50 years ago Led Zeppelin put the finishing touches to their legendary fourth album. With songs like "Stairway To Heaven", "Rock And Roll" and "The Battle Of Evermore" it not only became the best-selling record of Jimmy Page & Co. - the untitled album has long been considered a majestic monument of 70s rock. Countless fans and generations of musicians still revere it as an opus magnum and a never-ending source of inspiration. We examine how this album came to be and how it achieved its unique status.
Two young men are fooling around in a meadow, with an old masonry building in the background. One is blond, dressed in a thick sweater and tripping from one foot to the other, the dark-haired one wears a thin jacket and strums on a mandolin. Small clouds of breath can be seen in front of their mouths, and dogs frolic in front of the winter-bare trees - including a black one, of which there will be more talk. The two men have gone outside the door to get some fresh air. Soon they will return to the house and get back to work
The scenes described can be seen in a short amateur film. The year is 1971, it is winter. Led Zeppelin have taken up residence at Headley Grange, a somewhat run-down estate in East Hampshire. The band is working on a new album - their fourth - there. At one time Headley Grange was used as an orphanage and poorhouse, but now the 18th century building functions as a recording studio with an attached "bed and breakfast" operation. A BMC truck parked outside the house holds the necessary recording equipment. It belongs to the Rolling Stones, who rented the camouflage-coloured vehicle to their colleagues from Led Zeppelin
Even though a heavy Rolls-Royce and an expensive sports car are parked on the driveway in front of the main entrance: The conditions are by no means as luxurious as one would expect for rock stars of the calibre of Jimmy Page, Robert Plant & Co. The old walls are damp, the heating doesn't work, and there's neither a pub nearby nor any other distraction. It's all about the music. And nothing else. As Jimmy Page will explain to BBC News decades later in a TV feature, "It was an inspiring time. Eating, sleeping, making music, that's what we did there day after day."
The measure of rock things
Page and his are reaping a harvest at Headley Grange, the seeds of which they sowed in the years before. At this point, Led Zeppelin are one of the most promising bands of the second generation of British rock. The Beatles are history, the Kinks have just celebrated their last hit for now with "Lola," and the Rolling Stones, The Who and all the other heroes of the founding years are considered veterans, even though their members are just approaching 30. Now, at the start of the new decade, younger forces are taking over. Their names are Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Free, Pink Floyd - and Led Zeppelin. Their hair is longer, their attitude is confident and their rock is several degrees harder than that of Jagger, Townshend and the others. Primus inter pares are Led Zeppelin. The London quartet is well on its way to becoming the measure of all things rock and the hottest live act on the planet.
Formed in 1968 from the Yardbirds' bankruptcy estate, Led Zeppelin and manager Peter Grant went all out from the start: they extracted a $143,000 advance (more than a million in today's purchasing power) from Atlantic Records, the highest amount paid to a rock band up to that time. As recording artists, Led Zeppelin enjoy maximum artistic freedom. They have complete autonomy over the music, the artwork of the record covers and, perhaps most importantly, over every release and every single step of their career. So they basically don't release singles (even if non-English distributors release singles like "Whole Lotta Love" against the band's will), largely do without the usual product promotion, hardly give any interviews and, moreover, refuse to appear on TV shows
Grant and his protégés know that their fate would be decided not in the teen-pop market but with an adult underground audience that doesn't buy singles or poster magazines or listen to medium-wave radio. The run of events impressively confirmed the strategy: since the first UK tour in October 1968 and the launch of the first US tour shortly afterwards in December, Led Zeppelin's reputation has spread in no time. Wherever the band appears, others on stage have nothing to say. Within a very short time Page and his band conquered an audience of millions who judged them independently of the classical pop media and didn't give a damn about the sometimes vicious reviews of the underground press. Grant makes no secret of the fact that he doesn't give a damn about the self-declared tastemakers of the scene, first and foremost the hippie editors of Rolling Stone, who rip Led Zeppelin to shreds. The point is simple: Led Zeppelin know that they are good, that they are better than the rest, and they are confident enough to rely solely on their music and their brilliant stage show. Glossy posters, single hits and the blessing of the critics they do not need for this ...