“Led Zeppelin II” by Led Zeppelin (1969)
I. The Danish Connection
Gladsaxe Kommune is a small municipality on the island of Zealand, toward the easternmost part of Denmark. In 1955, it became home to a 206.5-meters-tall guyed television mast, the first TV transmission site in Denmark.
That might have served as the sole claim to fame for Gladsaxe, which today is modestly inhabited at about 62,000 people.
In the summer of 1968, whoever booked the performers for the Teen-Clubs at Gladsaxe’s Egegård Skole (school) must have figured he scored some kind of coup by scheduling the Yardbirds. The British band had scored a string of hit singles, although the last one was way back in 1966.
A couple of dozen youngsters gathered to hear the Yardbirds, unaware that what they witnessed was essentially a different group. Guitarist Jimmy Page, who had replaced Jeff Beck – himself, a replacement for Eric “Slowhand” Clapton – was the only remaining member from the band that last played as the Yardbirds on July 5 in Los Angeles. With Page were bass player John Paul Jones, who was fairly well-established around London as a session arranger and musician, and singer Robert Plant and John Bonham, a couple of 20-year-old unknowns from Britain’s Black Country.
While the teens in attendance expected to hear a typical Yardbirds set, the band instead launched into a series of blues covers, all with a common denominator: “They were so loud it almost hurt,” wrote an anonymous reviewer of the show. That especially held true during “Dazed and Confused,” a psychedelic number Page already had made famous by his use of a violin bow to produce eerie, ear-splitting sounds as Plant tried his best to replicate them with his voice.
Fans who would have preferred to hear “Still I’m Sad” and “Mr., You’re a Better Man Than I” probably left the show disappointed, as well as temporarily deaf. But they later could claim to be among the few in attendance at the very first Led Zeppelin show.
Actually, the second Led Zeppelin show took place that same evening of Sept. 7. Having wrapped up proceedings at the Teens-Club, the band packed up its equipment and headed to a venue called the Brondy Pop-Club, in nearby Brondy. Another reviewer wrote this synopsis:
“Jimmy Page has put a new band together. The music is the same, only better than ever. … Robert Plant should face some small criticism and a lot of praise for an excellent performance. There is no doubt that he is a good singer, but he doesn’t have to twist his body like he’s having a ruptured appendix, does he? Musically, the band is super-great. Their hard disciplined beat is amazing. Of course, it was foremost Jimmy Page that was responsible for this but the drummer should also be mentioned; a drum solo so wild and good is hard to find. It was so good that one almost wished that John Bonham wouldn’t stop.”
And so began one of rock ‘n’ roll’s ultimate legends, a band with music that remains in high demand nearly four and a half decades after it formed and 32 years after it came to a tragic end.
II. Your Time Is Gonna Come
The story of Led Zeppelin in the 1960s isn’t often told amid the tales of excess and debauchery that arose during following decade. Whether those are true, exaggerated or merely apocryphal matters little; the upshoot is that the term “rock star” was given a new, larger-than-life definition.
The tendency is to view Led Zeppelin as an overnight sensation, which fits to some degree: Within a year of the Gladsaxe show, the band was among the most sought-after concert attractions in rock ‘n’ roll. But that’s because Page and Zeppelin’s no-holds-barred manager, Peter Grant, came up with a plan that defied the music industry’s conventions at the time. Following the plan was going to take a lot of effort, and there was absolutely no guarantee it would work.
“Page began to patch together a grouping of songs, many of them things he’d worked on live with the Yardbirds,” explained Charles R. Cross in “Led Zeppelin: Shadows Taller Than Our Souls.” “He wanted Led Zeppelin to quickly record an album and make their mark that way, rather than cut singles or work their way up through small clubs, as most British bands did in that era.”
The Scandinavian shows represented prior commitments for the Yardbirds, and as soon as those nine gigs were finished, Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones entered Olympic Studios in London. In the span of about 36 hours, according to the guitarist, they completed their first LP, mixing and all. Page paid for the studio time, meaning economy was necessary; as Jimmy recalled, that arrangement also assured another important aspect of the recording. He told Guitar World magazine in a 1993 interview:
I wanted artistic control in a vice grip, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do with these fellows. In fact, I financed and completely recorded the first album before going to Atlantic (Records). … It wasn’t your typical story where you get an advance to make an album. We arrived at Atlantic with tapes in hand. … Atlantic’s reaction was very positive, I mean, they signed us, didn’t they?
At any rate, the studio bill came to the equivalent of about $3,000, which represented a substantial sum for a 24-year-old musician. (It still does.) Fortunately, Grant and Page had been dealing with Atlantic president Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006), who had the foresight to recognize the band’s commercial potential and provided Led Zeppelin a $200,000 advance.
Now, that was substantial, considering no other rock act had received anything approaching that before, and Page’s project was barely known outside of the fans who had started attending shows finally using the Led Zeppelin name. The press derided Ertegun’s leap of faith, starting a rocky relationship with Page that lasted for decades.
Meanwhile, Zeppelin was playing mainly university gigs around England, to mixed reaction, especially with regard to Plant’s vocal antics. On Dec. 10, the band performed at the Marquee, one of London’s major clubs, and a reviewer noted as T. Wilson expressed some common complaints:
They are now very much a heavy music group. … Amp troubles didn’t help them on this particular occasion but there seemed to be a tendency for too much volume which inevitably defeats musical definition. … Drummer Bonham is forceful, perhaps too much so, and generally there appears to be a need for Led Zeppelin to cut down on volume a bit.
III. Across the Ocean
With only about 20 shows performed to that point, Led Zeppelin embarked on its first American tour, starting the day after Christmas at the Auditorium Arena in Denver. The once-grand building opened in 1908 as the second-largest arena in the nation, after Madison Square Garden, and it hosted the Democratic National Convention that year. By 1968, the building served as the home of the Denver Rockets (later Nuggets) professional basketball team and as the city’s largest indoor concert venue.
The Dec. 26 concert featured Vanilla Fudge, which had scored a massive hit with a proto-metal cover of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” but was having trouble finding focus as 1968 drew to a close. The band had opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience during part of its tour earlier in the year, and it has been conjectured that certain “businessmen” in the Fudge’s native New York put forth some kind of ultimatum to the Hendrix management to make the necessary arrangements.
Also on the Denver bill was Spirit, a highly innovative Los Angeles-based group with 17-year-old guitarist Randy California, a Hendrix bandmate before he hit it big. Among Spirit’s more popular numbers was a song called “Fresh Garbage,” the riff from which would end up as part of Led Zeppelin’s repertoire.
As for Zeppelin, Grant’s design was for the band to gain as much exposure as possible in the United States, which represented an exponentially larger commercial market than Britain. He also conjectured that American fans would be more receptive to highly amplified, blues-based music than their English equivalents.
That seemed to be the case in Denver, as recalled by promoter Barry Fey in his 2011 autobiography, “Backstage Past”:
The night of the concert, I get on stage to make the announcement to open the show. “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome, direct from England for their North America debut, Led Zeppelin!”
There was a smattering of polite applause. Then, Robert Plant let it rip and everybody in the audience was stunned. Frankly, I don’t know how Spirit went on after that. You didn’t have to be a genius to know Zeppelin was going to be a smash. Oh, my God. People were going crazy!
The next morning, I get a call from Max Floyd, the program director at the Denver FM rock station, KLZ. “Who did you have on last night? Our phone lines are jammed!”
The band had given me a white copy of their album, one that hadn’t been released yet. I took the album to the radio station and they played it continuously, all day.
The tour package, still headlined by Vanilla Fudge, continued to the Northwest. For the Dec. 29 show in Portland, Ore., the billing was “Special Guests: Led Zeppilen, featuring Jimmy Page,” the first time the named of the band had been used, albeit misspelled, for promotional purposes.
At the start of 1969, the band headed down the coast for its first California shows, playing three nights at the Whisky a Go Go. The famed Sunset Strip club had served as a springboard for many of the era’s notable Los Angeles bands, including the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, Love and the Mothers of Invention.
Led Zeppelin’s first headlining performances were at the Whisky, with another band that would create its own legend in the ’70s, Alice Cooper, opening. Then it was back up the coast for three nights at an even more prestigious venue, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco.
Despite Page and possibly others suffering from the flu, the band made an impression on the Fillmore crowds during its four-night run, creating a buzz throughout a city that had a tremendous influence on music at the time. Zeppelin’s frenetic take on the blues provided quite a contrast in styles compared with the laid-back, country blues of opener Taj Mahal and the psychedelic jam sessions of headliner Country Joe & the Fish.
The day of the final Fillmore show, Atlantic released the LP “Led Zeppelin,” from the October Olympic sessions. “Good Times, Bad Times” was released as a single in the United States, back with “Communication Breakdown,” both original compositions. No singles were released in England, in 1969 or at any time throughout Led Zeppelin’s career.
Meanwhile, the band headed east, braving a snowstorm to play in America’s heartland, at the University of Iowa. William L. Seavey wrote this review:
Jimmy Page, a former member of the Yardbirds, is group leader, although the way he slinked around the stage hunched paralytically over his guitar he didn’t look the part. But leader or not, he is one incredible talent. He is to the electric guitar what Adres Segovia is to the classical guitar or Chet Atkins to the folk guitar. …
John Bonham, drums, is said to have created a sensation with his solos when he accompanied Tim Rose on and England tour last year. Wednesday night he turned the trick again as he captivated the audience with what must have been 15 minutes of percussional gymnastics.
Robert Plant is the Janis Joplin of the group, a blues belter par excellence who is in indefatigable despite a voice constantly strained to its limitations.
These three have the makings of idols, although perhaps not as the Zeppelin. They seem to lack identity as a group, although that is not to say they are uncompelling. But with time and material they could command quite as much attention as some of the established groups do.
Amid such accolades, the band arrived in Detroit, which already had established a proto-metal identity with the likes of the MC5, the Amboy Dukes and the Stooges. The more seasoned members of the Motor City press weren’t as kind to Page and company, but they did admit the band had an abundance of potential.
Word hadn’t spread to the D.C. area, where a reported 55 audience members showed up for a concert at the Wheaton (Md.) Youth Center on the day Richard Nixon was inaugurated. Perhaps the more enlightened rock fans in the area were drowning their sorrows.
In Boston, Led Zeppelin received a tremendous response, with Jones later asserting that Grant felt the shows at the Boston Tea Party club convinced him the band truly was headed in the right direction.
The LP had reached the Top 20 – on the strength of FM Radio play, hearsay and certainly the stunning cover photo depicting the Hindenburg disaster – by the time the group reached New York for a run at Graham’s Fillmore East, opening for Iron Butterfly, whose “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” album would remain the top-selling album in Atlantic’s catalog until Zeppelin put an end to that. London’s New Musical Express reported: “As expected, Led Zeppelin destroyed the audience at the Fillmore East last weekend. Second show Friday night they remained onstage for 90 minutes of absolutely incredible musicianship up and down the entire blues scene.”
The tour continued in Toronto, then in Chicago, where Led Zeppelin debuted an extended version of Garnet Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You” with a section featuring Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” riff. The tour’s final show was in Baltimore, and the band headed back to England having made quite the impression on its massive target audience.
Bonham, Jones, Plant and Page kept the momentum going after their return to Europe, playing some U.K. gigs and doing their first recording for the BBC on March 3. Incredibly, the band duplicated its Gladsaxe Teens-Club and Brondby Pop-Club doubleheader on March 15, with the Danes theoretically knowing the difference between the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin this time around. Two days later, the band did a television appearance in Copenhagen, a performance that appears on the “Led Zeppelin” two-DVD set, released in 2003.
When the group returned to the United States the following month, it headed all the way to San Francisco for two shows each at the Fillmore West and Graham’s larger local venue, Winterland. The April 24 Fillmore show is the best-sounding audio recording to emerge from the ’69 tours, featuring the definitive “As Long As I Have You.”
On April 26, the band debuted a tune based on blues composer Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” with Plant wailing the line that would become the song’s title in the Led Zeppelin catalog.
“Whole Lotta Love” was part of a set of recordings on which the band had been working on since January, ducking into studios between gigs in the United States, Canada and England. With the heavy touring schedule Grant had arranged for them, Bonham, Jones, Page and Plant had no time for the type of hiatus usually associated with recording an album. But in the ’60s, artists were expected to deliver at least a couple of LPs per year, and with Led Zeppelin already a proven commodity, it made sense to keep the momentum going.
Fortunately, the band was displaying no shortage of creativity.
“Jimmy’s riffs were coming fast and furious,” Jones recalled in the liner notes for the “Led Zeppelin” CD boxed set, released in 1990. “A lot of them came from onstage, especially during the long improvised section of ‘Dazed and Confused.’ We’d remember the good stuff and dart into a studio along the way.”
This piecemeal approach necessitated that they carry the master tapes with them everywhere they traveled as an extra piece of carry-on luggage. When even a few hours in their schedule would free up, they would book a nearby studio, rush in for a quick session and then head off to their next concert commitment.
The commitments continued at a brisk pace, with Led Zeppelin playing a series of further concerts on the West Coast, including a whirlwind trip to Hawaii, before heading back to the Midwest and closing the second American tour with three return dates at the Boston Tea Party and two at the Fillmore East.
Work on the forthcoming album continued as the band scurried around England throughout June. At the start of July, it was back to the USA for the Atlanta Pop Festival, Newport Jazz Festival and Laurel (Md.) Pop Festival. Then came Pennsylvania’s Zeppelin debut, at the Summer Pop Festival in Philadelphia’s Spectrum, alongside the likes of Johnny Winter, Jethro Tull and Buddy Guy.
The latest U.S. continued throughout August, with Led Zeppelin playing numerous festivals – hey, this was 1969! – but not the one that took place Aug. 15-18 at Yasgur’s Farm in Sullivan County, N.Y. Grant had been offered a slot at Woodstock, but instead opted for a higher-paying gig at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, N.J. Somehow, that night’s opening act, Joe Cocker, made it to New Jersey after his afternoon set that was captured for posterity in Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock” movie.
This being 1969, Led Zeppelin also experienced problems with sound systems that couldn’t quite keep up with the bombast, especially at some of the festivals. At the State Fair Coliseum in Dallas, Plant announced the band wouldn’t be playing at the forthcoming Texas International Pop Festival, then corrected himself. But problems prevented the audience, which had gotten into an uproar, from hearing the correction.
When the band did perform at the festival in oven-like conditions on the last day of August, Plant gave a brief apology about the misunderstanding, as heard in a high-quality audio recording of the event. Led Zeppelin played only five songs, but the set goes on for more than an hour, capturing the excitement the band was bringing to each performance as it made new fans by the tens of thousands.
V. “Led Zeppelin II”
Amid all the touring, the band finally wrapped up recording and producing the new album before heading back to England on Sept. 1. With the debut firmly ensconced in the charts, Atlantic had no trouble promoting the upcoming release of what eventually hit the shelves as “Led Zeppelin II.”
In fact, some 400,000 advance orders had come in by the time the album finally appeared, on Oct. 22. By that time, Led Zeppelin had embarked on yet another American tour, its fourth of the year. It started with this gig, as noted by reviewer J. Harris:
Led Zeppelin became the first hard rock act to play Carnegie Hall since the Rolling Stones tore the place up some five years ago. Even up against Donovan at Madison Square Garden (a complete sellout), both of Zepppelin’s shows went clean, with tickets being scalped as much as twice their original price!
Though the management was uptight at half the audience dancing on top of their seats, and tried desperately to control the encores, the group managed to pull off one of the most exciting performances ever. They featured a selection of material from their new album, in addition to Jimmy Page’s haunting “White Summer” solo and Bonzo’s 25-minute attack on the skins.
The album performed along the same lines as the concerts, knocking the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” out of the No. 1 spot on the American charts and going straight to the top in the U.K., Canada, Australia, Spain and Germany. (It peaked at No. 2 in Norway.) The single version of “Whole Lotta Love” reached No. 4 in the United States and became one of the top-selling 45s of 1970. Even its B-side, “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman),” went to No. 65.
Some critics, though, tore heavily into “Led Zeppelin II.” Rolling Stone’s John Mendelsohn, for example, wrote that “it seems as if it’s just one especially heavy song extended over the space of two whole sides” while derisively referring to Page “the absolute No. 1 heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world.”
A major point of contention was Led Zeppelin’s authorship of the music. As mentioned, “Whole Lotta Love” sounds somewhat like “You Need Love,” as recorded by Muddy Waters and, with a slightly different title, England’s the Small Faces. “The Lemon Song” basically is a combination of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues,” and part of “Bring It On Home” is loosely based on a Sonny Boy Williamson II tune.
But a closer examination reveals a majority of the album’s songs as being cut from original cloth: “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Thank You,” “Ramble On” and especially “Heartbreaker.”
And even the supposed pieces of plagiarism are far removed from the originals. No one had come up with a riff resembling “Whole Lotta Love” before, and it remains one of the best-known guitar figures in rock history. The song’s middle section certainly is unlike anything on any blues album, a free-form splurge combining Page’s pyrotechnics, Plant’s otherworldly vocals and a whole lotta special effects into a package that serves as the definitive bridge between psychedelia and hard rock.
Plant’s a cappella “Way down inside, woman, you need …,” echoing itself as it bleeds through the various recording tracks, also has endured as one of rock’s defining moments, leading back into the main theme and Plant’s couldn’t-quite-be-censored “Shake for me, girl, I wanna be your back-door man.” Yeah, those lyrics had been heard before, but never quite like this.
“What Is and What Should Never Be” starts as a ballad, one of the first sets of lyrics composed by Plant, about a romance with his wife’s younger sister. The song contains one of Page’s more lyrical solos, performed on his ’59 Gibson Les Paul, before shifting gears into a hard-rock outro, complete with Plant’s rapid-fire delivery of words, a sheer counterpoint to the earlier tone of the song.
“Thank You” is an even more gentle tune, one that Mendelsohn apparently missed when he was giving the album a listen for his Rolling Stone piece. Plant delivers a mature set of lyrics – a tribute to his wife, Maureen – supported by Jones on Hammond organ and Page on 12-string guitar. Jimmy also sings some backing vocals, a rarity among Zeppelin recordings.
The LP’s second side opens with “Heartbreaker,” the song that, in retrospect, establishes Led Zeppelin as a major contributor on the path toward heavy metal. Page’s monster riff combines with Plant’s energized vocals and Bonham’s frenetic drumming to establish a true template for the genre.
Then everyone drops out, and Page launches into an unaccompanied solo, one that he improvised on the spot, showing the range of his chops in a minute-and-a-half burst. Aspiring guitarists have been attempting to emulate him ever since.
Bonham and Jones return for a power-trio romp before Plant comes back in with the vocals. The track ends abruptly, with Plant’s vocal intro to “Living Loving Maid” popping up almost immediately.
“Ramble On” serves as an early display of the band’s interest in mysticism, as the lyrics invoke J.R.R. Tolkien:
Mine’s a tale that can’t be told,
My freedom I hold dear;
How years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air,
‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up
And slipped away with her
Instrumentally, the song is notable for Jones’ melodic bass playing intertwining with Bonham’s percussion, although there is some debate as to what exactly Bonzo was playing when the song was recorded; it may have been a small plastic wastebasket or the soles of his shoes.
There’s no doubt that he bashes his trusty drum kit on “Moby Dick,” his answer to Ginger Baker’s “Toad” with Cream. Bonham had been performing solos from the band’s early days as “Pat’s Delight,” named for his wife, before the catchy Page-Jones riff made it way into the proceedings.
“Bring It On Home” starts as a mellow, harmonica-based blues, as Plant does his best Williamson impression. In a dramatic sweep, Page comes in with yet another epic guitar riff, transforming the song into a metallic rampage before it wraps up by easing into Plant’s harp-blowing once more.
Much of “Led Zeppelin II” has become so familiar over the decades that it’s difficult to appreciate the album’s various innovations, its advanced-for-the-time production techniques, the subtly of its instrumental dynamics and the influence it had on popular music of the ’70s.