Classic Rock Review

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Led Zeppelin II (1969)


By now Zep were something of a sensation, if not with clueless critics than at least with fans, especially in the U.S. where their phenomenal live shows (famously blowing the likes of Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge off the stage) and outrageous offstage antics were becoming the stuff of legend. This second album was written and recorded in between touring commitments, and it’s the album on which Robert Plant started to assert himself as a songwriter; from here on out the Page-Plant partnership would write the bulk of the band’s songs.

Above all else, Led Zeppelin II is one of the greatest riff albums ever, as Zep was still primarily Page’s vision and he was the dominant instrumentalist, though again each member shines and their impeccable chemistry is omnipresent. The band’s first #1 album, Led Zeppelin II fittingly toppled Abbey Road from its lofty perch, thereby signally a changing of the guard within the rock hierarchy.

Unfortunately, for all the album’s plentiful virtues, it is not without its fair share of flaws, perhaps chief among them being the band’s laziness when it came to writing their own stuff (especially their own lyrics). Let’s face it, the ill-informed nitwits who think that “all Zep did was rip off the blues” are mostly referring to their first two albums, and this is the album that got them in the most trouble, with Willie Dixon successfully suing the band for writing credits for not one but two songs (“Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home”).

These were unfortunate lapses in judgment by the band that brought them much grief, all the more regrettable because again the main strength of this album lies in the mighty playing of a powerhouse band, plus some terrific original compositions, some of which (“What Is And What Should Never Be,” “Thank You,” “Ramble On”) had little to do with the blues. A menacing riff for the ages begins “Whole Lotta Love,” easily one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest songs (despite its borrowed lyrics) and a heavy metal prototype.

Among the song’s most notable attributes are its inspired mid-section, which features some difficult to describe, ahead of its time studio experimentation (much credit there goes to engineer Eddie Kramer, who not coincidentally also worked with Jimi Hendrix, one of the few other artists to create such otherworldly sounds in the service of accessible songs), a devastating Page/Bonham guitar/drum volley, Plant’s sexually charged vocals highlighted by his “way down inside, woman, you need LOOOVVVEEE!!!” scream, and a fantastic fadeout ending, which was quickly becoming a band trademark.

An edited single actually cracked the U.S. top 5, though curiously enough the band never released a single in their U.K. homeland, preferring to be looked upon as an album act instead (such a strategy being one of many innovations by manager Peter Grant, who was integral to the band’s enormous success).

Anyway, next up is the excellent “What Is And What Should Never Be,” which features dreamy, jazzy verses and catchy, hard-hitting choruses, not to mention superbly understated playing by the whole band. “The Lemon Song” is a long blues that borrows from both Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues,” though on the latter (which the band would cover brilliantly; more about that later) only its controversial, blatantly sexual lyrics. “Stealing” or not, the song is only partially successful, anyway, highlighted by some great playing from Page and Jones but somewhat undone by Plant’s cartoonish, none too subtle ad-libbing.

“Thank You” closes out what used to be side one with a gorgeous ballad with wedding song worthy lyrics (an area that was becoming Plant’s domain) that must have shocked some of the band’s critics, as Plant gives one of his finest vocal performances and Jones again plays beautifully on his Hammond organ. Then again, critics who continued to suggest that Zep lacked depth and subtlety surely missed this number; for one thing, the fact that Bonham could shine so brightly even on a slow ballad was a true testament to his greatness. Side 2 begins with the classic “Heartbreaker,” a bluesy riff rocker famous for Page’s unaccompanied guitar solo; then the rest of the band joins in and Page adds another great guitar solo for good measure, while Plant chips in with a notable “evil woman” lyric.

Like “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions” and “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band/With A Little Help From My Friends,” among others, on the radio (like on this album) “Heartbreaker” is always followed by the short, catchy, but overly repetitive “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid,” while “Ramble On” again shows the band’s ability to be both beautifully understated (the verses) and incredibly powerful (the choruses). This classic is also notable for being their first of several songs with Tolkien inspired lyrics, for Bonham’s unique bongo-like drum sound (supposedly achieved by hitting a plastic garbage can), for Plant’s vintage vocal performance, and for featuring another creative fadeout ending, as Plant powerfully fades in and out of the left and right speakers.

Closing things out are “Moby Dick,” an impressive (if not all that it could’ve been) showcase for Bonham’s drumming whose best feature is actually Page’s great riffs, and “Bring It On Home,” which overcomes its slow Sonny Boy Williamson-inspired start to become another memorably amped up take on the blues. Many critics call this the first “heavy metal album,” but that (as usual) undersells Zeppelin’s eclecticism, and II really isn’t any heavier than I. However, it is another classic, though II is a little less consistent than I overall.

March 24, 2013 - Posted by | Led Zeppelin II |

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