Each album was career defining for the bands. Is one better than the other? No. It is just personal choice.
These two albums are among the biggest sellers of the 1970s and are near the top of the greatest albums of all-time. I’m just telling you this in case you were in a coma back then, or are still coasting on a head trip.
Led Zeppelin IV was released in 1971, it was their fourth album, their debut came in 1969. That is a lot of writing and recording, and non-stop touring in three years. As good as their previous albums were, IV was destined for immortality.
Dark Side of the Moon (1973) was actually Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album. The band was continuing to craft their sound with each album and becoming more comfortable, and ambitious, working in the studio. The album closest to what would be the sound of Dark Side, was Meddle (1971).
Led Zeppelin IV
The sound of Led Zeppelin IV is all the more remarkable given the far different recipe of Led Zeppelin III, which was generally very sedate, mostly acoustic-folk. “Stairway to Heaven” is the uber classic song on Led Zeppelin IV , every male teen’s wet dream to learn to play this song on the guitar. Easily one of the top five songs of the era, blending the smooth acoustic-folk first section with the harder electric rock second half of the song. Jimmy Page harnessed up the twin neck guitar to play this song in concert so he had the ringing sound of the 12-string for the intro, before taking over the muscular 6-string for the main part of the song and the blistering solo.
Led Zeppelin IV captured the vibe of the early 1970s, the fantasy and mystical worlds of literature and hedonist reality of young people’s search for themselves through the heavy metal-blues-folk of rock and roll. This album represents Page’s evolution as a producer, building his songs in the studio with multi-tracked guitars and vocals, and finding grittier ways to record John Bonham’s drums to accentuate the bottom part of the sound.
While “Stairway to Heaven” was the big song from the album, nearly every song was gold. Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones in particular gained traction as songwriters, expanding their musical structure beyond the riffs to more sophisticated melodies and shifts in style. Jones was an experienced musical arranger in his days before Led Zeppelin, working with many English pop stars on arranging strings and sweeteners on their pop hits. His work included the Rolling Stones, Donovan, Tom Jones, Lulu, Herman’s Hermits, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck and Cat Stevens. Besides playing bass, Jones was an accomplished piano player. His work would be especially sparkling on Physical Graffiti and In Through the Out Door. Led Zeppelin IV would be the band’s most complete album.
This album with its cryptic album cover and no real album title, just the mystical symbols, added to the allure and intrigue of whatever Page intended. While Plant was now writing the song’s words, the album’s theme and other-worldly messaging was entirely Page. Black magic? Channeling dark spirits? Sex, drugs and rock and roll.
“Black Dog” Plants vocals alternate with the Page guitar riff open the song. You get a sense quickly, this album has a lot offer. Page throws down these riffs like a dealer dealing the cards, one after another. This song is pretty straight-forward: bass, drums, Plant’s vocals, and a couple of guitar tracks from Page. Not complicated, just powerful blues-rock.
“Rock and Roll” Hard rocking, but instantly recognizable song, powered by the piano of Ian Stewart, accomplice of the Rolling Stones. It has an old fashioned rock and rock feeling, but very contemporary arrangement. Recently, used to sell Cadillac automobiles.
“The Battle of Evermore” An acoustic guitar-mandolin driven song, with Robert Plant and Sandy Denny on vocals. Imagery of Middle Earth and the like abound in this song. If you were a kid, you read Tolkien.
“Stairway to Heaven” The classic song. What more do you need to say.
“Misty Mountain Hop” The bouncy keyboard riff that the guitar joins onto, then Plant harmonizing with himself as the song drives forward. The groove is rather contagious.
“Four Sticks” The pounding drums of Bonham, with the Page guitar riff are hypnotizing. Other guitars join in at the bridge to give this an evocative sound.
“Going to California” A folky-type acoustic song, a break in the heavy action. Several acoustic guitars pick through blended melodies on this gorgeous track. A fine vocal performance by Plant.
“When the Levee Breaks” A blues song adapted by Memphis Minnie, recognizable for the heavy, echoing drum sound and Plant’s harp. One of the most distinctive songs on the album, and very underrated. Zeppelin did not just poured the blues on you, they drowned you in it. The drum sound can bounce around endlessly in your head.
Dark Side of the Moon
Dark Side of the Moon, the Mount Everest of progressive rock and roll. Hardly a traditional rock and roll album. A studio creation, like Sgt. Pepper.
The album contained the conceptual themes of a society driven by money and success at the cost of the human existence. The human being can go mad, like Syd Barrett did, or find a way of filtering out the unhealthy parts of life. Light can be reflected back in vibrant colors of meaning, or simply providing darkness to the world.
The juxtaposition of the mechanical rhythm of the machine of production to the gentle human heartbeat. Incorporating sound effects, voice tapes and synthesizers and sequencers manipulated by heavy processing, this is a handcrafted work from the minds of the band, with help from engineers like Alan Parsons, who helped translate ideas to tape.
Dark Side of the Moon would stand as the band’s most interwoven and cohesive work of shared ideas and teamwork. The last great band album.
Thematically, Waters set the direction. He was the principle lyricist on the album. His bass work is good, but a large chunk of it was written by Gilmour. The biggest musical contributor was Gilmour, whose creativity always seemed to take a backseat to Waters. Gilmour’s voice on this record is every bit as wonderful as his guitar. Guitar sorcery is a term I saw written about his work in this album. It’s true. Nick Mason was very involved in the tape effects and adding the textures to the overall feel of the album. The heart of this album was Richard Wright. Besides his soulful writing, his keyboard parts were fundamental to the vibe. His playing was the mortar between the bricks.
The simple, but hugely symbolic cover, would stand the test of time as one of the most iconic album designs. Back when album art was truly art, people framed this cover and hung it in their homes. Iconic.
“Speak to Me” Opens the album, a heartbeat and a machine, with laughing in the background. This track makes a statement, you are in for a mind treat.
“Breathe (In the Air)” The airy song, rolling gently along with David Gilmour’s several different guitar tracks, each in a different channel, vocals only arriving about halfway through the song. The sound promises much more, and while the lyrics on the album are cerebral and challenging, on “Breathe” they are less opaque.
“On the Run” Kicks the album into a faster gear, the repeating synthesizer and percussion track, the sound of feet running, more synthesizer machine sounds, talking and maniacal laughing comes in and out before an explosion.
“Time” All kinds of clocks ticking and ringing before the beating and bass notes, percussion, then the song kicks into a heavy rock vibe with blistering Gilmour guitar, then the shimmering chorus with backing singers. This song is like the meeting of two pressure systems, beauty and the beast.
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.
“The Great Gig in the Sky” A very un-Pink Floyd song. A beautiful piano melody by Richard Wright, and guest vocals, no words, just an amazing improvised performance by Clare Torry, who eventually was awarded co-songwriting credit.
“Money” Written by Roger Waters, this single reached number 13 in America. The distinctive bass line riff opens the song, with the sound of cash registers. Richard Wright contributes the electric piano riff, Gilmour the guitar sorcery and Dick Parry the sax solo. At the halfway point, the song kicks into a different time signature and soars, before it settles back into the previous beat, then once more into the faster, jet stream signature.
“Us and Them” The ethereal song, courtesy of Wright’s organ, then Gilmour’s solemn guitar, and Parry returns to provide the lonely sax work. Wright and Waters wrote the song, but Gilmour sings a delicious lead vocal. Gilmour’s silky voice was perfect for Pink Floyd’s ethereal sound. The song blends the gentle, beautiful soaring melodies with the power and thunder of the choruses.
“Any Colour You Like” A heady instrumental written by Wright, Gilmour and Mason. Mainly Wright’s various synthesizers, then Gilmour’s heavily processed guitar solo. The band is really tight on this track, one of their better instrumental tracks.
“Brain Damage” Written by Waters, supposedly inspired by former band leader Syd Barrett.
“Eclipse” A bookend to the first song. The song has a grand start and fades to a quiet heartbeat.
Of the differences between the albums, Dark Side of the Moon should be consumed in one sitting. You can listen to several of the individual tracks, which stand on their own, but they blend into one cerebral musical stew. When it is done, you wonder what just happened. Led Zeppelin IV songs, on the other hand, are self-contained meal courses, to be consumed and savored individually or together. The album from front to back is a delicious variety of styles. By the fade out, it has rocked your world.
Both albums pose questions about life, what you seek, and what you’ll find; although each present very different journeys.
Well, which one? I’m just kidding, you do not have to pick. Both are classics and worthy in your collection. Each satisfy different moods. Which brings me to the Moody Blues…