‘Led Zeppelin II’ Turns 50: The Story Behind Every Song
Listening to Led Zeppelin's second album with hindsight of what came later, you can hear the band deviating from the blues-based sound they employed on the majority of its first album and widening the sonic landscape of rock music.
Led Zeppelin II -- which came out on Oct. 22, 1969 -- is one of their heaviest records and is credited with paving the way for many hard-rock bands to come. But there are also hints of the more acoustic-based direction the band took on subsequent releases.
The group's debut from earlier in 1969 had its own moments of acoustic instrumentation and stylistic diversions (“White Summer” being a prominent example), but Led Zeppelin II was bigger and bolder, and cemented its reputation as a diverse and versatile outfit.
What makes Led Zeppelin II all the more intriguing is that for all of the growing and evolving happening at this time, they had a short period to write and record the album. Guitarist Jimmy Page later recalled writing songs in hotel rooms while on tour promoting the first album, and then immediately heading into a studio for just three weeks to track the songs between tours.
“It was quite insane, really,” he recalled. “We had no time, and we had to write numbers in hotel rooms. By the time the album came out, I was really fed up with it. I’d just heard it so many times in so many places. I really think I had lost confidence in it.”
Despite its quick turnaround, Led Zeppelin II is a strong album filled with many of Zeppelin's classic songs. It also marks a pivotal moment in the band’s musical trajectory. Below we outline how each song on the album cleared a path for Led Zeppelin’s continuing evolution.
"Whole Lotta Love"
One of the most instantly recognizable Zeppelin riffs of all time, the guitar hook that opens “Whole Lotta Love” is a major focal point in the band’s catalog. Something that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition, however, is the incredibly innovative middle section—complete with echo-y theremin and a mind-expanding stereo panning effect. For 1969, a moment like that was years ahead of its time and offered a glimpse into Zeppelin’s ambitious future. “During the mix, with the aid of engineer Eddie Kramer, we did all the panning and added the effects, including using Low Frequency Oscillators on the tape machine to really pull the whole thing down and lift it back up so the sound is moving in rhythm," Page later said in an interview with Guitar World. "It was something no one had ever done before in that context, let alone in the middle of a song. That’s how forward thinking we were, that’s how avant-garde it was, and that’s how much fun we were having.”
"What Is and What Should Never Be"
One of singer Robert Plant’s first contributions to the band, “What Is and What Should Never Be” features a similar stereo panning effect as the one used in “Whole Lotta Love,” as well as distinctive phasing used on Plant’s vocal during the song’s verses. The track has been praised for its psychedelic sound and is lauded by the likes of Rick Rubin in lists of the greatest Zeppelin songs. “The descending riff is amazing, Rubin told Rolling Stone. "It's like a bow is being drawn back, and then it releases. The rhythm of the vocals is almost like a rap. It's insane — one of their most psychedelic songs."
"The Lemon Song"
With lyrics that borrow from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor,” Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” might sound like a fairly straightforward blues number on the surface, but it’s actually a complex composition in terms of the shift in tempos midway through and then again at the end. Bassist John Paul Jones is also said to have improvised the bass line throughout the entire song, employing more of a funk-oriented approach rather than a typical blues walk. Drummer John Bonham’s drums also featured a heavy groove, which in many ways set a precedent for future songs like “Trampled Under Foot.” In short, “The Lemon Song” was Zeppelin doing what they did best in the early days: Taking blues standards and flipping them on their heads.
A ballad with lyrics written by Plant, “Thank You” found Page playing both a 12-string acoustic guitar and a 12-string electric guitar, as well as Jones performing on Hammond organ — elements that would become more prominent on Led Zeppelin III. The song was a major departure for the band stylistically, because it wasn’t remotely in the wheelhouse of the blues or hard rock it was known for at the time.
What makes “Heartbreaker” stand out among similarly styled Zeppelin songs is the one-of-a-kind guitar solo, often referred to as one of Page’s all-time best. It was tracked using a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall amp — a combination that hadn’t been used by Page in the studio before but would end up becoming the signature Jimmy Page combo. The solo was entirely improvised, having been recorded in a different studio than the other songs on the album. “I just fancied doing it," Page explained in a 1993 interview with Guitar World. "I was always trying to do something different or something that no one else had thought of. But the interesting thing about that solo is that it was recorded after we had already finished 'Heartbreaker' -- it was an afterthought. That whole section was recorded in a different studio and was sort of slotted in the middle. If you notice, the whole sound of the guitar is different.”
"Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)"
If you listen to Led Zeppelin II straight through, “Heartbreaker” and the track that follows it, “Living Loving Maid,” merge into each other, giving the impression that they're two parts of the same song. Plant’s unaccompanied vocal closes the last second of “Heartbreaker” and precedes into the first note of “Maid.” But they're two different songs, and “Maid” is a fairly straightforward one. Its riff influenced generations to come, including the hair-metal scene of the '80s. Page — according to Dave Lewis’ Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music — wasn’t a fan of the song and never slotted to play it live. That might explain where the guitarist’s creative energy was at the time: concentrating on the more complex and challenging musical left turns rather than more typical-sounding songs.
One of the most distinctive things about Led Zeppelin II is “Ramble On”'s guitar solo, on which Page uses a sustain unit built for him by the legendary effects builder Roger Mayer. Page’s initial concept for the solo was for it to sound like strings — something he’d often attempt to do live with his signature use of a violin bow. “I used the neck pickup on my Les Paul and backed off on the treble knob on the guitar, and ran it through the sustainer Roger Mayer made for me years before," he explained in an interview. "When I was recording it, I was thinking in terms of making a sound sort of like a string arrangement.”
Perhaps drummer John Bonham’s greatest musical legacy, “Moby Dick” was a live staple for the band that was also a major achievement in the studio. The majority of the song features a drum solo composed by Bonham that became a classic but was largely unheard of at the time. (Most drum solos in the '60s were performed in a live setting.) What makes the song more amazing is that, according to Dave Lewis’ book, the drums were actually recorded by Page when he caught Bonham on several occasions improvising for fun in the studio. Those drum performances were edited together to create the final piece that ended up on “Moby Dick.”
"Bring It On Home"
Based on a Willie Dixon composition of the same name, the placement of "Bring It On Home" in the context of Led Zeppelin II makes it almost a full-circle moment for the band, in terms of where it had been and where it was going, musically speaking. The riff is instantly memorable, and the interplay between Bonham and Page is a signature Zeppelin concept, especially in concert. “Bring It On Home” starts as a fairly straightforward blues number, with Plant’s harmonica part recorded while the band was on tour in Vancouver (according to Lewis' book). But it quickly deviates in true Zeppelin style, employing a heavy riff and Plant's wail before it quiets down for the coda. The song seems to almost act as a statement of intent for what was to come: Led Zeppelin acknowledged their blues forefathers, but ultimately they evolved beyond the confines of what the genre allowed.