People — including some of my colleagues at National Review — often wonder why I, at 28, have an unusually in-depth knowledge of and interest in the pop culture of the two generations that precede my own. Part of it is that it’s simply what I grew up with; we’re still, to a considerable extent, living in the world the Boomers created. (It helps that they’re pretty stubborn about sticking around.) Part of it, though, is that many of the products of this pop culture, are, well . . . good.
Take, for instance, Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, known by the creative name of Led Zeppelin IV, released 50 years ago today, and owned by me on vinyl (yes, I’m that kind of person). The quartet of guitarist Jimmy Page, lead singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, and bassist/whatever-instrument-he-needed-to-play-ist John Paul Jones had already been thriving in the years before Led Zeppelin IV, despite (credible) accusations of plagiarism. The band’s first two albums were rooted in classic blues, but taken to a hard-rocking next level. The unexpectedly acoustic Led Zeppelin III was a bit of a surprise for fans who had gotten used to this.
It’s tempting just to view III as a misfire, and IV as a return to form. Certainly, that is the impression you might get from the popular recollection of the album’s most famous song, “Stairway to Heaven.” And of course, there’s some pretty heavy stuff on other tracks: “Black Dog,” “When the Levee Breaks,” “Rock and Roll,” etc. But someone listening to the album for the first time might be surprised by its nigh-bucolic interludes, such as the plaintive “Going to California,” or the mandolin-backed medieval esoterica of “The Battle of Evermore” (the latter featuring a guest vocalist, Sandy Denny — a rarity for the band). Rather than being a “return to form,” Led Zeppelin IV is actually a kind of synthesis of the two prior modes of the band: the hard rock and the soft acoustic.
This is the proper way to understand the greatness of the perhaps over-appreciated “Stairway to Heaven.” The eight-minute opus starts soft, with Plant’s voice gently intoning over a gentle instrumental accompaniment. It then builds gradually over time in complexity and intensity, culminating in that famous guitar solo. It’s a perfect demonstration of how the band had mastered both aspects of its identity up to this point, and a signal of how it was about to move into even more genres: later albums would see Zep experiment with prog rock, funk, and even . . . reggae.
It’s not exactly controversial to like Led Zeppelin’s music, given all the millions of albums the band has sold. And to be sure, not everything Zep did was great. But its influence is undeniable, and probably never more assured than on Led Zeppelin IV. Enough that even people whose parents were barely teenagers when it came out can still find much to enjoy.