Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Number 4: Four Sticks

Led Zeppelin: Four Sticks

I never knew why “Four Sticks” had that title, and until I decided to write this, I never cared enough to try to find out. I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m not a stickler for good lyrics, which is not to say that I don’t appreciate them, but that I’m generally more concerned with the feel of a whole song. So what “Four Sticks” meant, or what the lyrics to the song are (which don’t mention any number of sticks at all) wasn’t all that important. But when I decided to write about this song, it seemed like a good idea to find out, if possible, why the title was chosen.

And it turns out to be pretty simple—drummer John Bohnam used four sticks when he played the song, believing that he needed the extra wood to get the volume he wanted. No mystical or mythical back story, just the pure need for power.

“Four Sticks” appears on one of the legendary rock albums of all time, the theme-appropriate fourth Led Zeppelin album, which is technically untitled, but usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV (or the fourth album, or Runes, or Four Symbols). Each member of the band adopted a symbol (Sandy Denny, who sang on one song, got her own symbol), in an attempt to deflect attention from the band and the members personally and put the focus on the music, as a reaction to criticism that their popularity was all based on hype. As it turned out, pretty much every song on the album entered and has remained part of the classic-rock canon, most notably “Stairway to Heaven,” in my teenage years considered to be the greatest rock song of all time (before the predictable backlash, including from Robert Plant). The album sold many millions of copies, and is regularly cited as one of the best rock albums ever.

“Four Sticks,” though, is generally considered to be the worst song on the album. The band seemed to agree with this assessment—they apparently played it only once live, although it has been occasionally trotted out by Page and Plant, and re-recorded with Indian and Middle Eastern arrangements. It is also the only song from IV not on the band’s 1990 box set. It is a complicated song, in odd time signatures, with uninteresting lyrics. The original’s power, though, is undeniable, thanks in no small part to the four sticks used by Bonham.

Remarkably, more than a quarter century after their official breakup following Bonham’s death, Led Zeppelin has been in the news, with the jury verdict absolving them of plagiarizing from the song “Taurus,” by Spirit in creating “Stairway to Heaven.” That Led Zep was accused of plagiarism is not surprising—they have been accused of it numerous times, and have altered songwriting credits to reflect this. But this time, I just don’t hear it.

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