The marketing genius of “Led Zeppelin IV”

August 29th, 2011     by ddeal    

Imagine if Apple unveiled the latest iPhone without a logo or if Lady Gaga had released Born This Way without her name, face, or album title on the cover.

That’s what Led Zeppelin did 40 years ago when the band issued its fourth album with a cover consisting solely of a dreary photo: an old man, hunched over with wood sticks stacked on his back — no title, band name, song listing, record label logo, or even a catalog number.

In doing so, Zeppelin committed a masterstroke of marketing brilliance that still resonates today.

The album many of us simply refer to as Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso) is the subject of an August Classic Rock cover article by Barney Hoskyns, author of Led Zeppelin IV (Rock of the Ages). His article is a worthwhile introduction (although certainly not the only one) to a work that has sold 23 million copies and is ranked among the greatest rock albums of all time by authorities ranging from Rolling Stone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hoskyns not only documents the recording of the album and its landmark songs (“Stairway to Heaven” among them); but he and author Dave Lewis (Led Zeppelin historian and editor of Zeppelin magazine Tight but Loose) also discuss perhaps the most famous album packaging in the history of rock music – a combination of runes and puzzling artwork that inspires conversation even in a digital era that treats albums like relics.

In this post, I expand on the significance of the album design: how it complements the music of Led Zeppelin IV and influences the album’s timeless, mystical appeal. In my view, the success of Led Zeppelin IV is a lesson in creating brand mystique by not over-explaining and instead revealing a few well-chosen clues that provoke discussion.

No Title? No problem

To appreciate the impact of Led Zeppelin IV, I think it’s helpful to understand the album’s historical context. As many rock historians have reported, Led Zeppelin was at a crossroads when it released the album that would help make Zeppelin “one of the biggest bands on the planet” in Hoskyns’s words.

On the one hand, the band had recently been voted Best Group in the annual Readers Poll of Melody Maker, ending the Beatles’s eight-year run at the top of the prestigious poll. And its live shows had gained a massive following.

 Led Zeppelin unseat the Beatles: headline news on British TV

But on the other hand, the band’s loud, sexually charged music and its brash public image earned plenty of scorn among critics such as Lester Bangs, who characterized its most recent album, Led Zeppelin III, as “uninspiring material” and Robert Plant’s vocals as “some cannibal chorus wailing in the infernal light of a savage fertility rite.”

Even worse, Led Zeppelin III, although a Number 1 album, had been considered a commercial disappointment compared to the success of Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II — possibly because people did not know how to react to the mellow, folk-rock songs of Led Zeppelin III  (e.g., “That’s the Way,” “Gallow’s Pole,” and “Tangerine”), in contrast to the hard-rock feel of Zeppelin’s first two albums.

Sensing that the band needed to retreat from the rigors of touring and rebound from the disappointment of Led Zeppelin III, band manager Peter Grant urged Zeppelin to focus on creating the best album possible – triggering a period of quiet retreat from the public eye, which sparked rumors that the band was breaking up.

In the words of Mick Wall, author of When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, “Their next album, whatever else it turned out to be, would be make or break . . . for Peter Grant and Led Zeppelin, there was much more than a mere million bucks at stake in whatever they did next; there was their entire future.”

No one knew what the band’s future would look like – possibly a return to the tested-and-true cock-rock sounds of “Whole Lotta Love” from Led Zeppelin II or perhaps more of the Joni-Mitchell inspired folk sensibilities of “That’s the Way” that appeared on Led Zeppelin III.

On November 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin responded. Fans began finding in record stores an album with the mysterious cover image of an anonymous old man and his bundle of sticks.  The front and back covers together then revealed that the old man was really standing in the frame of a picture affixed to a crumbling wall set against the backdrop of a dowdy modern apartment building – a most interesting return for a band constantly dogged by critics for hyping its name over its music.

The inner packaging raised eyebrows as well. The inside gatefold revealed a pencil drawing of an occult-like hermit standing watch over a rocky incline.

The record sleeve contained some basic information about the song listings, the lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” written in an ancient script commissioned by Jimmy Page, and a small drawing of a man holding a book containing mystical markings.

As Hoskyns writes, the anonymous packaging enraged executives at Atlantic Records, responsible for distributing the album. An album without a name? “That’s crazy,” Hosykns quotes one executive. “It’ll never sell.”

But Led Zeppelin was not trying to commit commercial suicide. Lead guitarist and producer Jimmy Page would later explain to Guitar World the rationale for the design and packaging:

After all we had accomplished, the press was still calling us a hype. So that is why the fourth album was untitled. It was a meaningless protest, really, but we wanted to prove that people were not buying us for the name.

Hoskyns adds, “Releasing an album without ‘Led Zeppelin’ on the cover (or even on the spine) is a giant ‘Fuck You’ to anyone who ever accused them of being a ‘Superhype’ . . . Smarting from the negative press they’d suffered since the band formed in late 1968, Page wants to prove that their music can stand on its own merits.”

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

But the anonymous album cover also made another statement: essentially Jimmy Page was saying that with its fourth album Led Zeppelin had created music so special that conventional labels were inadequate.

And he chose the right album for such a bold statement. For indeed today Led Zeppelin IV feels less like a rock album and more like a timeless, mystical journey into another realm ruled by all things carnal (“Black Dog”), exotic (“Four Sticks”), romantic (“Going to California,” “Battle of Evermore,” “Stairway to Heaven”), joyous (“Misty Mountain Hop,” “Rock and Roll”), and foreboding “(When the Levee Breaks”).

In the assessment of AllMusic.com: “Expanding on the breakthroughs of III, Zeppelin fuse their majestic hard rock with a mystical, rural English folk that gives the record epic scope. Even at its most basic — the muscular, traditionalist “Rock and Roll” — the album has a grand sense of drama, which is deepened by Robert Plant’s burgeoning obsession with mythology and mysticism.”

John Bonham

In 1971, the album design served to draw record buyers into that otherworldly, mystical realm as listeners opened the cover and explored what was inside — and apparently as Jimmy Page intended. As he would explain to The Times in 2010, “The cover was supposed to be something that was for other people to savour rather than for me to actually spell everything out, which would make the whole thing rather disappointing on that level of your own personal adventure into the music.”

Four symbols

The most intriguing aspect of the album packaging consists of four runic symbols (or sigils) that appeared on the inner sleeve:

According to Dave Lewis (and many other historians), the four symbols were the brainchild of Jimmy Page, who designed his own (the elaborate set of letters that resembles “Zoso,” which has become a synonym for the entire album). Lead singer Robert Plant either designed his (a feather inside a circle) or chose it from The Sacred Symbols of Mu by Colonel James Churchward. Drummer John Bonham and Bassist John Paul Jones chose theirs (three interlocking circles for Bonham and three interlocking ovals overlayed with a circle for Jones) from Rudolf Koch’s The Book of Signs.

No explanation was given or association with any band member offered.  The symbols simply appeared on the artwork. Years later, Jimmy Page would explain their creation to Trouser Press:

After all this crap that we’d had with the critics, I put it to everybody else that it’d be a good idea to put out something totally anonymous. At first I wanted just one symbol on it, but then it was decided that since it was our fourth album and there were four of us, we could each choose our own symbol. I designed mine and everyone else had their own reasons for using the symbols that they used.

Atlantic Records seized on the design of the symbols to do some marketing of its own. According to Lewis, in the weeks leading up to the release of the album, Atlantic released advertisements that revealed each symbol next to the image of one of Led Zeppelins’ previous albums.

But the mere appearance of the symbols – devoid of meaning – did more to market the album than anything Atlantic could have accomplished. By not explaining the symbols, Led Zeppelin empowered fans to speculate about their meaning and interpret as they wished. The act of essentially offering up the sigils for discussion created a viral sensation that continues today.

John Paul Jones

“The use of four symbols as the title for IV only added to their overall mystique, and the saga of what they represent (if anything) still rages today on Zep internet forums and message boards,” writes Lewis, who contributes an analysis, “Four Symbolism,” that accompanies Hoskyns’s Classic Rock article.

The symbols were a masterstroke in another way: Led Zeppelin created a totem for people to rally around and claim as their own, much like logos of sports teams do for their fans. The four symbols permeate our culture in many ways, including clothing, personal artwork, and body art:

By comparison, in 1971 the Rolling Stones also unveiled its now-famous “tongue-and-lip” logo. Stones fans have claimed the lascivious Stones image with just as much passion:

But the tongue-and-lip image endures today more as a corporate seal. By contrast, Led Zeppelin created something more evocative, as evidenced by our ongoing attempts at interpretation. Perhaps because the symbols are drawn from sources that predate the band, they transcend Led Zeppelin.

A more apt comparison might be the Nike Swoosh logo (also created in 1971). Inspired by the Greek goddess of victory (named Nike), the logo also transcends the Nike brand. It has become a rallying cry for people who live by the ethos of the Nike “just do it” call to action:

We don’t know what Led Zeppelin is calling us to do by publishing four cryptic symbols – theories range from the sinister (the symbols invoke the occult) to amusing (Page’s symbol is said to symbolize a near-death or Tantric-sex experience). As this August 2011 satirical post from Cracked.com suggests, there might be only two people in the world who understand the true meaning of the four sigils.

Album’s legacy

Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was an immediate best seller, Number 1 on the charts in the United Kingdom for 62 weeks. In the United States, the album’s ranking peaked at Number 2 (denied a Number 1 ranking by Carole King’s Tapestry). Unlike Led Zeppelin III, which had dropped off the charts sooner than the band would have liked, Led Zeppelin IV remained in the U.S. Top 40 for three years, aided by heavy radio play.

(“Stairway to Heaven” is said to be the most requested radio song of all time. In another stroke of marketing genius, the band refused to release the song as a single, instead insisting that people buy the album to own it.)

The album also gained the band critical acceptance in many quarters, which this largely positive review from Rolling Stone shows (by contrast, Rolling Stone had skewered the band’s first album, characterizing Jimmy Page as a “limited producer and writer of weak, unimaginative songs”).

Eventually the album would earn its place as a musical landmark. It ranks Number 66 on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Classic Rock ranks it as the greatest British rock album ever. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ranks it the fourth best album ever.

“This is a song of hope”

But the album cover design – intended to draw attention to the music – has a life of its own, too. As Wall writes, “Ironically, given their determination to escape easy pigeonholing by making an album as seemingly anonymous as possible, a great part of the Zeppelin myth is now rooted in public and private perception of [the cover’s] true ‘meaning.’”

I think Erik Davis best summarizes why the packaging matters. In his book Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, he writes:

Stripping their famous name off their fourth record was an almost petulant attempt to let their Great Work symbolically stand on its own two feet. But the wordless jacket also lent the fourth record charisma. Fans hunted for hidden meanings, or, failing to find them, sensed a strange reflection of their own mute refusal to communicate with the outside world. From the lemons critics hurled their way, Zeppelin had squeezed lemonade: mystique. This conscious communication breakdown helped create one of the supreme paradoxes of rock history: an esoteric megahit, a blockbuster arcanum. Stripped of words and numbers, the album no longer referred to anything but itself; a concrete talisman that drew you into its world, into a frame. All the stopgap titles we throw at the thing are lame: Led Zeppelin IV, [Untitled], Runes, Zoso, Four Symbols. In an almost Lovecraftian sense, the album was nameless, a thing from beyond, charged with manna.

No wonder John Paul Jones later said people stopped comparing Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath after the release of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album: Led Zeppelin had created a work whose music, coupled with its artwork, was, and is, beyond proper comparison and description.

Author’s note: earlier this year, on the iCrossing Content Lab, I also wrote the following post about Led Zeppelin: “Meet the Led Zeppelin Digital Brand”


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  1. 33 Responses to “The marketing genius of “Led Zeppelin IV””

  2. By Steve Furman on Aug 30, 2011 | Reply

    Wow David. This is amazing. You are so right and use the F word as well. My hat is off to you. I am of an age that waited for this album to be released. We didn’t much care about marketing, we cared only about the music. As you know my first concert ever was Led Zeppelin during their first U.S. tour in 1970. I was a kid who had a sister who was 6 years older than me and really into music. She drove me to the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis.

    My film parallel to your no title, no problem analysis is Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola opened this watershed film with no title, no credits, nothing but “the jungle,” being napalmed. I wonder if he was inspired by Plant and Page.

    Steve

  3. By ddeal on Sep 2, 2011 | Reply

    I am awfully jealous of you for seeing Led Zeppelin in 1970 (seems like so many of our introductions to bands like Zeppelin came from an older brother or sister, either ours or someone else’s). You make an intriguing observation about the opening credits of “Apocalypse Now” — indeed the napalming of the jungle, accompanied by the distorted sound of the helicopter blades, established the tone of the movie effectively. On a related note, the movie certainly has one of the most effective rock soundtracks, with its famous incorporation of the Doors’ “The End” (including some Morrison vocals that were buried in the mix of any recorded versions of the song then available). It’s often been said that “Apocalypse Now,” along with the publication of “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” helped re-ignite public interest in the Doors.

  4. By Brian Clark on Sep 9, 2011 | Reply

    Brilliant post. Thank you for writing it, David.

  5. By ddeal on Sep 9, 2011 | Reply

    Thank you, Brian. It was a pleasure meeting you at Content Marketing World (in fact I blogged about you here: http://bit.ly/qxpRVC). Ironically I found a framed and matted copy of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album for sale at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Wednesday evening. A footnote on the Led Zeppelin post: as I researched this post, I had no idea Led Zeppelin unveiled the four sigils the same year the Rolling Stones and Nike unleashed their own now-iconic logos. I picked the rolling-tongue and swoosh logos purely for comparison reasons and then discovered that they, too, were adopted in 1971. An interesting moment of serendipity.

  6. By Reeder on Sep 9, 2011 | Reply

    Facinating story here David. Thanks for sharing it out.

  7. By Jeff Goins on Nov 8, 2011 | Reply

    As a writer, marketer, and huge Led Zeppelin fan, I loved this. What a gutsy, brilliant move by one of my favorite bands. Thanks for pointing it out, David.

  8. By ddeal on Nov 8, 2011 | Reply

    Gutsy and brilliant — well put, Jeff. Led Zeppelin would embody those traits time and again throughout the band’s career in so many different ways, starting with the band’s first album, which was a pretty darned bold move at a time when critics expected bands to act as social commentators. Led Zeppelin laughed at that notion and took rock in a completely different direction, which critics resented at the time.

  9. By Philip Quintas on Feb 23, 2012 | Reply

    This answered some questions that had been floating around in the back of my mind for decades!

  10. By Jim on May 11, 2012 | Reply

    Very nice read, thanks.
    I have always wondered whatever happened to the Man with Sticks picture? Curious as to where that is hanging right now.

  11. By ddeal on May 13, 2012 | Reply

    Glad you liked the post — and you ask a great question. I imagine the picture covered in dust amid a pile of artifacts in a storage locker owned by Jimmy Page somewhere. On a related note, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston recently and came across the painting “Evening (The Fall of Day),” by William Rimmer, which inspired the Swan Song logo.

  12. By Charles on Aug 12, 2012 | Reply

    Jeff,
    Your piece shed more light on an already luminous piece of art. The album was released when I was 14, and I lived it. I had “Zoso” painted on my leather by an artist. I researched alchemy, mysticism, sigilism and astrology for answers. I found nothing definitive. The interest and mystique is still there 41 years later. It was/is genius to snub the critics and ‘plant’ seeds with devotees. One of the lines that haunts me is “there’s still time to change the road you’re on”.
    I am very fortunate to have original artwork from a friend in high school in Grosse Pointe that is priceless. Chalks, inks, doodles and oils, one a likeness of Page/Plant in the centerfold of Circus magazine in 1975. It won best high school painting in Michigan.
    Any insight into Led Zeppelin is welcome. You made my day.
    Charles

  13. By ddeal on Aug 12, 2012 | Reply

    Your comment made my day! The artwork of this most mystical of rock albums arose in conversation just a week ago. A friend of ours was showing my family examples of how Tarot cards have been used in literature. When he showed us an image of the Hermit from a Tarot card, my daughter was impressed to learn that an image of the Hermit formed the inside gatefold of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. As you say: the interest and mystique exist 41 years later. Thank you for commenting.

  14. By Charles on Aug 20, 2012 | Reply

    ddeal,
    Sorry about my misdirected greeting in the last email.
    First, which lyrics website do you find most reliable? Second, do you have any LZ website that you find more accurate, aside of the usual suspects (official, commercial, etc)? Perhaps one where Zepphiles frequent? Have you ever seen the cover band Led Zeppelin 2? Your take?
    Finally, your interpretation of “What Is And What Should Never Be”? There is a built-in dichotomy
    that somehow eludes me. What is it that should never be?
    Look forward to your response as I’m sure it will, once again, “make my day”.
    Charles

  15. By ddeal on Aug 21, 2012 | Reply

    No problem! I’m grateful you took the time to comment. I often find azlyrics.com to be reasonably reliable. And I visit the usual suspects such as Tight but Loose for Led Zeppelin news (including the Tight but Loose Facebook page). Which sites do you prefer?

    I’ve not seen the cover band Led Zeppelin 2 — are they good?

    As for “What Is and What Should Never Be”: I have always felt the song was about Plant trying to find a relationship that is eluding him, which is why the lyrics contain contradictory statements: he wants something that he’s not getting. To me, the key line is, “And happiness is what you need so bad/the answer lies with you.” In other words, he realizes that he can’t have the relationship he wants until the woman he’s with finds her own inner happiness. It seems like Led Zeppelin was constantly exploring opposite forces in its music as well — the “light and shade” that Jimmy Page often spoke about. It’s also interesting to note that the song was one of Plant’s first attempts to write lyrics to a full song. What do you think of it?

  16. By Charles on Aug 24, 2012 | Reply

    Ddeal,

    Lyrics; I have gone to azlyrics first. They’re usually accurate.

    LZ 2; I saw them here in Boulder a year ago and they did a great cover of an adequate cross sampling of studio recordings, not live (Song Remains The Same). They had the sound, looks, mannerisms and, unfortunately, the same hip-hugger jeans. Thumbs up.

    “What Is And….” I think you hit the nail on the head. I was on a second date Sunday and on the way home the song played. Since I had just fallen in serious “like” I listened to the words very carefully. After I returned home and my heart stopped palpitating, I read the lyrics with the music on and came to a similar conclusion as you, finally. It’s funny how you want to interpret certain songs anew when something happens that you think is on point. I then read Rocky Racoon and listened to it. Does that give you a clue? Sorry to those who are reading this and couldn’t care less…I will attach a piece of my life to “What Is And…” Light and shade, huh?

    Charles

  17. By ddeal on Aug 26, 2012 | Reply

    Charles, I believe that sometimes a song strikes you differently after you listen to it with fresh ears because you of what you are experiencing at a particular period in your life. “Time” by Pink Floyd means more to me now than it did when I was 20 because I’m older and more aware of the passage of time. “Rain Song” means more to me as I grow older, too, because it reminds me of my wife. She was not in my life when I was 20. So back then, the song just seemed like a pleasant love song.

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