic bass lines swayed me and that voice captivated me. Pause… “Ah, ah…ah ah…” Pause… Crash. Riff. Bass. Howl. I did not expect that. I guess I might have been expecting a variation of the Beatles combined with some grit of the Stones. But what I heard was definitely not what I had anticipated. The first song was drawing to a close and I was already eagerly anticipating the next. The drum intro to “Rock and Roll” made my eardrums bleed, in a good and metaphorical way, of course. Then the guitar player joined in. What was this? It sounded like 1950’s American diner rockabilly…but louder and distorted and more powerful and more… well… just more! The singer screams “It’s been a long time since I rock and roll” and I’m thinking to myself “THIS is what I have been missing all these years. THIS rock and roll!” I don’t want the song to end, yet I can’t wait for the next one. Track 3 starts with an acoustic guitar. I think. No, that’s a banjo. Hang on.. it’s neither (later I would find out that it’s actually a mandolin). “Battle of Evermore” starts slowly. It’s an acoustic number. Compared to the first two songs, this one seems like it can’t possibly be from the same band. But it is. And it’s good. Nay, it’s splendid. Layers of acoustic guitars and mandolins, intertwined with the folky vocals make this song a mystery all on it’s own. “Mortals never know…”. It was true, I didn’t know.
I look on the back of the tape case and notice that the next song would be the halfway point. Four out of eight tracks on the album. I fear it can’t get any better. I fear being disappointed. “Battle…” ends and I wait, with baited breath for the last song on side A.
A melodic acoustic guitar riffs plays. Note by note. Precise, emotional, sad. A flute joins in. The riff and note picking glide along. I feel confused. It’s so beautiful and haunting at the same time. My mind is cleared of all thoughts. I am focused on the melody and feel like I’m in a trance. Slight pause.
“There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glitters is gold….and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” This singer has me mesmerized. I’m caught on his every word, his every lyric, his every sound. This tempo progresses for a while longer before the guitar picks up speed. Ever so slightly. An acoustic guitar, accompanied by an electric. I can hear keyboards. There are no drums? All of sudden the drums fly in, meshing in with the other instruments. The tempo builds. The strumming is getting louder, dancing along with the drums. “…your stairway lies on the whispering wind…ooh, ooh, ooh…”. Break. Drums and guitar battle each other. First one, then the other. A climaxing is building. It sounds like a fanfare of guitars, a fanfare announcing the arrival of something. Something big. Something majestic. The drums crash down and the guitar changes gears, revs, accelerates and the sound of the solo that follows races around my head like a Ferrari on steroids. I cannot believe what I am listening to. I cannot believe that this type of music exists. Im amazed. I’m stunned. The goosebumps have now spread….everywhere. The solo goes on and on, the drums are racing to keep up and all of a sudden the howling voice returns and the song has reached a peak so unimaginable that as it all slows down to a snails pace and vanishes into the darkness from whence it came, I’m left speechless and can’t quite fathom what exactly just happened here.
The Walkman clicks as side A ends. I slowly pick it up and almost mechanically rewind to the beginning of this epic song that has, in just eight minutes and two seconds turned upside down everything I thought I knew about rock music up to that point. I listen to it again, this time paying closer attention to every note, every snare, every slide, every nuance of every lyric and again, I have goosebumps all over and again, after eight minutes I’m left dumbfounded, confused and amazed.
As I turn over to side B, Andrew’s comment “Listen to this and we will talk about it next week” echoes in my head. Boy, will we have something to talk about.
Side B begins with the keyboards this time. I’m beginning to notice a collective musicianship among these men, that I hadn’t heard before. “Misty Mountain Hip” is a groove-infused rock/folk/funk concoction that opens up the bands spectrum even more. A drum-driven ramble follows in the shape of “Four Sticks”. “Did the drummer play the drums with four drum sticks instead of two?” I ask myself. It turns out that he actually did. Raw, fuzzy guitar riffs are intersected with melodic, folky guitars and vocals that wail and echo like a hippie banshee. The third song on side B reminds me of “Battle of Evermore”, because of it’s acoustic nature. No mandolins this time, just a well-played acoustic guitar and a voice that, a minute ago was howling and wailing, is now singing splendidly and in perfect tune and rhythm with the guitar. “Going to California” is almost a Dylan-esque folky, love song, but with a maturity and sensibility that Bob Dylan cannot compete with (no offense to Mr. Dylan, whom I admire as well).
The end is nigh. Track 8 is up next and the drum intro pounds melodically until wailing slide guitars scream in. It sounds like a raw, electrified Mississippi delta blues song that has been absorbed into a 200 watt Marshall guitar amped and spat out in a mean, edgy manner. Harmonicas wail in the background and the vocals, that also sound like they have been injected with electric blues, take me on a roller coaster ride through the American South…or at least what I imagine it would be; porches, old men sitting with banged up acoustics, grimy, calloused hands, riffing blues and singing about how hard and tough life can get. “When the Levee Breaks” is the final song on this spectacular unnamed album. The guitars screech, slide and wail, slowly fading away, with the drums pounding constantly and the vocals dripping with pain and suffering and hardship. A raw guitar slide, a few seemingly accidental notes and it all grinds to a halt.
I remove the headphones and stare at the tape cover for a moment. Simple and plain, almost boring on the outside. Wild, erratic, raw, powerful, beautiful, mesmerizing and melodic on the inside. This is what Led Zeppelin’s album “IV” is. It’s a potion, made with various ingredients that may not always work together, but in this case make for a powerful dose of rock music that left an indelible mark on me from that moment on.
I literally overnight became infatuated with this band. I read up on them, got my hands on their previous and later albums, listened to them constantly and got to appreciate who John Paul Jones (keyboards, bass, mandolin), John Bonham (percussion), Jimmy Page (guitars) and Robert Plant (vocals, harmonica) really were and how no other combination of musicians could make such an album, produce such a blend of songs and make such an impact on hard rock like they did.
A few months later I managed to buy a copy of the album on CD, which was endlessly played on the home stereo, car stereo and in my Discman. With every listen I was more enthralled and more captivated by the songs and how their diversity and complexity made for such a unified and complete album.
Years later, once I had become a dedicated vinyl addict, I begged a family friend who was going to the UK to look for the album on vinyl and get me a copy. A couple of months later, the elderly gentleman returned with a worn, slightly torn around the edges copy. On the outside was a photo of a man carrying sticks, hanging on a peeling wall. On the inside was a black and white drawing of a hooded man, carrying a lantern, overlooking a village in the distance. And inside the inner sleeve was a black vinyl, labelled Side A and Side B, with eight songs that, together as a whole, represented an album that I feel will be heralded as one of the greatest albums of all time. “And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last. When all is one and one is all. To be a rock and not to roll.”