Monday 1 February 2010


(#74: 7 February 1970, 1 week)

Track listing: Whole Lotta Love/What Is And What Should Never Be/The Lemon Song/Thank You/Heartbreaker/Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)/Ramble On/Moby Dick/Bring It On Home

There are things entirely admirable about how immediately and firmly the seventies kick off as far as this tale is concerned. No three-year probationary bus queuing period waiting for everything to fall into place, or just happen; the harbinger/fanfare of “Whole Lotta Love” announces and describes pretty accurately how this coming decade – ah yes, “coming”! - is going to map out, the map, moreover, drafted by the decade’s most successful albums act.

So far I’ve been avoiding using the term “no-nonsense,” since even a cursory reading of Hammer Of The Gods will tell you that Zep had plenty of nonsense about them to spare throughout the seventies. But the great things about their second album include its economy, its surprising lightness (given that this record is commonly held responsible for popularising that which Radio Tip Top termed “Loud Heavy Rock Metal”) and its unassailable core of cheek. Even when leering and loitering through “Living Loving Maid,” Robert Plant conveys far more sauce than offence; he was just twenty-one when this album was recorded, and thoughtfully up for it.

“Whole Lotta Love” itself is the best introductory track – as in, “this is what we do; what do you think?” – on any of these albums since “I Saw Her Standing There” and four decades of overexposure have tended to obscure its roving adventurousness. Still living in stereo-separated late 1969 land, Page’s riff thunders out of the right speaker with a leak of electrical static into the left – the notion being “we’re starting again” – until on the left he’s joined by Plant’s shriek, more shy than sly despite all his talk of “coolin’” “and “schoolin’.” Still, the singer wastes no time – despite the length of some of its tracks, the whole album is very deeply concerned about not wasting time – and soon he is yodelling his craving passion (“Insi-si-yi-ide!”) before sticking his schoolboy tongue out with his mischievous rhetorical question upward rises and downward dips of “looooove!” Bonham’s drums stride in for the chorus while Plant intones the title mid-range and is answered by Page’s repeated dining-in divebombs.

Then Bonham reduces to hissing cymbal and ride cymbal unisons as the group wander into extended dub/improv spaces (play the mid-section alongside the more excitable moments of AMM’s The Crypt: 1968 and you’ll see what I mean). A generation before Eric B cut up Bobby Byrd’s “soul” signifiers, Plant’s howls and leers are distilled into abstract, backwards-echoing things in themselves while Page, doing hands-off outer space guitar nearly as effectively as Derek Bailey on the Tony Oxley Quintet’s “Stone Garden,” continues what he helped to start with “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” – remember that Zeppelin were once The New Yardbirds (and that John Paul Jones played bass on “Happenings”), and even as the Who were by this time moving rather glumly into Grown-Up, Responsible Rock, the noise notion had not been entirely abandoned by others. In great part this of course represented a huge liberation from the endless sessions by which Page and Jones had been earning their living for most of the sixties, some of which have already been mentioned in this tale; freed of the need to be nice behind Val or Shirley, they explode with commendable candour. Page co-controlled the mixing desk with Eddie Kramer, the latter just fresh from working on Electric Ladyland, and the mid-section of “Whole Lotta Love” is essentially the two of them mucking around with the faders and mixers at joyous random, finding uncancelled vocal cutouts, adding the odd theremin here and there. There are moments, especially when Bonham occasionally cuts loose with the snare, not quite in any tempo, when we could be listening to Musica Elettronica Viva.

It is Bonham’s military tattoo snare, however, that recalls both band and song to attention and leads into Page’s first palpable and relatively straightforward solo. Plant is now triumphant – you can’t miss the grin behind his self-astonished “every inch!” – but the song soon breaks down again for rubato vocal echoes, answered by an unechoed guitar thrash, before Plant hurtles down the abyss (“Aaaaaaaaa!”) like a sexed-up Wile E Coyote and takes the song out with an impetuous, or possibly imperious, “Shake for me girl!” before heading into a “Hey, ho!” sequence (hey, there’s one of the central motifs of 2010 R&B/hip hop being born!), a long, strangulated cry of orgasm, and sundry “Oooooh!”s of post-coital relief. His “baby”s resonate violently throughout the fade and it’s amusingly clear that he probably needs “love” far more than she does.

But Plant was also a Fairports/Incredible String Band devotee, and much of that comes through “What Is…,” a track which suggests still some strong umbilical ties to 1967 with its quiet, phased vocal and channel-to-channel guitar, the whole verse held together by Jones’ bass, creeping around the garden like a watchful poacher. Then we get a characteristic Zeppelin trademark; the sudden transition from quiet verse to loud chorus, here twice bridged by an abrupt, aerated choir of Plants. Even here, however, this rock is not lunkheaded and owes its main deal to the Abbey Road mode of “rocking,” although the drums are startlingly (by 1969 standards) well-produced and forward. Page’s considered sleepwalk of a solo skilfully links the hopefulness of Hank Marvin with the wistfulness of the quieter Peter Green, but this period of reflection is soon terminated by a pointillistic thrash to which Plant, who has hitherto been musing about finding castles, catching the wind and suchlike, responds with a gargled “Ayyyyee-e-ho!” before launching, via the song’s already planted doubt (“Oh, the wind won’t blow/And we really shouldn’t go”) into yet more forays of “baby,” the first a serrated septet, the second a Leslie cabinet swallow, before giving the wink: “…but they’re never gonna know that I move like hell.”

From its submarine arsequake of a guitar intro, “The Lemon Song” demonstrates all that was good and forgivable about early Zep. Forgivable because, as they generally do throughout this album, they approach the Old Blues Standards like De La Soul approached Steely Dan or the Turtles; as sampling ingredients, blended together, roughly or smoothly, to make the flow run again. Thus Plant sneaks a reference to “Back Door Man” in at the end of “Whole Lotta Love,” itself a derivĂ© of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” and throughout “The Lemon Song,” with its central concept reliant on Robert Johnson, he refers to Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor” and even “I Can’t Quit You Baby” from their debut album.

The rump of “Lemon” is, as with so much else on the record, indebted to Hendrix; that “Foxy Lady” creep at twenty-three minutes to midnight. But soon Page and Bonham abruptly pick up gear and turn the song into double-speed rockabilly (though it sounds more like a further nod to skiffle). Page solos; he concentrates on a clean, BB King type of explanation with the appropriate wistfulness where needed though is not too concerned about tonality. The song slows down again to receive Plant’s extended shriek. Four “MY”s meet four urgent interjections from Page’s plectrum. Plant demands “GIVEITTOMEBABY!” like a newly-promoted town crier and Page responds instantly, though is now playing “out.” Once past the po-mo blues samples, Plant digs in for his “squeeeeeeze….juuuuuice…leeeeeeegs” entreaty, Page’s ejaculations becoming steadily more awkward. “I’m gonna fall right out of bed!” exclaims Plant, causing us almost to fall on the floor with laughter. Page retorts with a quick Hubert Sumlin impression then takes over for another solo. After more multiple “Hey!”s and – you guessed it – “Baby!”s – the song returns to double speed; phantom pings and twings give way to a more abrasive Page solo while Plant’s final gasps of “Killin’ floor” echo away into dub Nirvana. Yet the track’s most notable performer is Jones, who is, as far as we can tell, busy applying the funk principle of bass playing to hard rock, a long time before anyone (who wasn’t in Funkadelic or the Family Stone or on Bitches’ Brew) thought about doing so; he does most to steer the track away from being "Blues On 45."

“Thank You” is the record’s most pensive and maybe its happiest song; possibly in part penance for the eloping suggested in “What Is…,” Plant, musing over the first couple of lines of Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9,” sings plangently of his love and devotion; there are still those phased shadows of voice and guitar but the whole reminds me of the group never talked about when considering precedents for Zeppelin, namely the Small Faces; what happens after Plant’s “drops of rain” could have come straight off Ogden’s, and Plant very much adopts the Steve Marriott technique here (and elsewhere – after all, the first Small Faces album included a track entitled “You Need Loving,” based on the same Willie Dixon template) although the song’s imagery – “When mountains crumble to the sea” – owes much to “Stand By Me.” It’s the only instance on the record where Plant describes a “woman” as “kind” and he is properly awed when singing it. Page offers a thoughtful acoustic (possibly mandolin) solo and Plant’s final “crumbles” melts into a long, reflective pipe organ outro (played by Jones) which disappears into its constituent atoms before suddenly reappearing with one final, authoritative chord, as side one ends.

With “Heartbreaker” we’re back in Hendrixtown but the performance is so dynamic that it represents a development rather than a retrenchment. The group’s utterly confident five-chord smash before bass and drums detour back into the song’s main unison riff demonstrates a band now absolutely happy in and with itself. Plant is back in his old resentful ways – “the wicked ways of love!” he hisses – and after a pause, there is a key change. Here it’s particularly noticeable that Plant’s vocal style is very similar to that of John Fogerty’s – although the aims of Zeppelin and Creedence were very different – before the group hustle themselves into a thrash-out which in turn gives way to Page, alone, spinning out-there loops of solo. He links Scotty Moore to Velvets feedback with the last five descending chords of his solo before returning to the tune, now drenched with baths of acid guitar chords as Plant exclaims “Take your evil ways!” before another throaty, abyss-leaping howl. Meanwhile, “Living Loving Maid” musically makes like Creedence initially before devolving into the usual Zeppelin pattern. “Alimony, alimony!” cries an outraged Plant, whose “Lay your money DOWWWNNNN!!” careers on a multitracked downhill toboggan of a shiver. Page’s solo is like scissors. “Li-lililililili-LITTLE!” stutters Plant on this “Out Of Time” update (and Page played on the latter too).

Dreamy acoustic guitar and brushes lead us into “Ramble On,” which yet again builds up into a socko-rocko chorus, but then a flotilla of Mike Oldfield-anticipating guitars arrives midway through. “The time, the time, the TIME, is now!” sings Plant, slightly petulantly, as Page invents the Allman Brothers. There are strong reminders of the folk passion here, not just in Plant’s triplicate leyline of “He-her!,” but also with the introduction of Tolkien; he’s been searching for that perfect love, and yes, he’s spent ten, eighteen years trying to find his baby, but we learn that Gollum took her away from him in Mordor; his final overdubbed vocal forays cancel each other out. “I can’t find my bluebird!” we can discern, like an appalled Max Miller.

Then Bonham gets his turn in “Moby Dick”; following a rushed, businesslike riff, the group vacates the stage and we hear the third drum solo to occur in the last four entries. Despite the opening parade band paradiddles, which suggest an audition for the Chris Barber band, and the obligatory nods to Elvin Jones (the snare/tom runs and duels) and Sid Catlett (those sturdy rolls), what’s striking about Bonham’s solo is that, unlike Ginger Baker, there’s not much evidence of a jazz influence; somehow he flits between rock and improvised music with a middleman-excluding surgeon’s knife. He ventures into abstracted quietudes which place him in John Stevens/SME territory (indeed Kramer was also the engineer of the latter’s 1968 “Oliv” sessions, which disgracefully still await CD reissue) but his solo climaxes in a succession of rapid rattles which appear to anticipate electro; his snare rolls, like wrapping and folding up a newspaper, are reminiscent of Oxley, his cymbals waves of whale in keeping with the title. Page and Jones re-enter, the riff gets replayed and the whole segues directly into the closing “Bring It On Home.” Here we are in Jimmy Reed suppressed blues territory; loping, lonesome harmonica, a voice rumbling and rising out of the sedentary groove. The harmonica then melds into the guitar and we get an abrupt transition to ROCK! Maracas double up with Bonham’s drums and Plant gives (for now) his cumulating howls (“I’m gonna give you MORE!” he giggles lasciviously, nudging the nudge). Then the quiet roll of a stroll returns – he’s more bemused than angry that his “baby” should want to try it with other men – before Plant’s harmonica utters an “That’s All, Folks!” signoff.

What to make of Led Zeppelin II, then, other than to comment that it contains more “baby”s than any number one album this side of Diana Ross and the Supremes? Although I cannot precisely pin it down, there is an exultation to the record’s newborn rush of elation, its shaking off of old ties, its quiet-LOUD-quiet turnarounds, and the rapidity with which each track gives way to the next which puts me very much in mind of the Pixies. Certainly, despite Plant’s displeasure with Gollum, there are no particular demons here to be excised, no guilt about the past and plenty of expectations for the future. In addition, a year ahead of Marc Bolan’s transformation into pop, there is, despite the undoubted Jack the Wolverhampton Laddism of turn-of-the-decade Plant, a rather fetching and endearing androgyny at work; look at the retouched Red Baron squad photo on the cover and as well as the group, Peter Grant and their tour manager we espy a face from Mary Poppins – Glynis Johns, who in that film plays a comedy suffragette. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions; but Led Zeppelin II has lasted well as a kind of extended and modified “Twist And Shout.” We’ve made it over to the other side, and some people are still saying their farewells to the time just passed – but we’re going to be safe. Aren’t we?