Counterbalance No. 63: ‘Led Zeppelin II’

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin II

Mendelsohn: I think there’s been some mistake, Klinger. We’ve already talked about a Led Zeppelin. Sure, that one was a IV and this one is a II, but in my mind they are all the same. I like it, because it’s hard to turn Zeppelin’s music up as loud as you can and not smile, but this all seems a little redundant. The only difference I can see here is the absence of a certain eight-minute song that causes teenagers to slow dance at prom. I can’t remember which one it is. Do you want to argue about this or can we just reprint the bulk of whatever it was we wrote for Led Zeppelin IV and move on?

Klinger: As tempting as that is. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take exception with your characterization. As ambivalent as I was about Led Zeppelin IV, I really must contend that this is a considerably livelier listening experience than that dreadnought of an album. Maybe it’s because it’s not as fraught with the same level of importance that IV seems to carry with it. Maybe Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones weren’t quite so eager to make a grandiose statement as they would be two years and one poorly-received third album later. But this album sounds a good deal fresher to me, and for that reason I can’t agree with your assessment.

Still, it’s interesting to me that out of Led Zeppelin’s entire catalog, it’s this album that ranks second to The Unimpeachable Classic when it comes to overall critical assessment (and making sense of that is why we’re here, after all). You could just as easily make the argument for Physical Graffiti (critics generally love the Sprawling Double Album) or Led Zeppelin I (ditto the Brash Debut). Both of those albums are looming on the Great List’s horizon, but somehow this album ends up with a slight edge. Personally, I think that’s to do with the way this album comes across as a good bit punchier than the others.

Mendelsohn: Well, that’s tough to argue with. And I suppose, if I had to pick one Zep record, this one would be it, mostly for all the reasons you just listed above. With this record we get to see a band coming off a successful debut, in the midst of tours in Europe and North America, and they actually manage to write and record an entire album in between the debauched activities that I’m sure were a daily occurrence. Because it’s Led Zeppelin and apparently that’s all they really did.

The great thing about the record is we get to hear that inspired magic coming through the speakers. There is a seeking nature to this record, full of harried energy as they pick riffs out of jam sessions or live solos and rush from city to city, recording along the way. That type of approach, nine times out of ten, just doesn’t work as well as it should but on Led Zeppelin II, it comes out perfectly, one of those rare instances where the stars align and the band comes away with a masterpiece out of thin air. Yeah, the second Zeppelin album on the Great List could just as easily have been Physical Graffiti or Led Zeppelin I, and while both have their merits, they lack some of the magic that fueled Led Zeppelin II. They also lack John Bonham’s drum solo from “Moby Dick” and “The Lemon Song”, possibly the best sexual allusion on wax (also stolen). Those groupies probably didn’t like Plant’s lemon juice getting in their eyes. That has to sting.

Klinger: Wait a minute, Mendelsohn. A minute ago you sounded like you didn’t much like this album, and now you sound like you like it a lot. I should be more confused, but a lot of the time I’m also of two minds about Zep in general. Part of it, of course, stems from the “borrowing” that you and I cite, and which has become as much part and parcel of the band’s lore as mud sharks and dragon pants and that bit where Page plays the guitar with a violin bow.

I think that’s why I like Led Zeppelin more when I think about it less—when I can tune out all the distractions and baggage, when I can tell myself that their failure to credit Sleepy John Estes or Willie Dixon was due to a clerical error at Atlantic Records and not negligence on the band’s part. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments when Robert Plant’s upper register starts to grate, and I could really do without the orgasm noises during “Whole Lotta Love”. Also, as long as I’m grumbling, that mumble-mouth blooz-man voice Plant appropriates at the beginning of “Bring It on Home”? I find it to be a, shall we say, less-than-sensitive portrayal. In fact, I cringe a lot when that comes on. But then the actual tune kicks in, Plant gets back to his usual caterwauling, and I let it go.

Mendelsohn: I just didn’t really want to talk about another Led Zeppelin album. I may like this one more than most of them but, man, you know, what hasn’t been said about the Zep? This is the second time we’ve had to talk about them, with more to come, and we’ve probably already made eight or ten references to sharks and dragon pants—I don’t feel like going back to count. I just didn’t want to do it again, and I thought, maybe no one would notice if we just stuck the old one up, maybe took out all the old bits referring to “Stairway to Heaven” and replaced them with new bits about “What Is and What Should Never Be” or maybe “The Lemon Song”.

Speaking of which, Led Zeppelin may have ripped out some fairly large chunks from the blues to put “The Lemon Song” together, but it’s the stuff in between (especially the interplay between Page’s guitar and Jones’ bass) that I find amazing. While Page is creating a feedback-induced psychedelic freak-out full of strange licks and stabs, Jones, on the other side, is laying down improvised early funk grooves and they are doing it at the same time and it sounds completely natural and organic—and it’s awesome. Did I mention that?

In our last Zep piece, you compared Page to Thelonious Monk, which is spot on, and here they are showing early what kind of chops they have by essentially wrapping the cloak of rock and roll around some fairly avant-garde jazz motifs. Sometimes Led Zeppelin gets lumped into the whole jock rock category, but if anyone has questions about their music-nerd bona fides, just listen to “The Lemon Song”. Or “Ramble On”—you know the one where the most of the lyrical theme is lifted from J. R. R. Tolkien?

Klinger: I think Tolkien references are less “music nerd” than they are “regular nerd”, but I’m not one to judge. But yeah, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the interplay of all three instrumentalists on this album, and it’s pretty impressive. When we were covering IV, I was pretty focused on Page’s weird way with a riff, but on this album I think we get an even better sense for the fact that this was a group of players. You mentioned “What Is and What Should Never Be”, and that’s about as effective a demonstration of Zeppelin’s range as you’re going to find. Alternating between the wispier, swirlier sounds that they further explore on their third album and the riff-rockery that was their traditional stock-in-trade, “What Is and What Should Never Be” is in many ways Zeppelin in a nutshell.

It’s not my favorite track on the album—that’s going to go to “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)”. Brevity is the better part of valor, I always say. And I don’t care that it mostly got airplay because FM DJs could never stop “Heartbreaker” in time—it’s its own song.

For me though, it’s hard to listen to Zeppelin without placing it in its time, and II comes across as very much a product of 1969. As a producer and long-time studio fixture, Page was able to use the technological advances of the time to conjure up a booming bass sound that was seldom heard then. And in many ways Led Zeppelin serves as an extension of the return to roots-based music that had been coming into vogue since the cresting of psychedelia a little over a year before (think of that). Growing up opposed to Zeppelin on principle, I only really thought of them as a weed-scented monolith of riffage in low cut, tight trousers. Now I think I’m better able to see them as an extension of what had come before, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get beyond their baggage, I think I’ve come to a general understanding where they’re concerned.

Mendelsohn: I’m glad you’ve made peace with your Led Zeppelin issue—you’ll be needing that patience and understanding, because there are still two more Zep albums hanging around the top 100 of the Great List.