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Led Zeppelin's Led Zeppelin IV (33 1/3 series)

by Erik Davis

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Led Zeppelin IV by Erik Davis (33 1/3)
Erik Davis' book on Led Zeppelin's fourth album is unlikely to be of interest to the casual fan or to the outsider who wishes to understand the album's peculiar magnetism. Davis defines himself as an "occulture critic," mesmerized by esoterica but retaining his skepticism. The introduction, which also sketches out his personal relationship with the music, baldly states the book's thesis:

We have all experienced "the magic of music": its narcotic gift of transport, its manner of weaving together memory and imagination, of sharpening feelings to a keen blade. But in Zeppelin's case we must take this cliche almost literally-and not just because Jimmy Page is almost certainly the best-selling black magician in the history of recorded music. For though Page probably cast some mighty spells in his varied dungeons, I know nothing of them. What I know is that Led Zeppelin, with great cunning and an elemental command of "light and shade," crafted records into mythic enchantments-and nowhere more so then [sic] on their fourth album. (p. 6)
In short, Davis treats Led Zeppelin IV as an occult masterwork, an aural spell conducted in full view of an audience of millions.

The first chapter is a thorough exegesis of the physical artifact and its packaging. Davis describes and deciphers the album art, the four sigils that serve as the album's title, even the messages in the runoff matrix on the original pressing of the record. This thorough analysis invokes Marshall McLuhan, Thomas Edison, Karl Marx, Aleister Crowley, Eliphas Levi, Austin Osman Spare, and a born-again former Led Zeppelin fan named Thomas Friend, who self-published a 632 page book on the band's occult messages and demonic influences.

The second chapter rambles through background material. This includes guitarist Jimmy Page's fascination with Crowley, singer Robert Plant's more benign influences, and how the band thereby straddled the line between good and evil; the inevitable Black Sabbath / Led Zeppelin comparison and contrast; Jimmy Page's occult career; and numerous side-trips through the Zeppelin catalog.
Finally, with chapter three, Davis begins a song-by-song trek through the album. It is literally a trek: he reads the album as a quest for enlightenment or esoteric knowledge. Each track represents a separate stage on the quest. The hero proceeds through romantic and sexual longing ("Black Dog") and an attempt to establish himself in the exoteric world ("Rock and Roll"). He serves as a bard and soldier in a magical war ("The Battle of Evermore"), and eventually acquires his own magical power ("Stairway to Heaven").

Davis backs up his analysis with long but informative discussions of Sandy Denny's presence in "The Battle of Evermore" and Led Zeppelin's ambiguous relationship with the "Britfolk" movement. In discussing "Stairway to Heaven," he relies on Walter Benjamin's theory of mechanical reproduction as applied to art, the alchemical definition of "quintessence," backwards-masking of lyrics, and the occasional differing lyrics that Plant sings in concert. (One interesting omission is that Davis does not discuss the line "Does anybody remember laughter?" that Plant frequently added to the song.)
The second side of the album, by this interpretation, details the hero's return to mundane reality and his subsequent breakdown. Davis discusses the charges of "Orientalism" lobbed at the band, and the similar complaints regarding Zeppelin's appropriation of the blues. In both cases, he is sympathetic to the band's reimagining of their wide-ranging sources.

Davis' last chapter about the songs themselves contains a fascinating assessment of the band's songwriting credit for Memphis Minnie on "When the Levee Breaks." He obliquely suggests a simultaneous exaltation and suppression of the feminine eerily reminiscent of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, perhaps a necessary ending for any occult allegory that begins with sexual longing as the first step on the road to gnosis.

Obsessives already immersed in the arcane lore that has accumulated around the band, and this album in particular, will find much to admire in this book. It will also be of interest to students of the occult who search for its manifestations in popular culture. However, readers who have no interest in exploring Led Zeppelin's occult leanings, or who roll their eyes at overarching interpretations may prefer to skip over Erik Davis' amusing and erudite book.

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