Today in 1971 (exactly 45 years ago), Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was released. Although also known as Led Zeppelin IV, Runes, Four Symbols and Zoso, this album is officially untitled, with the band using symbols on it to represent themselves. The album is an eclectic mix of their acoustic and electric talent, with quality electric rockers like “Black Dog” and “Rock And Roll”. “The Battle of Evermore” (in which Plant duets with Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention) and “Going to California” carried on the band’s acoustic tradition as displayed on Led Zeppelin III. And the merging of these acoustic and electric styles ultimately resulted in “Stairway to Heaven”.
In the run-up to the album’s release a series of teaser ads depicting the four symbols was run in the media. It didn’t take fans long to associate these with Led Zeppelin, and the album was an instant massive seller. The album debuted on the charts in the UK at #1, and remained there for 62 weeks. In the U.S. it remained on the chart longer than any other Zeppelin album so far, although it failed to knock Carole King’s Tapestry off the top. Ultimately this album would prove to be the most durable seller in Zeppelin’s catalog and the most impressive critical and commercial success of their career.
Atlantic Records was stunned to hear the band’s plans for the album’s cover artwork. The band wanted no group name, title, track listing, group photo, catalogue number or label logo. Instead, the band decided to set a precedent by selecting symbols to represent themselves in lieu of a cover title. Atlantic was appalled by the idea, but Jimmy Page withheld the album’s master tapes until they relented. Page stated in 2001 that the cover wasn’t meant to antagonize the record label, but rather it was designed as a response to music critics who maintained that the success of their first three albums was driven by hype and not talent. So they stripped everything away and let the music do the talking. Many copies shipped with Atlantic-placed rectangular black track-listing stickers on them though…
Page commissioned each band member to choose his own symbol, which appears on the inner sleeve and on the label of the vinyl. The tan inner sleeve also contains the lyrics to “Stairway”. The sleeve design was wordless and the portrait on the cover was actually bought from a junk shop by Robert Plant. The Hermit character on the inside of the jacket is from the Tarot, and represents self-reliance and wisdom. It was drawn in pencil and gold paint by Barrington Colby and is titled, “View in Half or Varying Light”. Page’s self-designed symbol resembles the alchemical symbol for mercury, but nothing more is really known about it. There are also possibly references to symbols standing for some of Page’s astrological signs. Jones’ symbol (the circle with the trisecting ovals) came from a book of runes and is said to represent confidence and competence. Bonham’s (the three intersecting circles) came from the same book, and is said to represent the man-wife-child trilogy. Some have remarked that it also resembles the symbol for Ballantine Beer, a Bonham favorite. Plant also designed his own symbol; the feather in the circle is based on a sign of the ancient Mu civilization, and is said to represent courage and his lyrical and spiritual outlook. Due to the lack of an official title, Atlantic Records distributed graphics of the symbols in many sizes to the press for inclusion in charts and articles. The album was one of the first to be produced without conventional identification, communicating an anti-commercialism stance that was rather controversial at the time.
At one time it was supposedly to be released as 4 EPs, but because of various mixing delays, a single album was eventually produced. Initial recording began at Basing Street Studios in London in December 1970. But upon the suggestion of Fleetwood Mac, the band then moved to Headley Grange, a remote historic Victorian poorhouse in East Hampshire, to conduct additional recordings. Here they used the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio. Page later recalled, “We needed the sort of facilities where we could have a cup of tea and wander around the garden and go in and do what we had to do.” This relaxed, atmospheric environment at Headley Grange also provided other advantages for the band; by moving there for the whole period of recording, many of the tracks could be created and committed to tape on the spot.
Once the basic tracks had been recorded, the band later added overdubs at Island Studios in London, and then took the completed master tapes to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles for mixing. However, the mix ultimately proved to be less than satisfactory, creating an unwanted delay in the album’s release. Further mixing had to be undertaken in London, pushing the eventual release date back by several months.
Rock and Roll
The Battle Of Evermore
Stairway to Heaven
Going to California
When The Levee Breaks
As with previous albums, these sessions produced a number of unused tracks. Three of these, “Boogie With Stu”, “Night Flight”, and “Down By the Seaside” would surface in 1975 on Physical Graffiti. They also worked on an early version of “No Quarter”, which would appear in 1973 on Houses of the Holy.
Notable album variations:
UK-only pink vinyl pressing issued Nov 1978
UK-only CD box set package, limited to 3,500 individually numbered sets, issued Sept 1988
Spanish 2007 re-issue on picture-disc vinyl (with no outer sleeve).
Certified Gold November 16, 1971
Certified Platinum (x23) January 30, 2006 (38 million copies worldwide)
Certified Diamond November 15, 1999