Today in 1969 Led Zeppelin II was released, and it already had half a million advance orders by the time it hit store shelves. It easily matched the excitement and explosive power of their debut album. It entered the Billboard chart at #15, and by the end of the year it had dislodged the Beatles’ Abbey Road to take the top spot, where it remained for seven weeks. By April 1970 it had sold over 3 million copies. “None of us expected it to be that big” Jimmy Page said. “It was a total shock when I heard it was selling faster than the first album. It was rather frightening the way it snowballed”. The band’s non-stop 1969 touring schedule meant the album had to be written and recorded entirely while on the road; between shows, they would find the nearest recording studio and lay down some tracks. Songs were written in hotel rooms and backstage, and recording sessions were done in Los Angeles, New York and London.
Led Zeppelin II is a dynamic hybrid of rock styles that, among other things, marks the emergence of Robert Plant as a serious songwriter (“What Is and What Should Never Be”, “Thank You”). It also afforded him his first songwriting credits; he’d been absent from the debut album credits due to previous contractual commitments with CBS Records. “Moby Dick” is John Bonham’s spotlight song and “The Lemon Song” (or “Killing Floor”, as it was known in live performances) showed their blues roots, while hard-rockers “Whole Lotta Love” and “Living Loving Maid” made their way to radio. Many critics call this the first heavy metal album, but that undersells Zeppelin’s eclecticism. A unique and progressive fusion of blues styles, the album marks a very creative period for the group, and it remains a reflection of the sheer energy inspired by the intensive tour schedule aimed (successfully) at conquering America.
The album cover has been dubbed “The Brown Bomber” due to its color and theme, and the advertising campaign was built around the slogan “Led Zeppelin II – Now Flying”. The group of men on the front cover is a modified photograph of the Jasta Division of the German WW-I air force with the band members’ faces inserted in place of those of some of the pilots. The inner gatefold design is an airship in searchlights above a temple of rock. All this seems rather appropriate for the bluesy bombast of music contained within.
“The Lemon Song” was originally credited to the group, but claims from publisher Jewel Music that the song was heavily based on Chester Burnett’s (aka “Howlin’ Wolf”) “Killing Floor” led to a lawsuit and a change of sleeve credit on the UK pressings. Future UK issues of the album listed the track as “Killing Floor”. As a result of other lawsuits, “Bring It On Home” and “Whole Lotta Love” were eventually credited to Willie Dixon on later releases.*
*Zeppelin were constantly being sniped at by musicologists and accused of plagiarizing songs, and were taken to court over the matter several times throughout their career. No doubt their massive success played a part in this; had their albums sold only a few copies in a junk shop, most likely nobody would have cared about a lyrical reference. While the band may indeed have been careless in crediting their sources of inspiration, due diligence in giving credit simply wasn’t done in those days. Despite these lawsuit events, the fact of the matter is the blues is an international language, utilized by countless artists over decades of recording and live performance. The nature of blues music has always been derivative, with lyrical fragments or musical phrases commonly inserted in appreciation of or as tribute to the original artist(s).
Notable album variations:
- Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab pressing (U.S., 1982); recorded directly from original analog master tapes.
- Japanese 3rd pressing (1973) came with a poster and lyric insert.
- Spanish 2007 re-issue on picture-disc vinyl (with no outer sleeve).
- “Whole Lotta Love” and “Communication Breakdown” (the latter from the first album) were also released on the Atlantic Records 1969 sampler album titled Age of Atlantic.
- Cassette versions of the album have a different track order than the vinyl release; “Heartbreaker” and “Thank You” are switched.
- The original UK vinyl version has the second song on Side 2 listed as “Livin’ Lovin’ Wreck (She’s A Woman)”, re-titled “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)” on later versions. Very collectible…
Bring It On Home – Plant creates some traditional country blues here, with some Sonny Boy Williamson-inspired harmonica. Plant loved the vocals-alternated-with-instrument style of Robert Johnson, and it really shows here, starting with a Plant and Page interplay before the rest of the Zeppelin mob comes crashing through the door.
Moby Dick – Bonham’s showcase, this took shape during the second US tour when it was known as “Pat’s Delight” (a reference to his wife). Built inside a killer Page riff, Bonham does his thing with sticks and bare hands. On the road Bonham developed the piece into a 20-minute plus extravaganza. This often drew blood on stage, and was visually very exciting. By 1975 Bonham was incorporating a “Whole Lotta Love” riff segment played on electronic kettle drums. On the 1977 U.S. tour, the track was renamed “Over the Top” and employed the riff of “Out On the Tiles” instead of the “Moby Dick” theme.
Ramble On – Plant’s lyrics to this were inspired by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It’s a great example of the “light and shade” dynamism that would characterize much of their future work. Page uses the Gibson in overdubbed fashion, Jones gets some nifty magical tones from his bass, and Bonham pats on his knees before bringing on the real drums.
Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman) – Interestingly, Page once said this was his least favorite Zeppelin song; he considered it a production line filler. Rumored to be about one of the band’s West Coast groupies, the song became a radio favorite. However, this was the only track from the album that Zeppelin never performed live.
Heartbreaker – Another platform for Page to express his guitar virtuosity, this features one of his most memorable sonic attacks. In live performances he commonly extended it to include snippets of Bach, Simon and Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song”, and “Greensleeves”.
Thank You – This acoustic love song to his wife brings out the best in Plant; one of his finest vocal performances. Jones excels on the Hammond organ, and it later became something of a keyboard showcase for him in live shows.
The Lemon Song – This one was recorded virtually live at Mystic Studios in New York, notable for the real echo the studio produced. The track combines “Killing Floor”, which they had been performing at their early gigs, with the ‘squeeze my lemon’ lyric from Robert Johnson’s 1937 “Traveling Riverside Blues”.
What Is and What Should Never Be – This is one of Plant’s first compositions to be recorded by the band. A relatively slow song, it still retains a strong rock section, during which Page provides a beautiful solo via the Gibson Les Paul.
Whole Lotta Love – One of Zeppelin’s most famous anthems, this is 5 minutes and 33 seconds of aural mastery. Plant borrows from Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”, resulting in a 1985 lawsuit that was settled out of court. The most impressive part of the song is the middle section (edited out for the single release), where Page uses all sorts of crazy sound effects that careen wildly from speaker to speaker. As session engineer Eddie Kramer explained it: “It was a combination of Page and myself twiddling every knob known to man”. The song became an integral part of Zeppelin’s live set.
While there’s very little information on outtakes from the Led Zeppelin II era, it’s possible they still had one or two leftovers from this period, including a studio version of “Train Kept a Rollin”. And a 1970 set-opener cut from mid-1969 titled “We’re Gonna Groove” surfaced on Coda in 1982.
Certified Gold November 10, 1969
Certified Platinum (x12) November 15, 1999