Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Led Zeppelin’s fourth album established the band as more than merely a hard-rock band by including songs—especially “Stairway to Heaven”—that were rooted in folk music.

Summary of Event

By May, 1970, Led Zeppelin had reached the pinnacle of rock status. At a mountain cottage called Bron-Y-Aur, Wales, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant worked on material for the group’s third album. With the breakup of the Beatles and the tax problems of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin had become the number one rock band in the world. For the band’s third album, Page wanted more emphasis on acoustic material. Even though Page had used an acoustic guitar to some degree on the band’s first two albums, both critics and fans alike were surprised by the results they heard on Led Zeppelin III (1970). Released on October 23, 1970, the third album went to the top of the Billboard and British charts. Led Zeppelin took a short holiday break before the initial recording sessions for the band’s fourth release were held at London’s Island Studios in December, 1970. Rock and roll Music;rock Led Zeppelin [kw]Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music (Nov. 8, 1971) [kw]Hard Rock and Folk Music, Led Zeppelin Merges (Nov. 8, 1971) [kw]Rock and Folk Music, Led Zeppelin Merges Hard (Nov. 8, 1971) [kw]Folk Music, Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and (Nov. 8, 1971) [kw]Music, Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk (Nov. 8, 1971) Rock and roll Music;rock Led Zeppelin [g]Europe;Nov. 8, 1971: Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music[00470] [g]North America;Nov. 8, 1971: Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music[00470] [g]United Kingdom;Nov. 8, 1971: Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music[00470] [g]England;Nov. 8, 1971: Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music[00470] [g]United States;Nov. 8, 1971: Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music[00470] [c]Music;Nov. 8, 1971: Led Zeppelin Merges Hard Rock and Folk Music[00470] Page, Jimmy Plant, Robert Bonham, John Jones, John Paul

In January, 1971, the group had the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio moved to Headley Grange, a country house located in Hampshire, England. Page pushed himself to make the new album a perfect blend of power rock—for which the band was famous—and folk music. Both Page and Plant were fans of folksinger and songwriter Joni Mitchell, and they wanted to incorporate folk elements into the total mix. With the fourth album, Led Zeppelin was determined to prove to its critics that the band could succeed at more than exciting the teenage libido. The band immersed itself in mysticism and Celtic lore.

Page had entertained the notion of making a double album, but eventually this idea was scratched in favor of a single album. The members of Led Zeppelin moved to the rural setting of Headley Grange in order to remove the distractions of London. The recording sessions lasted through January, 1971. In February, the overdub sessions were moved back to Island Studios. As Led Zeppelin’s producer, Page was not yet totally satisfied with what was already on tape, so he traveled with the tapes to Los Angeles to do more mixing at Sunset Sound Studios. The band played “Stairway to Heaven” "Stairway to Heaven" (Led Zeppelin)[Stairway to Heaven] for the first time live on March 5, 1971, at Belfast’s Ulster Hall. In July, more mixing was done on the album. The fourth album was finally released on November 8, 1971. The band had decided that the album was not to have an official title, a decision that angered Led Zeppelin’s record company, Atlantic. Instead of a real title, Page suggested that each member of the band select a symbol from a book of runes that he had in his possession. The symbols would then be placed on the inside of the record jacket.

Over the years, the album has been referred to variously as Untitled, Led Zeppelin Four, The Runes, Four Symbols, and Zoso (after Page’s mysterious symbol). Eight songs made the final album: “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” “The Battle of Evermore,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Misty Mountain Hop,” “Four Sticks,” “Going to California,” and “When the Levee Breaks.” Written by Page, Plant, and John Paul Jones, “Black Dog” proved to critics that Led Zeppelin could still produce songs that were a pure adrenaline rush; the power of “Black Dog” made it an instantly recognizable Led Zeppelin song. The title of the song came from a hound that had adopted Headley Grange as its home.

All four members of the group contributed to the song “Rock and Roll,” which was more of an improvisation than anything else. It grew out of a jam session with the Rolling Stones’ piano player, Ian Stewart. With the tape still running, John Bonham played the introduction of Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and Page was inspired to add a guitar riff that seemed to fit. With Stewart banging out a great boogie piano, Plant devised the appropriate lyrics on the spot. The initial improvisation produced the structure for the song, which Page massaged into shape without losing what had been captured on the original taping. “The Battle of Evermore” was written by Page and Plant. Page came up with the tune while he tried his hand at playing Jones’s mandolin, and Plant’s lyrics were inspired by a book he had been reading at the time concerning Scottish wars. Sandy Denny of the group Fairport Convention (an English folk group) was asked to share the vocals with Plant, adding a wonderful touch to the overall arrangement.

Led Zeppelin, with guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant, perform in 1970.

(DPA/Landov)

“Stairway to Heaven” is considered the quintessential Led Zeppelin song. Written by Page and Plant, it melds the diverse strengths of the group. Page had almost completed the chord progression when the group started recording at Island Studios in December, 1970. The various parts of the song came together after Led Zeppelin moved to Headley Grange. Plant was inspired to write lyrics that told a mythic tale of a lady’s search for perfection. Parallels can be drawn with famous female creations from Western literature, such as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, the Lady of the Lake, Rhiannon, and many others. That is not to say that the lyrics stand up as great poetry, but as they were intended to be wedded to music, the ethereal quality of the lyrics works supremely well. The song builds from an acoustic beginning and gradually—but inevitably—reaches a muscular rock crescendo. “Stairway to Heaven” is divided into several sections; Page employs a six-string guitar in one section, a twelve-string guitar in another, and an electric guitar, solo, in yet another distinct section. Page has said that the song “crystallized the essence of the band.”

The next song on the album was an uptempo piece written by Page, Plant, and Jones titled “Misty Mountain Hop.” On the song, Jones played electric piano. The song has a funk quality to it that is catchy and joyous. On “Four Sticks,” Bonham made use of four drumsticks to create a driving rhythm track. Taking their inspiration on “Going to California” from Joni Mitchell, Page contributed tender acoustic guitar work while Plant came up with poignant lyrics concerning California and the search for the perfect lady. The last song on the album, “When the Levee Breaks,” was constructed by the group around an old blues song of the same name written by Memphis Minnie. On the song, Bonham pushed his pounding drum sound to the limit. Page added bottleneck guitar, while Plant contributed a dynamic mouth harp.

The fourth album was produced by Page, who meticulously worked the tracks over while keeping the improvisational feel, and engineered by Andy Johns. The album entered the English music charts at number one and remained on the charts for sixty-two weeks. In the United States, the album went as high as number two and stayed on the Billboard charts longer than any other album by the group.

Significance

By the time Led Zeppelin entered London’s Island Studios in December, 1970, to commence the recording sessions that would result in its fourth album, the band already had established itself as one of the world’s most popular hard-rock bands. Led Zeppelin had been the brainchild of guitarist Jimmy Page in 1968. In the early 1960’s, Page made a reputation for himself as a remarkable session player. He joined the Yardbirds in 1966 as the band’s bass player. At the time Page joined the group, Jeff Beck Beck, Jeff was its lead guitar player, but eventually he and Page played dual lead guitars for the group. Later in that same year, Beck left the Yardbirds, leaving Page to shoulder the lead guitar work. In 1967, Page already was thinking about forming a new group. Some of his discussions had been with the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, Moon, Keith who suggested that the new group be called Lead Zeppelin (as in “go over like a lead balloon”). By the middle of 1968, the Yardbirds were ready to disband. On June 22, 1968, both Keith Relf and Jim McCarty announced that they were leaving the Yardbirds. With the old Yardbirds in disarray, Page went about the business of pulling together a group that would be known as the New Yardbirds for the time being.

After talking to various musicians, Page finally settled on John Paul Jones on bass, Robert Plant on vocals, and John Bonham on drums. Page had known Jones from session work they had done together. Plant was offered the job as vocalist after Page and some associates heard him perform at a Birmingham teacher-training college. It was Plant who recommended Bonham, and thus the lineup was complete for the New Yardbirds. They began rehearsing together in September, 1968, and soon agreed that they would have to find a new name for the group. Page and manager Peter Grant Grant, Peter decided to use Keith Moon’s suggestion but dropped the “a” in “Lead”—thus Led Zeppelin was born.

The group entered Olympic studios in October, 1968, to record its first album. Led Zeppelin’s approach to music grew out of the blues-rock explosion that hit England in the late 1960’s. Similar in some degree to other English bands such as Cream, the Jeff Beck Group, and even the Yardbirds, the group went beyond all the others in creating a calculated and lumbering musical style—which incorporated amplified distortion—that came to be known as “heavy metal.” Led Zeppelin was released in the United States on January 17, 1969; by February, the album was climbing up the Billboard charts. By May, it would reach the top ten.

In the spring of 1969, the band went back into the studio to begin recording its second album. Led Zeppelin’s popularity was driven by the group’s live performances, and because of the band’s heavy touring schedule, the second album was not completed until September. It has been estimated that Led Zeppelin II had an advance order of 400,000. The second album was released on October 31, 1969, and before long it went to number one on both the American and British charts. The song “Whole Lotta Love” became Led Zeppelin’s anthem and would remain so until it was eclipsed by “Stairway to Heaven.”

Led Zeppelin continued to exist until 1980, when Bonham died and the remaining members decided that Led Zeppelin could not continue without him. When the announcement came on December 4, 1980, the music world was stunned. The group had not toured the United States since 1977. During the mid-1970’s and culminating with Bonham’s death, the band had more than its share of mishaps. The misadventures seemed to be never ending, and there was even speculation that since members of the group had dabbled in the occult, something evil was at work. These rumors contributed to Led Zeppelin’s allure and mystique. The group’s reputation for excess was legendary, whether onstage or behind the scenes.

Led Zeppelin thrilled millions of rock fans with every new and outrageous direction it took. If the band had simply played heavy metal and left it at that, it probably would be remembered as merely another example of hedonistic rock. The tough, take-no-prisoners approach to music had its fans, but the members of Led Zeppelin felt compelled to blend musical styles. The untitled fourth album was the group’s shining creation. Through the vision and drive of Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin made a quantum leap beyond run-of-the-mill loud rock music. The fourth album brought the group respectability.

The eight-minute “Stairway to Heaven” became the most-requested song of all time on FM rock stations. The song also sold more sheet music than any other in the history of rock music. On radio stations that compile lists of the top rock songs of all time and then play them, “Stairway to Heaven” has consistently placed at the top. The acoustic strumming, the lyrics that defy clear interpretation, the inserted rock explosions that eventually build into a fury that sweeps the listener away—all these elements and more make “Stairway to Heaven” one of the most innovative songs in rock history. The song has continued to mean different things to different listeners. The song was supposedly written by Plant in a fit of automatic writing. The idea that some power greater than the individual lyricist helped to produce the song helped to fuel the flames of its mystique.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, hundreds of bands cropped up attempting to emulate Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, most of these bands were poor imitations of the original. The creativity of rock music was tossed aside by senseless purveyors of noise. With “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin entered the pantheon of rock groups that produced something that mattered. The texture and power of its fourth album surpassed what any other heavy metal band had ever done. In what Led Zeppelin created, there was actual tenderness that counterbalanced the blustery bombast. In a real sense, Led Zeppelin never was a true heavy metal band, and the fourth album proved that point. The band was not afraid to venture into musical areas uncharted by other hard-rock outfits. A listener can find dashes of folk, slices of country, a hearty helping of blues, and musical influences from exotic countries. Endlessly curious, the band was not willing to settle for the middle path. Each member contributed a wealth of musical knowledge to the whole, giving it a unique shape. Led Zeppelin was raw and distorted but also—especially on the fourth album—delicate. The band received its first and only Grammy Award Grammy Awards in 2005 for Lifetime Achievement. Rock and roll Music;rock Led Zeppelin

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cole, Richard, with Richard Trubo. Stairway to Heaven: Led Zeppelin Uncensored. 1992. Reprint. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Led Zeppelin’s tour manager recounts his twelve-year association with the band. Cole’s story concentrates primarily on the outrageous excesses of Led Zeppelin’s tour lifestyle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Considine, J. D. “Led Zeppelin.” Rolling Stone, September 20, 1990, 56-60, 109. The three surviving members of Led Zeppelin reflect on their days in the band and also do their best to correct a few misconceptions about the group.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Erik. Led Zeppelin IV. New York: Continuum, 2005. Brief volume presents a song-by-song discussion of the album. Includes bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Stephen. Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga. 1985. Reprint. New York: Berkley Boulevard Books, 2001. Thoroughly researched, this is the definitive biography of the band. It makes the point that Led Zeppelin became just as famous for its excesses as for its music. The paperback edition includes a chapter concerning Led Zeppelin’s reunion at the Live Aid concert in 1985.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fast, Susan. In the Houses of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. An academic analysis of Led Zeppelin’s songs from a musicologist’s point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karbo, Karen. “’Stairway to Heaven’: Is This the Greatest Song of All Time?” Esquire, November, 1991, 128-132. The article playfully and seriously discusses the popularity of Led Zeppelin’s most famous song.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Dave. Led Zeppelin: A Celebration. Rev. ed. New York: Omnibus Press, 2003. Includes a wealth of information on the band. There are chapters on the group in the studio and about the band live, a complete chronology, various discographies, and an equipment file.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Page, Jimmy. “Jimmy Page: My Life in Led Zeppelin.” Interview by Matt Resnicoff. Musician 145 (November, 1990): 48-64, 72. An extended interview with the reclusive guitarist who was the driving force of Led Zeppelin. Page reveals some of his musical secrets and also talks about the work that went into remastering the group’s songs for Led Zeppelin’s four-CD boxed set released in 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shadwick, Keith. Led Zeppelin: The Story of a Band and Their Music, 1968-1980. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2005. An acclaimed and exhaustive volume that explores the history of the band, its tours, and albums.

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