I’m incredibly fickle towards Led Zeppelin. I would be lying if I said that some of their songs don’t absolutely kill me, or that their musicianship as a whole isn’t some of the best rock n’ roll has ever seen, but in all honesty, I generally fall more on the side of Zeppelin listener than Zeppelin fan. This morning though, I realized that my rather complex opinion of the group can be summed up quite nicely just looking at their 1969 LP, Led Zeppelin II.
One plus: Led Zeppelin mastered a certain kind of rock song that was tricky and simple, balancing the riffy and virtuosic. Some of the best songs on this album, like “Ramble On” get much of their power from their turns– the flawless transitions from a mellow section into a percussive, riffy chorus that don’t break the motion of the song as a whole, staying cohesive while presenting a unique and nuanced song form. “What Is and What Should Never Be” is another great example of this. Out of a floaty verse with shimmering slide guitar and sublimely phased vocals rises a heavier, pumping chorus. In some ways, I suspect this is what I enjoy most about Zeppelin– something that truly did set them apart from other bands of the era, or since.
But then there are the blues songs. Between the so-called “Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Bring It On Home,” we can see some of the most egregious instances of Zeppelin stealing from the bluesmen they claimed to admire. We’ve heard all the stories about their nasty habit of lifting entire songs, nearly word for word– and we’re not talking about something as simple as the Smokestack Lightening riff– on this album alone, we’re talking about the backbones of songs– “I should’ve quit you, baby, long time ago,” and “I’m gonna bring it on home, bring it on home to you.” Even the first lines of “Whole Lotta Love” are paraphrased from Willie Dixon.
Now I haven’t tested this myself, but I would imagine that if you put a sample of people in a room, and played them a little bit of any of these songs, and proceeded to ask who wrote them, they would come up with the names Robert Plant and Jimmy Page a lot sooner than they would come up with Sonny Boy Williamson, Wille Dixon, or Howlin’ Wolf. Zeppelin were (and are) massive stars– their names are more recognizable, especially to the generation they were writing for, and the generations who followed them. But if they claim to be so influenced by these terrific musicians that have become somewhat obscured through the years, why not at least credit them for their own work? I’ve heard Plant and Page cite the tracks I’m talking about as “homage.” That word implies respect and reverence, and frankly, I don’t know if I see either of those in utter plagiarism. At least they got sued.
A third point– Zeppelin’s solos, which in my opinion can be used for good, or for excess in equal capacities. I will begin by saying that I have a large amount of patience for solos. I really do enjoy a solo that adds to a song instead of detracting from it. In my opinion, it is not as much about notes per second as it is about the way the solo fits into and enriches the song. Furthermore, I can say with some confidence that the solo break in “Heartbreaker” is an excellent example of how to make fragmented and sloppy solo stop a powerful driving rhythm dead in its tracks. The incredible momentum built in the song’s first half completely disperses with this forty-second guitar solo, which would not be nearly as annoying if it contained any fraction of the energy present in the rest of the song.
However, it is not as if I believe Zeppelin’s solos are all bad. For instance, “Moby Dick,” which does leave the structure of the song behind during its extensive Bonham drum solo, however, the solo in question does more to retain the song’s energy than Page’s does earlier in the album. Instead of relying on the residual build of the song, Bonham’s solo provides its own build. When the riff comes back at the end, we are led to it– it is not left to the listeners to find the song’s drive again on our own.
Probably my favorite element of Led Zeppelin II is the range of dynamics present within its forty-one minute running time. From the aggressive leadoff of “Whole Lotta Love” to the melty, euphoric “Thank You” (aided in part by bassist John Paul Jones’ delicate Hammond organ), to the rhythmic intensity of “Moby Dick,” it is not an album that treads lightly, attacking not one, but many genres with vigor. Voted near the top of many a greatest album poll, Led Zeppelin II is clearly a worthwhile listen– not a perfect album, but nothing really is.