Album Review: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II (1969)

Led Zeppelin II has been called, and held responsible for, many things. From the birth of heavy metal and the first example of a shredding guitar solo to the end of The Beatles reign as Kings of the music world. Far more consistent in quality than most peoples preferred choice of IV Led Zep II is the album that perfectly blends all of their styles. There is plenty of blues, and more original blues too, than on the first album. There is the sheer power of hard rock and yet there is still plenty of hippy folkiness and sixties ideology on offer too.

This consistency and freshness throughout the album is even more of an achievement given the unorthodox way it was concieved and recorded. Basically the songs were written in hotel rooms or on stage through improvisational sections on the longer tracks in the live set. Playing around with riffs during Dazed and Confused being one of the most popular. Studio time was then grabbed as, when and where the touring schedule allowed. Indeed according to Robert Plant one track was actually recorded in three different countries. Some of the studios were not exactly state of the art either and one which was referred to as ‘The Hut’ was basically just that and didn’t even have the facility for headphone use.

Stairway To Heaven aside opening track ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is probably Zeppelin’s most instantly recognisable song and immediately displays a tightness and power far superior to that on the debut album. The album, and that opening track in particular is the birth of Robert Plant the posturing rock God as much as Jimmy Page the riff master. It is impossible to leave the song without mentioning the middle section which is basically a blueprint to all the rock excesses of the seventies. Wild, chaotic yet strangely appropriate. Following track ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’ however is all about light and shade. The gentleness of the beginning working all the better for following the ending of the opener. It remains one of my favourite Zeppelin tracks. ‘The Lemon Song’ packed fuller of sexual innuendo than a Carry On film with Frankie Howerd in it wouldn’t have been out of place on the first album and once again features huge chunks of borrowed parts from the likes of Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf and Albert King. There is nothing wrong in that in my eyes except that they probably should have credited them properly rather than waiting to be sued. Something witch happened to Zeppelin quite a lot and for me slightly tarnishes their reputation. Although in truth most blues compositions are probably borrowed in some form or another from the blues pioneers. ‘Thank You’ ended side one on the vinyl version and has a delightful sixties hippy feel and a superb intro. It also features a false ending that lead to some confusion over the length of the track on some issues which falsely recorded it at 3:50 and not the correct 4:49. It also features some classy Hammond organ playing from John Paul Jones and Page playing a twelve string. I would have to suggest that side one of Led Zeppelin II is close to the best ‘side’ of a vinyl album ever released.

Having said that though, side two kicks off with another one of my personal favourites the crunching ‘Heartbreaker’. Described by many as the first example of a shredding guitar solo and the blueprint for many a rock guitar solo it is also a great singers song and highlights Plants power. It is a song I always used to enjoy playing live on occasions. There is a part just before the guitar solo where the track appears to stop, this is probably because the guitar solo was recorded at a different studio some time after the track was finished and was slotted in later. Listen carefully and the entire sound of the guitar is different to that on the rest of the song. ‘Living Loving Maid’ starts straight from the final note of ‘Heartbreeaker’ although the two were never played live together. It has been suggested that Jimmy Page didn’t particularly like the song because his girlfriend was not happy with subject matter. It is supposedly about a groupie who had been hanging around the band and on fthe first issues was entitled ‘Living Loving Wreck’. It is again one I have always enjoyed as its quirky sixties pop feel works perfectly after the power of ‘Heartbreaker’. ‘Ramble On’ has another jangly acoustic sixties folky opening and is the first instance of Plant using Tolkien themes in his lyrics. Something which would feaure heavily on the fourth album. ‘Moby Dick’ is obviously the low point for many as it is basically little more than a vehicle for John Bonham to play a drum solo. Drum solos were usually the low point of many a seventies live show for most, even when the drummers were as good as Bonham, but they weren’t usually included on studio albums. Quite why Zeppelin found it neccesary to do this I’m not sure but it is clearly the low point on an otherwise almost perfect album. The album closes with ‘Bring It On Home’ which is either an old Chicago blues song written by Willie Dixon or a Page/Plant original depending on your point of view and was the subject of yet another lawsuit that Zeppelin lost. That aside its a pleasant little song with some nice harmonica although like ‘Moby Dick’ it is not of the standard of the other tracks on offer.

Released in October 1969 Led Zeppelin II topped the album chart on both sides of the Atlantic. In both instances replacing The Beatles Abbey Road album. It recieved numerous awards and accolades including one for the cover which was designed by David Juniper. Initially it was a photograph of the Jasta 11 division of the German Air Force which was lead by the Red Baron. However, Juniper superimposed the face of the band members, manager Peter Grant and tour manager Richard Cole onto the bodies. He also put in the face of actress Glynis Johns as a play on the name of engineer Glyn Johns !
Possibly their heaviest, possibly their most influential, Led Zeppelin II is certainly, to me at least, their best.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM January 2011

About Martin Leedham

Music critic, Horse Racing Tipster, Hapless Dreamer, Defender of the Underdog
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