On the other side of the Jesus People rift lived the hippies. While I find a lot of value in their no-judgments attitude and connection to the earth, I’m equally frustrated by their spacey-ness and hypocritical judgment of Christians. But even more than that is their preoccupation with illegal drugs. They could have done so much more good in the world if they weren’t enslaved to substances. It’s tragic and ironic that what they hated the most was people keeping other people down, but they themselves were kept down by their own addictions.
If you went to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, you would probably get stopped at least 4 times by a greasy-haired, dreadlocked, tie-dye tank top-wearing, unkempt beard-sporting lay-about saying, “hey, do you wanna score?” Y’know, smoke a bowl, surf the ganj, get crazy with Mary Jane… marijuana. And if you ask him if you can stay awhile, you will undoubtedly be met with a hearty laugh and an easy “sure, man, come on down!” You’ll lose track of time and your mind from the haze of pot, hashish and opium all around you, right before a policeman comes up to you with a smile as bright as Chernobyl and says “get in line.” He sarcastically mentions tea and crumpets, and says his friends and fellow policemen will drop by and bring their billyclubs. You’re basically screwed.
Sounds like a song, doesn’t it? The first two verses of “Misty Mountain Hop” relate this story – alright, I added a few embellishments. The third verse gives a rather scathing retort to the drug-addled hippie culture, with an implied “you reap what you sow” vibe. The fourth contains a repudiation of the whole thing, and the narrator says he’s “packing [his] bags for the Misty Mountains, where the spirits go.” There’s even a subtle Tolkien reference in there – beautiful.
We’ve gone from intense rock and roll to Olde English folk balladry to mid-tempo stomp, and now “Four Sticks” brings it to as close to a fever pitch as IV comes. It’s mad and frantic, so frantic that it leaves out a beat for some measures, making it 5/4 instead of 6/4. The drumming nervous and jumpy, a characteristic not typically displayed by John Bonham. He’s normally like a roaring lion, or more accurately a plodding elephant; not in any hurry, but crushing in his inevitability and force.
After that, a quick breath inwards, and a respite from the agitation of “Four Sticks.” “Going to California” is pretty and gentle. This is the first moment where you as the listener are allowed to let down your guard and slow your breathing a little. In the lyrics, the girl with “love in her eyes and flowers in her hair” is in fact Joni Mitchell, a good friend of Robert Plant’s. This song stands in light contrast to “Misty Mountain Hop,” because while that song reprimands the darker side of hippie culture, “Going to California” has sentimental fondness of that lifestyle, the kind of thing that’s born out of distance or separation from it. Maybe the only reason Plant has that for the hippies is because he knows Mitchell. Maybe she represents for him all that is good, beautiful and positive about the Haight-Ashbury thing.
The calm and serenity that “Going to California” lulls you into is completely ruined by John Bonham and his plodding-elephant drumming. As track 7 finishes, track 8 brings the doom of death at the cap. “When the Levee Breaks” takes the pessimism and storminess of blues music and multiplies it by 100, creating something downright dangerous.
The lyrics talk of a city being devastated by a flood, not in the detached storyteller kind of way, but from the point of view of a man on the street. It always makes me think of Hurricane Katrina. The doomy quality of the lyrics bears out in the music, too. The harmonica sounds like it’s underwater, and the slide guitar sounds liquidy and wet. It’s raining, flooding, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
Led Zeppelin never made an album as good as IV; how could they? That’s not a judgment on their declining power, but a pronouncement of how mighty and colossal an album IV actually is. Led Zeppelin went on to release 4 studio albums in the next 8 years, and they were all good (In Through the Out Door skirts the border between “good” and “mediocre,” but everyone is allowed an off-day). Those other seven albums cement Led Zeppelin as a significant and permanent presence in the history of rock and roll; IV makes them gods.
Next up: the (constant) evolution of David Bowie.