Winter has tightened its grip on Chicago. On a Friday afternoon in early December, the temperatures feel like they are dropping by the minute. The sun escapes the chill of the day early, leaving behind long shadows and an occasional gust of cold wind. This is the time for staying inside and listening to cold-weather rock and roll. Cold-weather music feels heavy like a wool blanket. Cold-weather rock songs can sound as dark and foreboding as a January night or as quiet as a snowfall, but in either case, they make you want to retreat from the outside world. “Gimme Shelter” is cold-weather rock. “Miss You” is not. Led Zeppelin’s fourth (untitled) album is cold-weather music, but Houses of the Holy by and large belongs to summer. Here are some of my favorite cold-weather albums — the music of my world now:
All Things Must Pass. In my mind’s eye, George Harrison writes somber, majestic songs like “Beware of Darkness” on a cold November afternoon while cloistered in the shadows of his Friar Park estate. Never mind Continue reading →
Al Green oozes playful sensuality on the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits. The album was a popular summation of his career when it was released in April 1975, showcasing his sweet, aching voice on songs such as “Let’s Stay Together.” Most greatest hits packages are nothing more than blatant attempts to cash in on previously released material. But the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits turned a song collection into an artistic statement. For that reason, I have chosen Al Green’s Greatest Hits as the latest entry to highlight in my ongoing series about memorable album covers.
I remember buying Al Green’sGreatest Hits in 1975, when I was 12 years old. I had already owned several Al Green singles. I was drawn to that high-pitched, tender voice, so vulnerable on songs like “Call Me,” and emotional on “Tired of Being Alone.” I was fascinated by how he alternately cooed, shouted, and caressed the ear of the listener.
Producer Willie Mitchell complemented Green with lush arrangements, featuring the Memphis horns. Al Green and Willie Mitchell introduce me to love and romance long before I ever screwed up the courage to ask a girl out on a date.
Al Green was my artist. None of my friends where I lived in Battle Creek, Michigan, had ever heard of him. And I’m not sure their parents would have been happy if they had. Not only was his voice and manner sensual, his voice could sound downright effeminate to the uninitiated.
My older sister Cathy was of dating age, and the guys she occasionally brought home viewed my Al Green 45-records with scorn. One of her dates actually smashed all of my Al Green singles during an unauthorized house party while my parents were away.
Al Green’s Greatest Hits was a godsend. With one purchase, I could reclaim almost all the Al Green singles that some random cretin had destroyed. And on top of that, Al Green seemed to burst into my living room through that album cover. Here he was, smiling, full of movement, and (although I did not know the right word to use at the time), sensual. And in his tight, white leather pants and bare chest, he exuded a confidence that I hoped would rub off on me. The back cover featured not one but four Al Greens, this time fully clad in a white leather jacket, invited me to share some sort of emotional rapture.
Technically, Al Green’s Greatest Hits was nothing new. I knew his songs and face already. But that cover was like a revelation: now I had the right image to go along the name.
Four years later, a gifted musician named Prince Rogers Nelson would update Green’s androgynous appeal by appearing bare chested himself on the cover of Prince (then donning stockings and underwear shortly thereafter on Dirty Mind).
But whereas Prince was overtly sexual, Al Green was sensual. Nearly 40 years later, the cover of Al Green’s Greatest Hits still captures the essence of my Al Green.
PS: 36 years after I bought Al Green’s Greatest Hits, I paid a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Without question the highlight of my visit was coming across an exhibit containing the actual leather trousers Green wore on the cover of Greatest Hits. I had had no idea the trousers were on display. I felt like I had just discovered Superman’s cape. Also, for more album covers in my series, see:
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.