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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.