In 1971, Led Zeppelin had something to prove. After exploding onto the rock scene from the band's debut album, the group's stratospheric rise seemingly couldn't be stopped. Even as critics tried to damper Led Zeppelin's trajectory with lukewarm reviews, their record and concert ticket sales continued to rise.
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Setting up shop at the remote rural location of Headley Grange in the English countryside, the band crafted eight songs that would go on to redefine rock and roll going forward.
Released on November 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin's fourth album flouted convention at every turn. Nowhere did the words "Led Zeppelin" appear on the record's cover. No song titles, not even a catalog number.
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Musically, it found the band obliterating the boundaries of their sound, from the explosive opening track, "Black Dog," through the final bombastic moments of "When the Levee Breaks."
No song on Led Zeppelin's officially untitled fourth album would prove to be as iconic as "Stairway to Heaven." Like a J.R.R. Tolkien epic told in eight minutes, the mind-expanding sonic journey would inspire a generation of rock and roll fans.
"To me, I thought 'Stairway' crystallized the essence of the band," Jimmy Page told Cameron Crowe in 1975 for Rolling Stone. "It had everything there and showed the band at its best... as a band, as a unit. Not talking about solos or anything, it had everything there. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with 'Stairway.' Townshend probably thought that he got it with Tommy. I don't know whether I have the ability to come up with more. I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance."
Inspired by Joni Mitchell, the band wrote "Going to California," an acoustic tribute to the sun-dappled sound of Laurel Canyon.
"It's about a bunch of hippies getting busted, about the problems you can come across when you have a simple walk in the park on a nice sunny afternoon," Robert Plant once explained about "Misty Mountain Hop," a true story about a UK "love-in" that was busted up by police. "In England it's understandable, because wherever you go to enjoy yourself, 'Big Brother' is not far behind."
While the band went on to make bigger and some would argue better albums, to this day no Led Zeppelin album has made a more long lasting impact than the band's fourth. It still stands as the best-selling of all Led Zeppelin albums.
Is it the greatest rock album of all-time? It's definitely a contender.
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