Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair
— “Going to California”
Led Zeppelin’s back catalog already includes songs like “Ramble On” from the rocky Led Zeppelin II and the melancholic classic “Tangerine” from the flower-powered III. “Ramble On” is absolutely poetic:
How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air
‘T was in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum, and the evil one
Crept up and slipped away with her
As is “Tangerine,” yearningly and wondrously opening with an Am-Asus4-Am-G-D-D chord structure and Plant’s plaintive voice:
Measuring a summer’s day, I only finds it slips away to grey
The hours, they bring me pain
Tangerine, Tangerine, living reflection from a dream
I was her love, she was my queen, and now a thousand years between
Thinking how it used to be
Does she still remember times like these?
To think of us again?
And I do
After the release of III, Plant and Page disappeared once more into the mist-shrouded mountains of North Wales to pen what would turn out to be, in the opinion of this reviewer, the ultimate White Lives Matter music. The band holed up at Bron-yr-Aur, a ramshackle part-derelict cottage on the slopes of the sheep-dotted hillsides near Machynlleth in Snowdonia. The poet and guitar maestro in Wellington boots and cheese-cloth shirts set out to capture the otherworldly spirit of Britannia’s pretty villages, fog-prone coastlines, and groin-breakered beaches. The end result was described in Mick Wall’s biography of Led Zeppelin, When Giants Walked the Earth (2008), as “unambiguously Pagan imagery of pipers, May Queens, shadows that stand ‘taller than the soul’ and whispering winds ‘crying for leaving.’”
The album evokes the Viking Up Helly Aa festival in Scotland’s Shetlands, the Merry Maiden Dans Meyn stone rings of Cornwall, and the Druidic Eisteddfods of Cymru, all sitting comfortably alongside Aleister Crowley’s sacred text of Thelema, The Book of the Law (1904), Austin Osman Spare’s Book of Pleasure (1909-1913) and the Summerisle pageantry of Robin Hardy’s haunting 1973 classic folk horror movie The Wicker Man.
Page and his cohort did little to distance the band from these ideas, selecting a picture of a bearded old man bent double under a bundle of kindling hanging over peeling wallpaper on the untitled album cover. The rather sinister inside artwork, entitled View in Half or Varying Light, is attributed to an alleged art school friend of Jimmy Page, now residing in Switzerland.
The entire package caused consternation at Atlantic Records HQ in New York where Led Zeppelin accounted for nearly 25% of the label’s total sales. Page insisted, despite fervent objections from the company’s marketing executives, that only the four symbols denoting the band members would delineate the provenance of the music coming off the spinning vinyl and only the Hermit figure standing atop a steep cliff face holding aloft a burning lamp could be used to represent the spirit of the message being conveyed in Plant’s lyrics.
The album, largely rehearsed at a ghost-shrouded mansion called Headley Grange in Hampshire, kicks into life with the a cappella-heavy “Black Dog,” which could be taken as a reference to the folkloric legends of the black dog of Hergest, thought to have been the origin of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles, or more prosaically, the Labrador that warmed itself beside the open fire at Headley. Lyrics like “Got a flamin’ heart can’t get my fill, with eyes that shine, burning red,” conjure the restless spirit of Thomas Vaughan, the evil knight whose demonic shaggy-haired canine familiar had to be exorcised by twelve clergymen, who supposedly shrunk his malevolent spirit into a snuff-box, and then drowned it under a large stone at the bottom of Hergest Pool.
This is followed by the three-chord, A-tempo live favorite “Rock and Roll.” Allegedly, “Roll” was a Little Richard- and Chuck Berry-inspired number Zeppelin would often use as the opening song on their stadium tours, regarded by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the songs that defined the genre. “Rock and Roll” sits in complete opposition to that which followed: the medieval, mandolin-flecked “The Battle of Evermore.” Plant is joined by one Sandy Denny on vocals, someone they had jammed with during a wild night in The Troubadour and recognized as a kindred spirit.
The Tolkien-inspired lyrics of “Evermore” are loosely based on scenes from the Oxford Don’s The Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King, the third and final part of The Lord of the Rings, showcasing Plant’s lyrical prowess:
The queen of light took her bow
And then she turns to go
This is a holy Marian-like reference to the professor’s Catholicism and his sub-creations, like Galadriel, the lady of Lorien of the Noldor and Teleri, Arwen, the daughter of Elrond and Aragorn’s love interest, and of course, though slightly more tenuously, Eowyn, shield-maiden of Rohan and slayer of the Witch-king of Angmar.
The Prince of peace embraced the gloom
And walked the night alone
A subtle blending of Jesus with Aragon, the ranger who stalked the forests of Middle Earth waiting to claim his realm.
The Dark Lord rides in force tonight…
The drums will shake the castle walls,
The ring-wraiths ride in black, ride on.
An evocation of Sauron’s Orc armies marching to destroy the world of men. Tolkien writes of the siege of Minas Tirith:
In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl. A great black shape against the fires beyond he loomed up, grown to a vast menace of despair. In rode the Lord of the Nazgûl, under the archway that no enemy ever yet had passed, and all fled before his face.
All save one. There waiting, silent and still in the space before the Gate, sat Gandalf upon Shadowfax: Shadowfax who alone among the free horses of the earth endured the terror, unmoving, steadfast as a graven image in Rath Dínen.
“You cannot enter here,” said Gandalf, and the huge shadow halted. “Go back to the abyss prepared for you! Go back! Fall into the nothingness that awaits you and your Master. Go!”
The Black Rider flung back his hood, and behold! he had a kingly crown; and yet upon no head visible was it set. The red fires shone between it and the mantled shoulders vast and dark. From a mouth unseen there came a deadly laughter.
“Old fool!” he said. “Old fool! This is my hour. Do you not know Death when you see it? Die now and curse in vain!” And with that he lifted high his sword and flames ran down the blade.
And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn. And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.
Plant’s hopes are similarly reflected:
Tired eyes on the sunrise, waiting for the eastern glow
Ending with the dramatic soliloquy:
At last the sun is shining, the clouds of blue roll by
With flames from the dragon of darkness
The sunlight blinds his eyes
The magic of “Evermore” could only be followed by the orchestral majesty of “Stairway to Heaven,” a song owing a still-unacknowledged debt to Spirit’s instrumental “Taurus.” “Heaven” was subsequently disowned by Plant as Zeppelin’s “wedding song.”
Yet, despite their later misgivings, what emerged from the partnership of Page strumming away by the glowing hearth and Plant perched on an old metal radiator nearby was a song that was to define Led Zeppelin’s repertoire and reverberate through the rock scene for generations. Page bestriding smoke-filled stages in his astrologically-embroidered dragon suit, playing his Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck with a violin bow, and Plant’s crooning vocal cords casting mage-like incantations from the lighted stage out into the darkness where an entranced audience filled hundreds of packed auditoriums all around the world became a hallmark of the generation:
There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven
An opening that is universally recognized from Trondheim to Timbuktu, that unmistakeable chord progression — Am-G#-C-D-F — has become as familiar as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” to the 70’s rock generation, weaned as they were on the Rolling Stones, Bad Company, and Black Sabbath.
Plant and Page drew on their esoteric knowledge of the Viking oracle method of rune casting, the magical Enochian workings of the Elizabethan court magician and alchemist Dr. John Dee, the angelic voices of Dee’s amanuensis Edward Kelly, and The Magical Diaries of Aleister Crowley. (Crowley’s home on the banks of Loch Ness, Boleskine House, was also once occupied by Page.) These influences impregnated their work with the appropriate quota of mysticism that was required to stimulate thousands of discussions amongst ardent fans for decades to come.
After all, was it not a fact that the rustic character on the album’s cover was meant to represent George Pickingill, the man credited with inducting Crowley into the dark arts? Or was it perhaps an allusion to the Tarot’s Ten of Wands? Some argue it is intended as an ecological message symbolizing the threat to rural communities and their traditions by the encroachment of the suburbs.
The internal artwork, like the ornate arts and craft movement design of “Stairway,” only adds to the mystery. The Hermit figure could be seen as a reworking of the ninth card of the Major Arcana in the Rider-Waite Tarot pack, and Plant’s verses might be pored over for meanings. The cognoscenti claim that Lucifer had a female consort in the form of light — hence the line:
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
American writer Thomas W. Friend picked up on this theme, writing in Fallen Angel (2004) that other Satanic citations include the notion in Ezekiel 28:13 of Lucifer “as the celestial composer of music,” and of Pan the Piper, who is juxtaposed by Crowley as “Lucifer the Piper, the maker of music,” reminding us of Plant’s voice ringing out under the spotlights:
And it’s whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the Piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
All of this, suggests Mick Wall, that Zeppelin “desired to get back to an older, lost world governed by older, more plentiful gods who can be directly appealed to and where personal transformation is still a tangible, achievable goal.”
The idealistic peace-and-love oriented Plant renders this idea beautifully alongside Page, Bonham, and Jones on side two of their masterwork. It begins with the rather funky mid-tempo stomp of “Misty Mountain Hop,” another title borrowed from Tolkien, the unique trance-like groove drumming of John Bonham on “Four Sticks,” the dreamy Laurel Canyon- and Joni Mitchell-fixated sunlit freshness of “Going to California,” and the rough-hewn thunderous echoes of “When the Levee Breaks.”
All this, recorded in rooms baffled by egg cartons, speakers hanging over stairwells, and leads running out of open windows to a mobile recording unit borrowed from The Rolling Stones; people coming in and out with cups of tea and ginger biscuits.
Eclectic or what?
Yet IV is unquestionably one of the most organic musical products to emerge out of the 70s music scene. Chuck Klosterman, writing in Spin Magazine in 2002, said that it was “the most famous hard rock album ever recorded.” Klosterman, agreeing with my hyperbolic postulation that no other band could have produced such a unique cavalcade of sound, says it is “the origin of everything that sounds, feels, or even tastes vaguely metallic.”
It’s a claim that emphatically supports Zeppelin’s bassist John Paul Jones’ contention that “after this record, no one ever compared us to Black Sabbath.”
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