The Album That Changed My Life – Led Zeppelin IV
Aaron Jackson reflects on the “old hippy shit” which blew his mind as a teen.
Led Zeppelin were not my generation. They weren’t even my father’s generation. Born in the forties, a teenager in the sixties when the ambit of popular music exploded, and a young man in the seventies when the initial ferment settled down and solidified into genres still familiar today, Led Zeppelin were certainly on his radar, though.
As my father was a practicing musician, and also cooler and hipper than I’ve ever managed to be, that meant that they were on mine. But then so was all of the cool music of sixties, seventies, and eighties as a matter of course. I heard Tomita before I heard Kraftwerk, for example, and Keith Jarrett while Jools Holland was still famous for being in Squeeze and swearing on national television. In that mix, where new exciting music seemed to be appearing every week, Led Zeppelin meant nothing. They were, in my estimation, old hippy shit.
That all changed in my mid-teens. To be fair, that’s the point for most of us that everything changes: girls become interesting to boys and vice versa; hormones kick in; feelings intensify … and it appears that the music that moves us has been written for us and only us just when we need it most. The success of legacy acts as a business model indicates the truism that the music we hear between our mid-teens and mid-twenties stays with us for the rest of our lives.
Right at the point where I needed to hear something swaggering and transcendent and brutal and delicate made up of equal calls to hormones and imagination alike I heard it.
Look past the nostalgia circuit of Rewind and pissed up forty-something women with angel wings on their backs at Take That concerts for a moment, though. At one point, that music sound-tracked the moments when they felt most thrillingly alive and full of potential; before life put the boot in and reality bit.
It was at this point I heard Led Zeppelin IV. I’d heard it before, of course. But I’d never heard it. Epiphany happened at the back of the school bus, the road to Damascus just outside of Rowlands Gill on a lovely sunny afternoon in May. I was sitting next to the girl who would become my first girlfriend. A lad called Paul McNestry was in the seat behind. Nessie was cool. He had long hair at a time when to have long hair in Newcastle was to be called a ‘poof’; a leather jacket that looked like it had been bought to see hard yards on a motorbike rather than give the impression that it had in a wine bar that knows no better; and an allegiance to AC / DC picked out in studs and patches on his school haversack.
“Here, listen to this, he said,” shoving his Walkman headphones over my ears, without warning.
A weird, metallic sound, then a voice wailing:
Hey hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove …
Gudugadugadangdang duggadangdangdung derduggadung duhduhdadidungdung!
Armageddon arrived in the form of the circular main Black Dog riff played with brutalising intensity by one of the tightest bands of their era. Meeting in the centre of my head, it blew my brains apart.
This was Led Zeppelin!? This was ‘old hippy shit’!? My stop was next. Reluctantly, I offered Nessie his headphones back.
“Here,” he said, handing me the “Take it home. Make a copy. Give me it back ”
I spent the rest of the night with Nessie’s headphones clamped to my ears, playing the tape from start to finish until the batteries ran down. I was young and callow so I didn’t know what I do now: that Zeppelin’s crunching riffs owed as many huge unacknowledged and largely unpaid debts to the riffs of old black bluesmen as their sublime acoustic stylings similarly did to masters of the 60s British Folk Scene like Bert Jansch; that Jimmy Page never saw a credit he wouldn’t take for his own; that Robert Plant’s lyrics were equally parts tosh and poorly cribbed references to Tolkien; or that the band was a byword for overblown decadence in all areas up to and including the music, alcohol and drug abuse, questionable liaisons with groupies, dodgy management practices, and grasping, greedy avarice.
Everything that gave 70s hard rock a bad name was, in fact, something that Led Zeppelin invented. They were a lumbering rock dinosaur, and one that the smaller more savage predators of punk thankfully brought down.
But even if I had it wouldn’t have mattered. Right at the point where I needed to hear something swaggering and transcendent and brutal and delicate made up of equal calls to hormones and imagination alike I heard it. Like hearing The Stone Roses album for the first time (as I had a couple of weeks earlier), Led Zeppelin IV repainted my world in an entirely new palette of colours and emotions. It still remains a thrilling testament to what can happen when four people get together in a room to play.