“The fourth album should be our best. And if it isn’t, well, we might as well give up and retire with red faces,” Jimmy Page boldly declared after the release of Led Zeppelin’s third album.
The display of confidence was telling in that it showed a band which had arisen rapidly from a group of relative unknowns and session musicians into a rock and roll powerhouse. Led Zeppelin III briefly threatened to quell that rise, as it was received with a somewhat tempered response from fans and critics alike. Yet the band’s leader, Page, was unmoved. He foresaw the potential and quickly set about trying to back up his claim.
Later that following year Led Zeppelin would go on to end The Beatles’ eight-year run as the Best Group in the Melody Maker magazine poll, proving his confidence was not misguided. Yet following the disappointing response to their third album, which shed much of their past blues influences in favour of more folk leanings, the band found themselves at somewhat of a crossroads at the beginning of the 1970’s.
“Their next album, whatever it turned out to be, would be make or break,” Mick Wall wrote in his biography on them entitled When Giants Walked The Earth. “There was more than a mere million bucks at stake in whatever they did next; there was their entire future.”
Initially setting up in Island Record’s new Basing Street Studios in London; the quartet of Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones began working on what would prove to be the biggest album of their careers.
Early sessions were conducted and passed by relatively successfully. But it wasn’t until they moved into a remote farmhouse in the countryside that things really started to progress. They had been to Headley Grange before, but this time they were equipped with The Rolling Stones’ state of the art mobile studio, and rented the house in order to “live” with the music they were creating.
“The Rolling Stones had the first mobile recording unit in Europe. I said to Jimmy ‘Why don’t you use their truck and we’ll go to Mick [Jagger’s] house?’” Andy Johns, who was an engineer for the band, recalled.
“So Jimmy said, ‘How much will that cost?’ It worked out to be the same as a regular studio plus a thousand pounds a week for Mick’s house. He said, ‘I’m not giving him a thousand pounds for his place. I’m going to find somewhere better than that.’”
Built in 1795, the house had had a number of owners throughout its long history. However, after Lieutenant Colonel Michael Smith died in 1961 his widow began to rent it out. Soon, record companies learnt of this fact and its association with music first began. Over the years Fleetwood Mac, Bad Company and Genesis had all spent time there. However, it is Led Zeppelin who are inextricably linked to the residence- with the final track ‘When The Levee Breaks’ famously gaining its distinctive drum sound from the house.
“One night Zeppelin were all going down the boozer. So I said, ‘You guys bugger off but Bonzo [Bonham], you stay behind,’” Johns told Music Radar. “We took his kit out of from where the guys had been recording and stuck it in the lobby. I got a couple of microphones and put them up the first set of the stairs.”
“People often wonder how it sounds so planetary,” writer George Case observed. “They slowed it down in the mix too so it sounded really booming- this huge reverb to it. The only sound on the song recorded in natural time is Plant’s voice.”
But perhaps the most famous occurrence at Headley Grange was the writing of the song which critic Lester Bangs famously declared as a “thicket of misbegotten mush”- ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
“I don’t want to tell you about it in case it doesn’t come off,” Page teased the NME a full year before it would be completed. “It’s an idea for a really long track on the next album. We want to try something new with the organ and acoustic guitar building up to something electric.”
Page had studiously worked on various parts of the song for some time, before he finally revealed it to the rest of his bandmates. Along with Jones he then worked through it at the house, before Bonham and Plant were invited into the proceedings. As a trio they began to practice the track, while their singer observed from nearby.
“I remember Robert with his back against the wall, writing, while we were playing,” Page revealed. “We had another couple of run throughs and then he walked over and started singing along. From my recollection he had a good 90% of it then.”
Their final act at the house was to write the incendiary ‘Rock and Roll’. The track was devised out of a mid-session jam at the house which the band began to create on a whim. Bonham instigated it by playing the Little Richard classic ‘Keep A Knockin’, before the rest joined in. The ode to the golden generation of the genre being performed by a band who in many ways came to define and dominate their time period in their own right.
After their time at the Victorian house had come to an end, the band then moved back to Island Studios where the first thing they did was record ‘Black Dog’. Then, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was revisited and committed to tape. The Page solo took a little longer than expected to record as the guitarist fiddled with the arrangement. But finally, after multiple attempts, he managed to play the solo which would go on to be one of the most iconic in rock history.
The band were able to construct an album that didn’t have any tracks shoehorned in for commercial radio purposes. Effectively, this proved to be a freeing of the constraints, as this lack of pursuit allowed them to feature tracks such as ‘Stairway to Heaven’. These extended songs pushing them to their creative limits and allowing the band to progress.
“When you look back at our catalogue now. My god, you realise what a saving grace it was to not have to comply with commercial radio,” Page told Guitar World recently.
With all but one song written and recorded for the album- ‘The Battle of Evermore’ was a last minute addition-Page travelled out to California to begin mixing it at Sunset Studios. He arrived with his tapes in hand just after a massive earthquake had shaken LA in 1971.
“In ‘Going to California’ there is a mention of an earthquake in Robert’s lyrics,” Johns said. “I remember Jimmy going, ‘Oh don’t put that on there. It will cause another one.’ I said, ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid.’ But sure enough as the tapes started rolling there was an aftershock.”
That was just the beginning of a disastrous few weeks for the band. As when Page arrived back home with the supposedly finished mixes he discovered that the sound on them were terrible. Faced with the prospect of releasing a substandard product, Page had to redo all but one mix back in London. The only surviving track from the LA sessions was ‘When The Levee Breaks’. This issue set them back a fair amount of money and time. But on November 8th 1971 the album was finally released to the public.
It was an instant hit and reached number two in the album charts in America. Meanwhile, it remained in the number one position for an incredible 62 weeks in England. Over the years its popularity and stature has continued to grow, and is classed today as one of the highest selling records of all-time. It propelled Led Zeppelin to becoming the rock legends that they have been viewed as ever since its release. While it also set down a marker which was almost impossible to surpass during the rest of their career.
“That album informed the next four or five years of our music,” Page later claimed.
What was so impressive about the enormous popularity of IV was that it shunned modern marketing techniques. The band moved away from the standard, and sometimes necessary, ways in which to sell records. Basic elements like the name of the band and a title on the cover were left off, but were done so purposely.
It was a reaction to the media’s perception of Zeppelin, which Page found to be unfair and overly critical. Believing that they viewed the band as a product of hype and previously aggressive forms of marketing. It was his aim to put the album out which bypassed all of this, and responded to in purely musical terms.
It was a meaningless protest, really,” Page said. “We wanted to prove that people were not buying us for the name. After all we had accomplished, the press were still calling us a hype. So that is why the fourth album was left blank.”