The first time I heard Led Zeppelin IV, which turns 42 today, was on New Year’s Eve, 1983.
I was in sixth grade. My friend Chris had an older brother who was a huge Led Zeppelin fan. Chris spent that New Year’s Eve at our house (his parents were downstairs with my parents, I think). We had a Sony Walkman with two headphone inputs. The cassette was his, but I ended up borrowing it for a few months.
I had a decent music collection for a kid my age: Def Leppard’s Pyromania, U2’s War, Under a Blood Red Sky and October, Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, Bow Wow Wow’s When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going, Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, ZZ Top’s Eliminator, Men At Work’s Business As Usual, The Clash’s Combat Rock, The Police’s Synchronicity, The Kink’s State of Confusion, The Stray Cats’ Built for Speed and Rant N’ Rave with the Stray Cats, The Romantics’ In Heat, The Rolling Stones’ Undercover and the whole Adam and the Ants catalog (I can’t explain that one). My older sister had every Bob Marley record, and my folks had Carpenters Gold, Carole King’s Tapestry and some early ’70s solo Beatles albums. MTV and Friday Night Videos were huge, along with FM radio, which, to my knowledge, didn’t seem to be doing classic rock yet (or I wasn’t aware of it at the time).
It’s fair to say I wasn’t ready for “Black Dog.” I knew nothing about the blues. I’d never heard anyone belt it out, unaccompanied, the way Robert Plant did at the beginning of that track. The rhythm section crashed in, repeatedly, on that snaky, oddly-phrased riff. It was frightening. Chris lip-synced the opening phrases, his face a foot away from mine, with a menacing sneer. How strange.
The New Year approached as we listened through side one: the exhilarating, breakneck “Rock and Roll,” with John Bonham never once bothering to muffle his cymbals or use a closed hi-hat; the slowly-building, seductive “Battle of Evermore,” Plant’s expressive narrator trading lines with Sandy Denny’s angelic, innocent town crier; and the epic “Stairway to Heaven,” a whole world of its own, ending again with Plant singing by himself. For about a month after that intense experience, side one was all I dared to listen to.
“Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll were bad-ass. They made your arms flail, in self-defense, perhaps. “Evermore” and “Stairway” were more complicated, unfolding in waves, with different pay-off moments, some of which I wanted to last longer, like when Jimmy Page kicks into his “Stairway” solo, Plant starts to wind on down the road, his shadow taller than his soul.
I wore out packs of double-A batteries rewinding that tape. Side two remained alien territory for months. I wasn’t brave enough to find out what was there.
Then I did. “Misty Mountain Hop” was poppy and friendly enough. It seemed to be an innocent song about a guy hanging out with his friends, offering cups of tea to happy policemen who said their “friends would all stop by.” How nice! How little I knew about the 1960s, protests, sit-ins, riots, skull-bashing and drugs. It’s a uniquely subversive song, couching all that stuff in a shiny, inviting outer skin.
Another pair of songs, “Four Sticks” and “Going to California,” introduced strange time signatures. Those tracks are even more enjoyable now, and so is “When the Levee Breaks,” the darkest, heaviest, most hypnotic track on the record.
At first, listening to side two was a hero’s journey, a way back to the light of side one, which had my favorite tracks. For years, the tracks on Led Zeppelin IV were like characters in a story, coming alive when it was their turn to speak. We don’t generally think of a narrative thread running through that album. But for years, each song came to life when reached out to, sitting patiently on the side of the stage when it wasn’t its turn to speak.
That New Year’s Eve led me to AC/DC. It took me closer to Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones back-catalog, the Doors, the Allman Brothers, all new, strange sound worlds. College brought with it the Beatles, Dylan, the Dead, Nirvana, on and on.
I’ll turn 42 in a couple of months. Back in 1983, we fantasized about the year 2000 (Whoa, we’d be 28!). It felt way, way off. (If you don’t believe me, ask an 11-year-old to imagine what he or she will be doing in 2029, when Led Zeppelin IV will be almost 60 years old.)
My son is in now eighth grade. He’s heard “Rock and Roll” in car commercials and on classic-rock radio. I can’t tell if there’s anything in his world that changed his life the way Led Zep IV changed mine, but I might ask him again tonight.
Happy birthday, ZOSO.