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Stairway to aural heaven

Sarthak Kaushik | Updated on January 28, 2021

Heavyweights: Jimmy Page (right) and Robert Plant took Led Zeppelin to dazzling heights   -  IMAGE COURTESY: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

As one of rock history’s most admired albums turns 50 this year, a look at the stories that built Led Zeppelin IV into a phenomenon

* A country house in Hampshire, England, was the scene of the sonic action

* The drumkit was moved to the lobby of the country house; the mics hooked up to a staircase

* By 1991, Stairway to Heaven had been played on British radio 2,874,000 times

* Its nearly nine-minute playtime captures 44 years of playing music

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As a new decade dawns in the shadow of uncertainty, it’s a good idea to press play on some pleasant memories, especially if it’s going to be a golden jubilee. Through nostalgia-tinged glasses we raise a toast to one among many iconic albums turning 50 this year.

The musical dexterity with which this album was built took a rock-loving generation to the stairway of aural heaven. Since it is impossible to resist the temptation of trying to use the iconic song names from Led Zeppelin’s 1971 path-breaker of an album unnamed (popularly called Led Zeppelin IV in the annals of rock fandom) — we shall now explore the storehouse of stories that built it.

English guitarist (and multi-instrumentalist) Jimmy Page and singer songwriter Robert Plant hadn’t received much success with their third album (named, in typical Led Zep style, III), so they decided not to name their fourth. Instead, each of four members chose a symbol, and the four symbols graced the cover. A country house, Headley Grange, in Hampshire, England, was the scene of the sonic action, and the setting provided the perfect foil for the aural exploits that were to form the playlist of the album. The opener itself was inspired by a dog that provided the band with company during recording and the creative urge led Jimmy Page to write Black Dog as a kind of tribute to that pleasure.

Inspirations for their own icons led to the intro of a rousing rock ’n’ roll drum solo. Drummer John Bonham took a cue from American musician Little Richard’s robust rhythms on Keep-a-Knockin’. And we all know how beautifully the opening lines “been a long time since I rock ’n’ rolled” have been embraced by the wider vocabulary of cool!

Battle of Evermore hides another bit of band trivia in its vast sensory sweep. It happens to be the only Led Zeppelin recording featuring female vocals. While Plant’s high register would usually suffice, these vocals were provided by Sandy Denny, the lead singer of another rather underrated band — Fairport Convention. And since Led Zep songs were essentially audio dramas, the duet with Plant featured Denny as the town crier representing the people.

Literary references were also an integral part of the album, with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit providing grist to the Led Zeppelin song nomenclature mill. Misty Mountain Hop was inspired by the group’s love for Tolkien’s particular oeuvre, and the story also allowed them to weave in their take of the then ongoing conflict between students and the police over drug possession, an emotive issue for the band.

When The Levee Breaks was a tip of the hat to blues greats Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy. The heavy, ambient drum solo opening of the song proved to be quite the tricky one to record, with all attempts to get the grand ambience literally falling flat with the sound of the drums. Which is when the drumkit was moved to the lobby of the country house; the mics hooked up to a staircase at the end of the lobby, and the reverb captured by two other mics. And thus was born one of the heaviest drum openings in rock.

And finally, there was Stairway to Heaven. When the band first played the song live at Ulster Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, The Guardian in its 2014 report described the audience as having been “bored to tears”. In the same report, it highlighted that by 1991, it had been played on British radio 2,874,000 times.

Its nearly nine-minute playtime captures 44 years of playing music. Enough said. According to Led Zeppelin biographer Stephen Davis, literature again played a part in the making of the classic, with Plant being inspired by what he was then reading, The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, the 1945 work of occult scholar and Scottish poet Lewis Spence. The song was also in the news for the rather discordant notes of plagiarism that another band from the time, Spirit, had struck.

The family of late songwriter and Spirit frontman Randy Wolfe had accused Led Zeppelin of having filched parts of the opening riff of their song Taurus for Stairway. After a six-day-long trial in June 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the British rockers. Their reputation was untarnished. Not bad as a history lesson for a song where the solo was played by an icon on a guitar gifted by another. The legendary solo that Page executed so masterfully was on the Fender telecaster that noted rock guitarist Jeff Beck had gifted him.

As one of the best-known rock albums of all time turns 50, what remains fresh is the tingle on the fingertips, the clenching of the teeth and the pumping of the fist every time one presses play on Led Zeppelin IV.

(Mad About Music is a monthly column on contemporary music)

Sarthak Kaushik   -  BUSINESS LINE

Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi

Twitter: @radiochaos

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Published on January 28, 2021
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