Fifty Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Release Led Zeppelin II.

On 12th January 1969, the lives of the four members of Led Zeppelin were transformed when their debut album Led Zeppelin reached number ten in the US Billboard 200 and number six in the UK. Led Zeppelin was certified platinum in the US eight times over. In the UK and Australia, Led Zeppelin was certified double platinum. Across the world, Led Zeppelin was a huge commercial success, and was certified diamond in Canada and platinum in Spain. Gold discs came Led Zeppelin’s way in Holland, Switzerland and France. Suddenly, Led Zeppelin was one of the most successful albums of the late-sixties. 

Considering Led Zeppelin had only been formed In October 1968, made their success even more remarkable. Led Zeppelin rose out of the ashes of The Yardbirds. Guitarist Jimmy Page was the last remaining member of The Yarbirds. He also owned the rights to The Yarbirds’ name. However, he was also under contract to play several concerts in Scandinavia. So Jimmy Page began putting together a new band.

For his new band, The New Yarbirds, Jimmy Page brought onboard the rhythm section of bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham. Robert Plant became the vocalist. This was essentially a new band that toured Scandinavia. They honed their sound during that tour. After the tour, the newly named Led Zeppelin entered the studio, and recorded their eponymous debut album. Little did they realise how successful it would be.

Especially after the critics were less than impressed by Led Zeppelin. Their reviews were negative. Some of the highest profile critics rounded on Led Zeppelin. They felt Led Zeppelin offered nothing new. It had all been done before, and done better. Led Zeppelin had the last laugh though, when the album sold over eleven-million copies. There was only one problem, surpassing such a successful album.

For what became Led Zeppelin II,  nine songs were chosen. There was only one cover version on Led Zeppelin II, Bring It On Home, which was made famous by Sonny Boy Williamson II. The other eight tracks were penned by the band. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant cowrote What Is and What Should Never Be, Thank You, Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman) and Ramble On. They cowrote Moby Dick With John Paul Jones. The four members of Led Zeppelin wrote Heartbreaker. Two other songs Led Zeppelin wrote proved controversial, and expensive financially. 

The four members of Led Zeppelin wrote Whole Lotta Love. They were forced to give a credit to Willie Dixon in 1985. He felt there was a similarity to You Need Love, which had been recorded by Muddy Waters in 1962. There was a similar problem with The Lemon Song. 

Written by Led Zeppelin, The Lemon Song was alleged to have borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor. Ironically,  Killing Floor borrows from Robert Johnson’s Travelling Riverside Blues. It in turn borrowed from Arthur McKay’s She Squeezed My Lemon. However, only Howlin Wolf was credited, under his real name Chester Burnett. This controversy was still to come. Before that, Led Zeppelin recorded their sophomore album Led Zeppelin II.

Recording of Led Zeppelin II took place at various studios in the UK and USA. Rather than record the album in one go, sessions took place between January and August 1969. In between, Led Zeppelin toured their eponymous debut. They were, after all, on their way to becoming one of the biggest rock bands of the first half of the seventies. The constant touring helped further hone Led Zeppelin’s sound when they entered the studio.

Jimmy Page played acoustic, electric and theremin on Whole Lotta Love. The rhythm section included bassist and organist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham who also played percussion and timpani. Robert Plant delivered a series of vocal powerhouses and played harmonica on the album that became Led Zeppelin II. It was released in October 1969.

Before Led Zeppelin II was released, Atlantic Records embarked upon a heavy promotional campaign. The advertising slogan Led Zeppelin-The Only Way To Fly and Led Zeppelin II Now Flying worked wonders. Advance orders of 400,000 in the US alone were place. So, it’s no surprise Led Zeppelin II reached number one on the US Billboard 200 charts, knocking Abbey Road off the top spot.  It spent seven weeks at number one and was in the US Billboard 200 for 130 consecutive weeks. By April 1970, three million copies of Led Zeppelin II had been sold. Eventually, Led Zeppelin II was certified platinum twelve times over in the US and four times platinum in the UK and Australia. The albums was certified nine times platinum in Canada. Across Europe, Led Zeppelin II was a huge success. Gold discs came the way of Led Zeppelin. This was helped by Whole Lotta Love.

Led Zeppelin had a strictly no singles policy. That was until Whole Lotta Love. The song was shortened and released as a single. This didn’t please Led Zeppelin. It did reach number four in the US Billboard 100 and was certified gold. Since then, it’s been remembered as stonewall Led Zeppelin classic. That’s the same as Led Zeppelin II. However, in 1970, critics took a different viewof Led Zeppelin II.

Just like Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II was released to mixed reviews. Rolling Stone magazine panned Led Zeppelin II. Many critics failed to realise that Led Zeppelin II was the template for heavy metal. Here was an album that gave birth to a new musical genre. Instead, critics accused Led Zeppelin of ripping off old blues’ singers. It was nothing new. They said the same about Led Zeppelin. Just like the did with Led Zeppelin, history would be rewritten by music critics.

Critics have managed to rewrite history over the next thirty-four years. Suddenly, Led Zeppelin II was a being hailed a classic album. Every critic was suddenly claiming to have realised that all along. Even Rolling Stone magazine, which wasn’t originally a fan of Led Zeppelin, put the album at number twenty seventy-five in their list of 500 greatest albums of all time. Nowadays, Led Zeppelin II is perceived as a stonewall classic by the same critics who panned the album originally.

The unmistakable Whole Lotta Love opens Led Zeppelin II. A loose blues riff opens the track. It comes courtesy of Jimmy Page’s 1958 Les Paul Standard guitar. Before long, the rhythm section join in, creating a chugging, pounding rhythm. Washes of guitar are panned from left to right. Then at 1.24 the track heads in the direction of free jazz and psychedelia. A theremin and drums combine with Robert’s orgiastic vocal. That’s until bursts of blistering guitar solos mix blues and heavy rock. They and the rhythm section drive the arrangement along. Meanwhile Robert Plant vamps, pants and hollers as he unleashes a vocal powerhouse during five-and-half minutes of musical perfection.

Very different is the introduction  to What Is and What Should Never Be. It has a much more understated sound. Robert’s vocal is tender and seductive. He sings unaccompanied. When the arrangement sweeps in it’s subtle. Then it explodes into life. Robert’s vocal is a mixture of power and passion, as scorching guitars and driving, stomping rhythm section lock horns. Later, guitars are panned. They assail and surround you. By then, Robert unleashes another powerful vamp, as his vocal becomes a needy plea full of longing. The result is a rock ’n’ roll love song Led Zeppelin style.

The Lemon Song was one of two tracks that caused a lot of problems for Led Zeppelin. They were accused of borrowing from Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor. It proved a costly mistake. However, it resulted in a stunning marriage of blues and rock which was recorded in a room measuring sixteen foot square. This proves perfect for what  Led Zeppelin were trying to achieve. From the get-go, the music is moody, broody, dark and dramatic. Blistering guitars and a thunderous, pounding rhythm section provide the backdrop for Robert’s blues’ tinged vocal. He mixes emotion and poses as he delivers the innuendo laden lyrics. Meanwhile, John Paul Jones lays down some of the best and most intricate bass lines on Led Zeppelin II. It’s just another reason why it’s one of Led Zeppelin finest fusions of blues and rock.

Thank You is another track from the pen of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Even though this was only their second album, they were forming a successful songwriting partnership. Here, they fuse folk, rock and psychedelia. It’s a slower love song, which Robert wrote for his then wife Maureen. A Hammond organ, meandering acoustic guitar and the rhythm section combine. Mostly, Led Zeppelin resist the urge to kick loose. Sometimes, drums pound, guitars scream and Robert’s vocal soars. However, before long the track returns to its much more understated, beautiful sound.

Blistering machine gun guitar licks are unleashed as Heartbreaker unfolds. Before long, the rhythm section enter. Then Robert’s swaggers in. Like a musical outlaw, he struts his way through the track. Sometimes, he’s marching to the beat of John’s drum. As he delivers a swaggering vocal, the rest of Led Zeppelin become a power trio. Then later, Jimmy Page steals the show. He delivers a guitar masterclass. Remarkably, it’s totally improvised. It takes centre-stage before the rest of the band join in, and provide an explosive, dramatic, driving, performance which epitomises everything  that’s good about Led Zeppelin.

Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman) is a song about a groupie who  annoyed the band. Strangely, it’s smeant to be Jimmy’s least favourite Led Zeppelin song. He dawns a twelve-string guitar for the track. Enveloped by searing guitar riffs, pounding drums and crashing cymbals Robert vents his spleen about the Living Loving Maid. Frustration and anger fills his voice. Then Jimmy unleashes his twelve-string guitar. It quivers and shimmers, during this slice of good time rock ’n’ roll.

Just a lone guitar, drum and then  bass open Ramble On. Robert’s vocal is tender and wistful. “It’s time for me to go” he announces as his vocal grows in power. Soon, he’s delivering one of his trademark vocals. It’s a mixture of melancholia, memories and power. Meanwhile, the rest of Led Zeppelin veer between power and drama to understated and wistful. All the time, Robert’s laying bare his soul before he sings I guess I’ll “Ramble On.”

Moby Dick is an instrumental and sees Led Zeppelin’s rhythm section lock into a blues rock riff.  This allows Jimmy’s guitar to play the starring role. After that, it’s John’s drums that take centre-stage. He than plays the starring role, demonstrating why he was without doubt, one of the greatest rock drummers of the late-sixties seventies. When it’s time Jimmy’s guitar and John Paul Jones’ bass return as the track reaches its dramatic ending.

The bluesy Bring It On Home closes Led Zeppelin II. A bluesy harmonica joins the rhythm section before Robert’s vampish, theatrical vocal enters. Then midway through the song, Led Zeppelin kick loose. Sometimes, they briefly draw inspiration from Whole Lotta Love. After that, blistering, searing and scorching guitars and the rhythm section provide the backdrop for Robert’s vocal powerhouse. Then with just over twenty seconds remaining, there’s a return to the song’s bluesy roots. This seems fitting, as Bring It On Home showcases the blues rock roots of Led Zeppelin.

Although Led Zeppelin had only been together two years, they’d grown and matured as a band since their 1969 debut. They’d improved as musicians and songwriters. So much so, that it’s hard to believe that Led Zeppelin II was only their sophomore album. What’s even more incredible, is that Led Zeppelin had managed to surpass the commercial success of their eponymous debut album.

Having sold eleven million copies of Led Zeppelin worldwide, Led Zeppelin II surpassed this. It sold over twelve-million copies in America.  In total, Led Zeppelin II shipped nearly fourteen million copies worldwide. Led Zeppelin were now one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Incredibly, neither of Led Zeppelin’s first two albums had been well received by critics.

Many music journalists, including those at Rolling Stone magazine failed to realise that Led Zeppelin II would become a classic album. According to them, Led Zeppelin II was nothing new. It was a fusion of old blues’ licks and rock. This wasn’t the first time cynical critics got it wrong. It certainly wouldn’t be the last time. So, they developed a dose of collective amnesia.

Time and time again, collective amnesia struck music critics. Many of the critics that panned Led Zeppelin II, wrote fawning articles praising the album. What they wrote was what fourteen million music fans already knew. Since 1970, music critics have been frantically backtracking. Now, when they mention Led Zeppelin II, they make sure to call it a classic album. Belatedly, they were right.

Led Zeppelin II is a glorious fusion of blues, folk, psychedelia and rock. Just like many classic albums, Led Zeppelin II is almost flawless. It would provide the template for heavy metal. That’s apparent on Led Zeppelin II. The power trio of guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham prove the perfect foil for Robert Plant’s vocal powerhouses. In full flight, Led Zeppelin are peerless. They’ve no equal. They may have spawned a thousand imitators, but not one came close to Led Zeppelin in their pomp.

Back in 1970, when Led Zeppelin II was released, Led Zeppelin are the original hard rocking, hard living band. Led Zeppelin were living the dream. Just two years earlier, they were living in obscurity. Not any more. Now, Led Zeppelin had joined rock ’n’ roll royalty. Life they realised, was for the living. So, they lived life to its fullest. Soon, they became known as one of the hardest living bands in the history of rock. Wine, women, song and narcotics were constant companions. Life was one long party. They owed it to their fans to live the dream. Throughout that party, Led Zeppelin recorded some of the greatest rock music of the late-sixties seventies and all time. This includes Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II which will soon  celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, and belongs in any self-respecting record collection.

Fifty Years Ago: Led Zeppelin Release Led Zeppelin II.


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