We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s legendary fourth album. Sit back as the band’s surviving members, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones reflect on recording one of the most famous albums in rock history and its pivotal centrepiece, Stairway To Heaven.
Untitled, undeniable, and unstoppable. Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album, better known as Led Zeppelin IV, arrived 50 years ago this month, in November 1971.
Led Zeppelin IV remains one of the most creatively influential and commercially successful albums in the history of music. Arriving with some of rock's most iconic and enduring hits, including Black Dog, Rock and Roll, and Stairway to Heaven, one could argue that no Led Zeppelin album has made a more long-lasting impact than the band's fourth.
Commercially, Led Zeppelin IV is a juggernaut, selling more than 37 million copies worldwide. In the US, the album was recently certified 24x platinum by the RIAA, ranking as the fifth best-selling album of all time as well as the best-selling album by a British artist (tied with The Beatles aka The White Album). Needless to say, it also stands as the best-selling of all Led Zeppelin albums.
Led Zeppelin | ‘Black Dog’
The band began writing and recording Led Zeppelin IV toward the end of 1970, eventually moving to a country house in Hampshire, England called Headley Grange that they converted into a recording studio using the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio setup. There, they recorded most of the album’s basic tracks with engineer Andy Johns, who also engineered some of Led Zeppelin II and III.
Jimmy Page, guitarist and producer of the album, says: “After the brief stay that Robert and I had at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage [while working on Led Zeppelin III], I could see a situation where we all resided at Headley Grange and had a recording truck. I was keen on this whole idea of using it as a workplace so you could concentrate totally on the effort of making the music while residing at the location.”
“It was all a bit experimental,” John Paul Jones says. “But it was the first time we’d actually stayed together. Before, we were recording in studios…and it was always hotel, studio, hotel, studio. We’d never been in one place and had recording facilities there. So that was really a new way of working for us, and I think it was a really good way. We just had this huge old room with a big fireplace with all the equipment set up. And you could just wander down and start stuff up if nobody was there, or if somebody else would turn up, there would be a bit of jam. There was music making in some way all the time, which, as you can see by the result, worked out pretty well.”
Led Zeppelin | ‘Stairway To Heaven’
The unconventional approach gave Led Zep more freedom to capture spontaneous performances and inspirations. Reflecting on the writing of what is now one of the most famous songs of all time, Stairway To Heaven, Robert Plant says: “I was sitting next to Jimmy in front of the fire at Headley Grange. He’d written this chord sequence and was playing it to me. I was holding a pencil and paper and suddenly my hand is writing the words ‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold..’ I sat there, looked at the words and almost leapt out from my seat. Looking back, I suppose I sat down at the right moment.”
The band also found innovative ways to use the acoustics of Headley Grange to their advantage. Most famously, drummer John Bonham recorded the thunderous drum tracks for When The Levee Breaks in the formal entrance hall of the house using microphones hanging from a nearby staircase. Today, it is one of the most-famous drum sounds in the world and has been sampled by artists across multiple genres including Beyoncé, Beastie Boys, Massive Attack, J. Cole, Björk and Eminem.
Led Zeppelin | 'When the Levee Breaks'
The album artwork notably features four symbols on the inner sleeve and label to represent the four band members. “There was a really nice little book of signs and symbols,” John Paul Jones says. “So, we decided to choose our symbols from this book appropriate to each member. So, Bonzo [John Bonham] and I dutifully went away, and we actually chose symbols which were kind of the opposite of each other graphically, which was quite strange. And then, of course, Robert and Jimmy designed their own. They all had their own personal meanings.”
Led Zeppelin | ‘Rock And Roll’
Famously, the untitled album was issued with no text on the front or back covers, including the band’s name or an album title – a radical idea at the time. “After the release and success of the third album, we were still getting negative reviews about the albums and concerts in certain trade journals in America,” Page recalls. “And even after the third album, it was being said that we were ‘a hype’ and one thing and another. It was slightly aggravating. It seemed as though it would be an interesting proposition to actually put out an album with no information on it at all…and see how it would sell.”
“The cover means whatever people want to read into it,” said John Bonham around the album’s release. “For me, it means: ‘I’d rather live in an old house than a block of flats.’ My personal view is that the album is the best thing we’ve ever done. I love it. It’s the fourth album and it’s the next stage we were in at the time of recording. All the albums have been different and to my mind, this is the best and that’s not trying to be big-headed or flash.”
To learn more about Led Zeppelin's legendary fourth album and more, check out The History of Led Zeppelin on the band's official YouTube channel.
If you haven’t listened to Led Zeppelin IV in a while, revisit it on streaming below and remember just how amazing it is.
Listen to Led Zeppelin on Spotify:
Listen to Led Zeppelin on Apple Music: