If we had to choose one Led Zeppelin album that defined their sound, from there celtic acoustic melodies to their heavy original blues interpretations of classic blues melodies and lyrics, hands down it would be Led Zeppelin II. The band had one of their biggest hits of their career on the album with “Whole Lotta Love.” It was their first big hit song that really put them on the map from a mass cultural standpoint. The album featured the band in its entirety showcasing each member much more than they did on their debut album. John Bonham shined on “Moby Dick,” as well as every other song on the record. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant we’re unstoppable on every single song especially the hit single “Whole Lotta of Love,” and just as always John Paul Jones held it all together.
Led Zeppelin II was recorded while Led Zeppelin was on tour in America in 1969. Led Zeppelin recorded the album between January and August of 1969 in the major cities of London, New York and Los Angeles. Even in those cities they used multiple recording studios. It took almost 10 different recording studios in those cities to record Led Zeppelin II. The band was so busy in 1969. It was the live shows and the energy from those shows that the band took into the recording studios every chance they got. It worked beautifully. Many of the studios weren’t booked ahead of time, so often they just had to do whatever it took to find a recording studio.
When Led Zeppelin II was released it became the number one album in the United States. Before it even hit the stores, anticipation was so high, Atlantic records already had 400,000 pre orders. Led Zeppelin II was so big it outsold The Beatles Abbey Road album.
The Led Zeppelin II album opened with what would become one of the greatest Led Zeppelin songs of all time – “Whole Lotta Love.” Jimmy Page’s opening guitar riff to “Whole Lotta Love,” took the art of the guitar lick to an entire new level. John Paul Jones matched him every step of the way. Jaws dropped as soon as Robert Plant started to howl in one of the most magnificent, magical voices rock and roll fans had ever heard. How could anyone sing so brilliantly? How could anyone hit those high notes with such detailed blues filled resonance? And then there was John Bonham. His playing was like a runaway Amtrak train juxtaposed against a groove that no other drummer could match. Bonham’s importance to Led Zeppelin was apparent from the start, but on Led Zeppelin II, one could now hear that without Bonham, there would be no Led Zeppelin.
For those who purchased the “Whole Lotta Love,” single before buying the album, they were indeed shocked to find out how much had been cut from the single. It’s painful to hear the edited version of the song when compared to the vinyl’s full mix. Of course, Atlantic Records was looking to break the band on a worldwide level and there had to be fear that album version was too long to be a hit. However, imagine if they had done that with “Stairway to Heaven?”
One of the difficult tasks that face all rock and roll bands and their record companies is setting up the track listing on an album. Its common to always open the album or close the album with a band’s best tracks. “Whole Lotta Love,” was clearly the best track on the record and opening the album with it was the right thing to do. But how do you follow “Whole Lotta Love?” Do you hit fans hard again or do you let them catch their breath for a second? And if I say to you Led Zeppelin did the right thing by choosing to give fans a breath, I believe you would all agree that choosing the song “What Is and What Should Never Be,” was the perfect choice to follow “Whole Lotta Love.”
The third song on side one of Led Zeppelin II was a cover version of Chester Burnett’s “Killing Floor.” It was a blues song that Led Zeppelin performed quite often on tour in 1969. The only problem with a cover version of Chester Burnett’s “Killing Floor,” was that the band renamed the song “The Lemon Song,” and initially never gave Chester Burnett any credit. Howling Wolf had made “Killing Floor,” a pretty popular blues song. So it wasn’t like Led Zeppelin was trying to hide anything or sneak one past everyone. Chess records was not amused when they heard “The Lemon Song,” and also the track “Bring It On Home,” which took from Sonny Boy Williamson who took it from Willie Dixon. Led Zeppelin loved to borrow from Willie Dixon. Over the years Jimmy Page has argued that most of the comparisons were just due to the similar lyrics and that from a musical standpoint he had taken those songs to a completely different level. Nonetheless, they all settled out of court and Chess records collected royalties from Led Zeppelin
Side one of Led Zeppelin II closed with the beautiful ballad “Thank You.” It was a song written by both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. The song showcased the many talents of John Paul Jones with his spirited soulful organ solo. The song’s false ending and return was also credited to a John Paul Jones idea.
The opening slot on side two of any classic rock album is always an important slot to fill. On Led Zeppelin II, the band filled it brilliantly with the killer cut “Heartbreaker.” Just like “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker,” showcased the art of vintage classic rock guitar licks. It would quickly become one of those classic rock songs that garage bands all around the world would include in their set lists even if they never reached beyond their parent’s driveway. Connected to “Heartbreaker,” was the equally impressive “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman).” You could never hear “Heartbreaker,” on the FM radio without hearing “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman). Even if disc jockeys did not mean to play “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman),” the song so quickly began at the end of “Heartbreaker,” they would often not be able to cut it off in time.
The third song on side two entitled “Ramble On,” displayed what Led Zeppelin was able to do so well. The group could take a piece of acoustic music and explode into a fiery heavy metal jam at the blink of an eye while making it feel so effortless. Robert Plant paid lyrical tribute to Tolkein’s Lord of The Rings in “Ramble On.” It was a preview of the mysticisms that would later begin to evolve around the band on some of their following work, at least from the pen of Robert Plant.
The album’s second to last track entitled “Moby Dick,” eventually became a concert staple featuring an extended drum solo by John Bonham. Somehow it seemed that Bonham’s long solos on “Moby Dick,” in concert were more about letting the rest of the band take a second intermission backstage.
The album’s closing number “Bring It on Home,” was Led Zeppelin wonderfully defining their interpretations of the blues. Even though the band was sued for plagiarizing Sonny Boy Williamson, Led Zeppelin argued that the small piece of music they utilized from Sonny Boy Williamson was intentionally added to the song as a tribute to the great bluesman.