Thursday, September 17, 2020

Led Zeppelin II - 50 Years Ago

During September 1968, The New Yardbirds (Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant) toured Scandinavia performing Yardbirds material as well as new material like "Communication Breakdown," "I Can't Quit You, Baby," "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," and "How Many More Times." That same month, at Keith Moon's mocking ("That'll go down like a lead zeppelin), The New Yardbirds were renamed Led Zeppelin, and on October 15, 1968, Led Zeppelin made their debut at Surrey University. Soon after, the group began touring the U.S., backing up headliners like Vanilla Fudge and The MC5. Nearly instantaneous recognition followed. On January 31, 1969, Led Zeppelin opened for Iron Butterfly, who, due to "In a Gadda Da Vida," was one of the hottest bands in the world. Led Zeppelin received such resounding approval from the audience that Doug Ingle, lead singer for the Butterfly scrapped the remainder of the tour. Led Zeppelin had become headliners in their own right.

Led Zeppelin would end up opening for Vanilla Fudge with the band name mistakenly advertised as "Len Zeffelin." Doesn't quite have the same ring to it. No one had ever heard anything like it. By the time Zeppelin left the stage, psychedelia was dead and heavy metal was born. Poor Vanilla Fudge. 

Within eight months of their official debut, Zeppelin was at the top of the bill at the Playhouse Theater in London, and the Pop Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. On October 17, 1969, a year after the band's inception, Zeppelin played Carnegie Hall, ending a ban on rock groups caused by the Rolling Stones' antics in 1965. 

While playing in Denmark, Eva von Zeppelin, a relative of the designer of the airship, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, threatened to sue the band if they used the name for their gig in Copenhagen. For that one show, Led Zeppelin played under the alias, The Nobs.

The first LP took but 36 hours of studio time, including mixing and mastering and was fit into the band's hectic touring schedule. The band was without a label and on the clock to the tune of £1,782, or roughly $3,500. Released January 12, 1969, in the U.S., 
Led Zeppelin climbed to No. 10 in the U.S. and to No. 6 in the U.K. (Released March 28th).
Until the late 60s, producers placed microphones directly in front of the amplifiers and drums. For Led Zeppelin, Page placed an additional microphone some distance from the amplifier (as far as twenty feet) and then recorded the balance between the two. By adopting this "distance equals depth" technique, Page was among the first producers to record a band's "ambient sound;" the distance of a note's time-lag from one end of the room to the other. Led Zeppelin was the first album to be released in stereo-only form; at the time, the practice of releasing both mono and stereo versions was the norm. The LP was the virtual Sgt. Pepper of Heavy Metal Blues.

Somehow, this band of misfits broke down the walls of critics (who abhorred the first LP) going straight for the audience, and won with their interpolation of blues, garage rock, soul, shuffle, psychedelic vibes and violin-bowed guitar fer chrissakes; they were over-the-top and minimalist, often in the same song. With tracks about hobbits, mythology and sex in equal form, Led Zeppelin made it look easy.

Led Zeppelin's debut album (AM8) is a monster of barely contained monolithic intensity (yeah pompous as shit). The album's artistic success hinges on the tension between the reflective/creative/experimental natures of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones rubbing elbows with the bombastic/flamboyant/amped-up traditionalism of Robert Plant and John Bonham. When these tensions interact fireworks ensue. These are basic musical forms, blues, folk and bluegrass, taken to new extremes of sonic density and timbrel heaviness. Here was a conscious move to unearth the swamp blues from which all rock and roll originated and, at the same time, revitalize the format for a contemporary audience. The likes of The Yardbirds, The Small Faces, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Joe Cocker fronted a movement that occasionally bruised the singles chart, but was primarily an underground faction. Hendrix, Beck and Cream pushed this to another, darker dimension and Zeppelin's debut was an integral player in the cadre that opened the floodgates to a bevy of progressive bands whose growing obsession with self-indulgent, sprawling epics lead to an inevitable implosion and the backlash that was punk. That's a lot of rock history in one breath: Led Zeppelin was the catalyst for it all. By year's end, the band released Led Zeppelin II (Led Zeppelin II, quickly moved up to No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K., remaining on the charts for 98 weeks in the States and an astounding 138 weeks in Britain.) 

As we've reported, Led Zeppelin chose to skip Woodstock for their first American tour, playing the Asbury Park Convention Center instead with a crowd of 1500. Just after Woodstock, the band played The Carousel in Framingham, Massachusetts. You can read an account of what that was like in my novel Miles From Nowhere

Late in '69 we'd just moved to a new apartment in North Hollywood. There was no furniture in the living room, bar the white Mediterranean style console stereo. My mother was putting up new curtains and my brother put on Zeppelin II. The acoustic effects (because of the empty room) were amazing, and the transfer of sound from one speaker to the other intensified my fascination. My mother yelled, "Turn that down." There may have been the insertion of an expletive. Nothing seals one's affinity for a rock LP like the criticism of a parent. Just eight years old at the time, I was sold.

Want to know what hard rock is? Led Zeppelin II (AM8)no bones about it. Zep II delivers in spades with bountiful and bludgeoning force, sex-hot passion, and intricate grace. "Whole Lotta Love" immediately seduces with Page's strutting chops, driving drums and Plant's mile-high wails before hurtling the listener into a sparse and shaky atmosphere of twitching percussion and mind-bending guitar squeals. And that's just the first track. Just try to sit still through "The Lemon Song," absorb the beautifully understated "Thank You" and don't forget the Bonham showcase "Moby Dick." This album exhibits a handful of the most influential songs in rock history with blues-soaked attitude to spare, indulgences in instrumentation that have yet to be surpassed, and compositions designed to rock your ass. Zep II is why the boys had their own private jet.

Don't forget your copy of Miles available on Amazon. Click the link in the sidebar for the softbound and Kindle editions.