Saturday, November 07, 2009
LED ZEPPELIN II
Some of the finest albums of the rock era are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, with Abbey Road, Tommy and Let It Bleed being just a few notable releases that hit turntables for the first time in 1969. When a quartet of hirsute Englishmen released their sophomore disc in the fall of that year, which came wrapped in appropriate autumnal colors, it heralded another great sea change in popular music.
Grandiloquence aside, Led Zeppelin II remains a mainstay of classic rock play lists and continues to attract scores of new converts.
Around the time that they exploded on the scene, a rock writer joked that the Beatles battled the Rolling Stones in a parking lot and Led Zeppelin won. Sonically, Zeppelin helped usher in the 70s with this massive, mind-blowing head trip that borrowed (very liberally) from the blues, refashioned it into a precision assault and marketed it to an unsuspecting public. A friend of mine saw them in 1970 (he was 15) and his brain was pinned against the back of his skull, cowering, for a week. There were heavy bands out there, though very few were this loud and exceptionally gifted all at once.
Comprised of two session-playing veterans (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and two young upstarts (Robert Plant and John Bonham), Led Zeppelin was formed out of the wreckage of The Yardbirds in 1968 from which Page was left as the last man standing. The now-famous name came out of a drinking session that involved Keith Moon and John Entwistle, who were seriously considering leaving the Who to team up with Page and possibly Steve Marriot to embark on a project that would follow the blueprint of the Jeff Beck Group. Moon quipped that they would likely go over like a lead balloon or a lead zeppelin.
You never know what will come out of having a few pints.
When the actual lineup coalesced, they recorded the first LP quickly and the response was overwhelming. Touted as a “supergroup”, anticipation grew in advance of the follow up. Ultimately, they delivered a glimpse of a future where “guitar hero” would enter the rock vocabulary. Devising an aural template that has been widely imitated but never successfully duplicated, the combined talents of Jimmy Page and engineer Eddie Kramer were enough to ensure that rock records would never sound the same again. Despite the fact that the Zep II tracks were recorded on the fly while they were on tour, utilizing a number of different studios, the overall production does not sound piecemeal. It is an incredibly fresh sounding disc that, frankly, put all of their competitors to shame in terms of fidelity. Audiophiles of that era had to have been overjoyed that they weren’t straining to pick out the nuances in the contributions of the individual players. Power and clarity make for a gripping listening experience, though the key to most everything they did was an inherent understanding of dynamics. There is plenty of evidence that the three instrumentalists were in lock-step with each other, especially if you have spent any serious time listening to quality bootleg recordings of their better performances (preferably before 1975). Telepathy is the best descriptor of the interplay amongst them on stage as even mistakes were turned around, on the fly, into gold.
Having two brilliant arrangers in the band didn’t hurt either.
Retrospectively, Zeppelin is often seen as the band that slammed the door shut on the sixties and sonically vanquished all existing groups with an unprecedented volume that was as subtle as a charging rhino. Indeed, the cover of Led Zep II pretty much says it all. Equating themselves with Germany’s deadly WW I aviation squadron, Jasta 11, (the Flying Circus) you see the band member’s (plus Richard Cole and Peter Grant) faces superimposed on a now famous photograph of that division, which was led by Manfred von Richthofen aka The Red Baron. Tying themselves by name to another German invention, the dirigible that terrorized Britons during the first world war, the underlying message was clear:
When you put this record on, it’s going to carpet bomb you back to the Stone Age.
Opening with a muffled laugh, the monstrous, Les Paul/Marshall driven riff that heralds “Whole Lotta Love” is quickly joined by the bass and Plant’s vocal. When Bonham lays into his kit, it is with the power of a screaming formation of Messerschmitts darkening the skies, ready to drop their destructive payload on targets below. The blues have mutated here into a punishing, relentless blast designed and engineered to shock the already blown minds of the hippies and deliver the ultimate headphone trip-out, replete with noises equipped to rouse the dead. Page and Kramer apparently went to great lengths in manipulating the board to achieve the insanity unleashed in the mid-section of the tune. Utilizing a mad percussive base, snippets of extreme vocalizations from Plant and a theramin, love never sounded so deranged.
There was something that rang all too familiar about this track, though. Patterned on Willie Dixon’s composition "You Need Love" and the Small Faces take on it, from which Plant heavily drew on the vocal mannerisms of Steve Marriott, blues purists immediately began to cry foul when no credit was listed for Dixon on the LP.
Musically, it was a revelation, though Page would later lament the fact that Plant didn’t tweak the lyric enough for them to escape charges of plagiarism. Regardless of this, the impact of “Whole Lotta Love” was undeniable, especially the turnaround after the wig-out in the middle as Bonham comes back in hard and Page tromps his Wah pedal to the floor and spits out three, picture perfect lead lines that bring us back to the main theme, which fades with Plant’s primal screams.
There’s a reason for those “Get the Led Out” specials that still factor heavily in the formats of rock stations.
“What Is and What Should Never Be” is an exercise in “light and shade”, with a languid, jazzy intro in which the star of the show is the bassmanship of John Paul Jones. Just as you’re lulled into a false sense of security, Bonham’s bricklayer hands smack the snare and the dynamic is altered. Rather than bulldozing their way through ten tracks, without stopping to take a breath, they generally chose to vary the pace of their program and this is a wonderful example. Page’s slide solo straddles the two themes and the outro is pure gold, with guitar panned madly across the stereo divide, gong and more histrionics from Plant.
The remainder of the first side is devoted to a reworking of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” during the course of which everyone has a chance to go ballistic on their respective instruments, while Plant gives specific instructions on how to deal with his lemon, which no doubt inspired the re-titling of said tune. “Thank you” is a gentle, mid-temp affair, with prominent Hammond fills from JPJ and an excellent acoustic solo, though it trails off with a slightly meandering keyboard theme that follows the trick ending. You can imagine the faithful snapped out of their reverie in a smoke filled room, with a roach or two in the ashtray, thinking that the needle should have skidded into the run-out groove by that point.
Speaking of vinyl, those that turned over the disc for the first time to hear side two were treated to another monster riff over a groovy shuffle. “Heartbreaker” must certainly be in the top ten when it comes to songs that originally inspired the concept of “air guitar”. Building in intensity, the main figure changes key signatures at several points until it comes to a dead stop.
It is here that Page enshrines himself in the guitar god hall of fame by peeling off the now-famous solo lines that have been imitated thousands of times in the intervening years since this LP first appeared. In performance, this section was filled with every imaginable improvisation, ranging from Bach to "The 59th Street Bridge Song" . Back on record, the band joins him in a furious Yardbirds-esque rave up to continue the mayhem at maximum speed (for 1969 anyway) dragged along by another excellent Page-ism (later to be co-opted by Alex Lifeson to form the bulk of Rush’s “Beneath, Between and Behind”). This scorching solo comes to a screeching halt once again and we're back into the verse, heading for the homestretch.
Those would-be imitators who followed them never quite got it, either.
Seriously evaluating the remainder of the disc, you have a quick, non-descript rocker ("Living Loving Maid") followed up by a really fantastic acoustic-electric gem with outstanding bass lines. "Ramble On" really stands out as a key to the versatility of Zeppelin. This tune qualifies my previous remark about those groups that fell short in their attempts to follow LZ's lead. Beautifully understated, there is a serious degree of finesse displayed by everyone involved, with an intentionally insane amount of panning between the channels in the fade (listen with headphones). One thing has always bothered me in reading the musings of various rock critics on Zep is the ink that has been devoted to Plant's love of Tolkien's prose and his incorporation of Middle Earth into the lyrics.
I don't hear it.
Aside from mentioning "the darkest depths of Mordor" and the slithery Gollum in the verse of "Ramble On", there is no sword and sorcery action at all on this disc. Worse yet, the same idiot rock writiers all trashed this excellent platter when it was new, preferring to list what drug they were on while listening, rather than fairly taking in the work.These scribes either had their ears packed with gauze or were frightened by the muscular sounds they were hearing. For a good laugh, look up John Mendelsohn's cringe worthy description of the LP, which appeared in Rolling Stone shortly after it was released.
If you ran out and bought everything recommended within the pages of Rolling Stone, you would be in possession of the shittiest collection of music on the planet.
"Moby Dick" is introduced by the riff from Bobby Parker’s 1961 hit, "Watch your Step" which mirrors the model, but not the music, set up by Cream for Ginger Baker in “Toad”. This development would lead to the stadium rock syndrome of allowing the drummer to flail away, interminably, as the other band members trooped off-stage for booze, drugs, sex or all three.
Bonham made his showcase count, as he knew how to tune his drum heads properly, was technically skilled and went the extra mile by playing a good portion of the solo with his bare hands.
Now, that’s rock and roll.
Snapping off abruptly, the end game is set up with a scratchy, 12 bar snippet that features Plant blowing a mean harp, slurring his words in the guise of an old bluesman. Some have singled this out as an embarrassingly racist pastiche, though I truly believe that it was performed as a genuine, fulsome tribute to the blues artists that both Plant and Page were obsessed with. Had they seen fit to list proper song writing credits, where they were due, they would have completely leveled their karma. Just as this interlude ends on one breath drawn in on Plant's harmonica, Page cuts in with a bold, distorted guitar line, which became epic in his hands with harmonized overdubs. The rhythm section burns with the intensity of a blast furnace as everyone truly "brings it on home". Nothing of this magnitude had ever graced a disc and yet sounded so precise. Countless needles were offered up in ritual sacrifice as kids bought the LP by the truckload, wearing it out from continuous play. Knocking Abbey Road out of the number one spot (twice) in those fateful, dying months of the 1960's, Led Zeppelin II made everything that came before seem quaint by comparison.
Critical opinion has long since been revised with respect to Zeppelin's output, though at the time their very existence was seen as a cynical, money-grabbing ploy by record executives. The sheer force of their collective talents went a long way in dispelling the ideas that they hadn't payed their dues playing dives and were merely the product of hype.
Led Zeppelin II sealed their position in the stratosphere and rock grew several feet taller, losing its baby fat in the process.