Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

I find it hard to listen to any of these songs with fresh ears, as they are all imbued with so many memories and countless listens over the years. I envy anyone with a similar taste in music as me who has not discovered Led Zeppelin yet. They opened my eyes (and ears) to what good music could be. I know this is going to make me sound elitist, but the music of my generation didn't resonate with me, it didn't move me. But when I heard Led Zeppelin especially (along with several other bands from that era), it showed me that music could be an art form, and especially how rock 'n roll could be more than a droning melancholy or an over-exaggerated jumble of speed and power - it could be a dynamic entity, alive with human feeling.

When I think of Led Zeppelin's second album, I'll always think of a comment I once heard in relation to it, that I don't remember the source of. It said that you have your whole life to prepare your debut album, but you've got only nine months to prepare the followup, and that's while you're on the road, touring. That's true in Led Zeppelin's case, and the fact that they pumped out such a fantastic album less than a year than their stellar debut, just goes to show how talented they were, and also how ready they were to storm the music scene. Prior to his introduction to The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page was honing his chops doing session work, but as soon as he helped put Led Zeppelin together, he was ready to stretch out and experiment, to see what he could do. The musicians that accompanied him on this project were no less talented or ambitious, and the result speaks for itself.

Whole Lotta Love is a great example of one of those songs that was so popular, and you've heard it so many times, that you begin to forget just how brilliant (and revolutionary!) it was. And this was another case of the band covering a blues (Muddy Waters' You Need Love) that had already been done by a rock band before (The Small Faces), yet still managing to make it sound fresh and original. It has a kickass riff, and the middle section features a theremin part very unusual for a pop/rock song, that leads into one of the most concise yet badass guitar solos of all time. Meanwhile, Robert Plant is moaning indecently, singing about giving you every inch of his love, and it all makes for a very powerful, very effective display of rock swagger.

Like the second track on Zep's first album (Babe I'm Gonna Leave You), What Is And What Should Never Be is another track that demonstrates the duality of Zep's musical formula. It manages to be both sweet and romantic, and also hard rocking in alternating sections. Plus it's got some of the most fun lyrics to sing along to in any song ever. It doesn't quite hit you like Zep's straight rockers (such as Whole Lotta Love), but it's still a very good song, and shows the quality in even Zep's lesser-tier songs.

The Lemon Song, man. Now this is a solid blues jam. It strikes me that songs like this one, and I Can't Quit You Baby, aren't more popular, because they're some of my favorite Zeppelin songs. But I guess they are more blues than rock. Still, this one rocks pretty hard. It's largely based on the Howlin' Wolf tune Killing Floor, with (as is typical of Led Zeppelin) bits of other songs and enough originality to make it sound fresh and exciting. All members of the band are really getting down on this one, even JPJ on that bass!

I still remember when I first got this album and started listening to it. It was just after 9/11 (alright, that really dates me - but as being a lot younger, rather than older, than a Zeppelin fan typically ought to be), and I would put it in the stereo in my car in the morning on the way to high school. Listening to it, I thought that the first five tracks had a bit of an off and on rhythm. The first, third, and fifth tracks were the kickass highlights, and the second and fourth were the breaks in the action. Thank You, being a ballad, is one of those softer tracks. And really, it's a nice song, with more organ work by Jonesy, but it's just too light and airy for my tastes. I much prefer the live version on the second disc of the BBC Sessions, which has a crunchier guitar part. It's amazing the effect a good electric guitar can have on a song...

Heartbreaker, on the other hand, is one of Zep's mainstays, and is a piece of hard rock mastery. The riff is fantastic, the verses flow easily, and the guitar solo - especially the part where the entire rest of the band drops out - is monumental. I don't even care if it was pieced together from various takes in the studio, it works. Like Dazed & Confused on the first album, and even more so than Whole Lotta Love (which is, however, not a bad choice), this is one of the songs that I would turn to in order to demonstrate to someone what Led Zeppelin, as one of the premiere bands in rock n roll history, was all about.

Living Loving Maid is a curious little add-on to Heartbreaker, but mostly because the band dropped it from live performances of Heartbreaker, despite the song ending abruptly and so effectively seguing into LLM on the album. I think they actually work pretty well together, and while LLM is simpler and less ambitious than Heartbreaker, it has an excellent riff, and I think it's very effective as a short rocker, much like Communication Breakdown was on the last album.

Ramble On is, in my experience, pretty popular, I think. And I recall liking, from the very beginning, the concept behind it. You know, the old "rolling stone" theme. The errant wanderer, who travels the land, and never stays too long in one place. The nomadic lifestyle. I don't know what it is, but it appeals to me. That having been said, musically (as opposed to lyrically), Ramble On has always underwhelmed me, and though so many people like it, I never counted it one of Zep's best songs. It does have a bit of that light/heavy dichotomy that I've described in other songs, but something about it falls just short of effective for me. Again, I can't say that it's a bad song, for sure, but when you've got so many good ones, there have to be some that fail to measure up. And which ones those are, of course, will depend on who you ask.

Lament the death of the drum solo exhibition song. I'm a little torn on the concept of a song dedicated to an extended drum solo. I mean, I'm not really a drummer, and though it's interesting at a few minutes, it does tend to get kind of boring when it begins to approach twenty minutes on the live stage. On the other hand, it seems unfair, that with all the emphasis on the other instruments (especially guitar), that a drummer wouldn't have an opportunity to show off. So it's like one of those equal opportunity things, and I'm certain that drummers must really appreciate songs like Moby Dick. Anyway, the song's not even all that long, so even if it bores you, it's not like it takes up that much of your time. And anyway, I do greatly appreciate, as a guitarist, the trend of putting a kickass guitar riff in to bookend the drum solo, as Ten Years After also did with their song The Hobbit.

Bring It On Home closes out Zep's second album, and on a strong note. Although some have criticized Plant's "bastardization" of the singing and harping of Sonny Boy Williamson's original, I think it serves to emphasize the difference between the blues originals Zep covered, and the gusto with which they covered those songs. When the electric riff explodes almost two minutes into the song, it's like Led Zeppelin saying, "say hello to that baby the blues had - its name is rock n roll". Additionally, I think the softer blues parts work really well in contrast to serve as the intro and outro to this jumping rock tune. I think it's an excellent piece of music, situated at the end of an excellent album.


  1. Heartbreaker has to be one of their most perfect pieces, probably my second favorite song from them. It just cooks so hot. And it's so heavy but it's slow, it doesn't derive its heaviness from a pummel like Communication Breakdown or Immigrant Song, it's a doomy burn almost like what Crazy Horse does (Neil virtually never actually does any fast songs, even Sedan Delivery had to be counterbalanced with a ballady chorus).

    I definitely prefer the live versions of Thank You that were a little more rocked up in the chorus ala BIGLY or Ten Years Gone. Shame they didn't fit it onto HTWWW.

  2. Heartbreaker does have a fantastic riff. In the useless trivia department, that riff was one of the first riffs I remember learning on guitar.