“I’ve never mastered the guitar. Either I was playing it, or it was playing me..” -Jimmy Page
Of late, the celebrations of The Beatles classic Abbey Road as it hit the half-century mark has become exhaustive. Although deserving, is it not the only album to achieve the fifty-year mark which has left a lasting impression on music. On October 22nd,1969, Led Zeppelin released their second album with the simple title Led Zeppelin II. The album became the band’s first to reach the top of the US charts, in a symbolic act, it knocked Abbey Road off the top spot. The baton was now handed from one supergroup to another, and it heralded the new sound of seventies rock. A four-piece of Robert Plant, John Bonham, John Paul Jones and the maestro Jimmy Page who pieced the group together from the ashes of The Yardbirds.
In essence Led Zeppelin were a band based on chemistry, three expert musicians, and a phenomenal singer. This chemistry was aided by late Peter Grant, with his marketing strategy of basically no marketing and no commercial promotion made the band into a cult very quickly. This anti-commercialism meant practically no television appearances with the exception of three in early 1969, after which they would not repeat the process. Continuing with no videos, no single releases in the UK which meant to see the band you had to buy the concert ticket, to hear the band you had to buy the album. Further into their career the albums would not have a track listing on the record covers or even the band name (the fourth album). All this would lead normally to obscurity, in Zeppelin’s case it made them into gods, and scored a run of eight number one albums in the UK (including the live album) beginning with Led Zeppelin II.
Legend tells us thirteen studios were used by the outfit as they were putting together the album, working variously in London, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York City, and Vancouver. An album created on tour, born from the improvised riffs created on stage by Page, usually during the “Dazed And Confused” long middle-section jam.
These were songs steeped in the blues and reinvented within the colossal drench of guitar fuzz. From the outset, “Whole Lotta Love”, a stuttering eruption of a simplistic but highly influential piece of music. The foundations of heavy metal sprung to life in that very moment, and the vibrations of that album has injected itself into the bloodstream of every band which plays loud, hard, and with a dangerous edge.
Deeper into the album and the riffs open up more. “What Is And What Should Never Be” is the sound of a trigger being pulled back and a shot of excellence fired. The primal Page-Plant composition, using stereo, phased vocals, and a snarling guitar crank to close. “The Lemon Song”, a hypnotic riff and hell for leather solo, consisting of references from Robert *Robert Johnson (Travelling Riverside Blues), Albert King (Cross-cut Saw) and of course Howlin’ Wolf (Killing Floor), the latter lead to the out of court settlement for copyright infringement. The reflective “Thank You” closes out the first side, signaling the first full lyrical venture by Robert Plant, and another dimension to the Led Zeppelin sound away from that Gibson layered lick.
As side two cracks open with the slick cool of “Heartbreaker”, the song that launched a thousand-tapping guitar players. The solo a structured, lone attack on the strings by Page, recorded in a separate studio to the rest of the song to give it a life all of its own. If there is a limp branch on the solid tree its “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)”. A curious work wedged between “Heartbreaker” and “Ramble On” it does provide an interlude between the bombastic and the acoustic, holding a charm of sorts if a confusing one. The relevance of “Moby Dick”, a drum pounding showcase by John Bonham was, to show the talented weapon the band possessed which other bands craved. Closing out the set with the misdirection and brilliance of “Bring It On Home”. A slow spat Blues with bleeding harmonica and Plant’s twisted vocals before that riff explodes and the whole band detonate for one final track.
But what is it about Led Zeppelin II which has created such a legacy?
After all, three of the albums nine tracks were covers (Whole Lotta Love, The Lemon Song, Bring It On Home). And loud guitar music had already come into the world courtesy of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and not to mention the proto-punk of MC5 and The Stooges. In reality, what Zeppelin possessed that no other band had was power, an unrelenting fearlessness, and all the time wrapped in a shroud of mystery. The music they performed pulled audiences in, the chemistry of all four was the musical equivalent of capturing lightning in a bottle.
Truthfully, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.