It’s time to go back. All the way back. This is really number 0001/8000, the first album I ever owned, and the oldest one I still have. When exactly it became mine is hard to say, but I definitely wasn’t older than eleven. Yes that’s a very early age to come across a Led Zeppelin album, and of course it was a coincidence. I had already developed a first love of vinyl and kept looking at the albums my mother had accumulated. I kind of knew what was what, always watching what she would put on the turntable whenever she felt like listening to music. I didn’t really like much of it, way too much of that show band music of the seventies, Help Alpert with his unavoidable Tijuana Brass, and a stash of James Last albums. There were a few Beatles albums as well, and they were okay of course.
But one day I saw something right in the middle of all these familiar albums that looked decidedly different. One difference was that it didn’t have a sleeve anymore, it just stood there half naked in its inner sleeve, one of those that carried the images of a few dozen other albums the label had published. The major difference was that it was really heavy, and there was this sticker on the label of the A side, a fist and the word “strike”, both hand drawn, cut out and glued onto the label. Even for a kid it was obvious that this wasn’t an album that belonged in that collection. Especially with that name. The Zeppelin thing was strange and I was wondering why someone had chosen a name like that. I didn’t really think about it, I snatched it from her collection. Strictly speaking I stole my very first album.
Some time later my mother found out that I had taken it. She didn’t really mind as she wasn’t much into it. She told me that one of her cousins had visited her, bringing some albums along – something that wasn’t an unusual thing to do in the seventies, and he must have left with the empty sleeve in his bag.
That was my first crate digging experience and I proved to be good at it as it really was the only album worth pulling out of the stack. I remember carrying it over to my room where I had one of those cute white Braun stereo systems that everyone called “Snow White’s coffin”. My mother wasn’t at home much, and she definitely wasn’t there that day, just my sister and me. And of course I wanted to listen to it.
It looked pretty bad back then, plenty of scratches as it must have been carried to quite a few parties before, and it looks even worse today as I definitely didn’t handle it with as much care as I would in years to come. Decades later I discovered that my mom’s cousin seems to have had a pretty good sense of humour as he hat taken the time to grab a needle and scratch a message between the grooves of the runout. It said “ziemlich zerkratzt” – which means “pretty badly scratched”.
It really is. I don’t play it anymore, and I have two backups that are very much playable. It looks so bad that I would worry about the needle going through the battered grooves. Back then I didn’t worry at all, and I placed it on the little turntable to find out what that Zeppelin thing was all about.
I will be eternally grateful to the four gentlemen for placing “Whole Lotta Love” at the very beginning of this album. To start my record collection with this album may have been coincidental but nevertheless a perfect choice, and to experience this giant of a rock song as the first song ever heard on the first album ever owned is priceless.
And a truly unforgettable moment for me. The heavy guitar riff blew me away, even at age eleven. It couldn’t have been made any clearer that this wasn’t anywhere close to Herb Alpert. I sat there in front of the stereo, fascinated and in awe. Clueless, but in awe. Whatever it was, I loved it instantly. Contrary to my sister. She’s just fifteen months younger than I am, but she reacted to this album in a very different way. As soon as Robert Plant started to do the moaning part in the middle with Jimmy Page adding those distorted sounds in the background she came running into my room asking me to turn it off – she was really badly scared by what she heard. I did interrupt that first listening session as she was visibly terrified, but as soon as she was out of the room again I continued at a lower volume.
Listening to this album today it is still an astonishing fact that it was recorded in 1969. And that the band had just been together for about a year at the time. Jimmy Page and bassist Chris Dreja had been the only ones that wanted to continue as what had been the Yardbirds, but without vocalist and drummer it was obviously impossible. Page looked for singers and tried to convince Procol Harum’s drummer to join them – unsuccessfully. But one of the vocalists he talked to pointed at this guy who was singing for a band called Hobbstweedle. Robert Plant was quickly convinced, and he in turn recommended to enlist John Bonham. He was a lot harder to convince, and an impatient Chris Dreja decided to drop out. No problem – John Paul Jones had already clearly indicated that he was highly interested to join the band, and so he did.
For a little while they toured as “The New Yardbirds” but Dreja had told them they didn’t have the rights to that name. A new one had to be found. Reportedly, Keith Moon had predicted the band to go down “like a lead balloon”. It wasn’t the band that went down, but rather Keith Moon, and that was an easy thing to predict looking at his lifestyle. But it did make for a much better name than “The New Yardbirds”.
Reportedly, the first album just took thirty hours of studio time, featuring all-time classics like “Communication Breakdown” and “Dazed And Confused”. Touring followed, as usual, and “Led Zeppelin II” was put together while they were on the road and published almost exactly one year after the first one. Hard to imagine how hard these guys must have been working, and not just during those early years – over the course of ten years they recorded eight albums.
The effect those first minutes of “Led Zeppelin II” had on me is huge, and a good eight thousand records later I can clearly feel that this was the moment it started. It didn’t make me want to be a guitar hero, I didn’t create an urge to be a rock singer, and except for a very short attempt to play the drums like John Bonham, struggling through the basic beat of “When The Levee Breaks”, I never wanted to learn that skill either. But it sure made me love music, collecting it and playing it on vinyl.
Of course I had no idea what that man was singing about and what all that moaning meant, but just like millions of other music lovers I loved how Bonham would re-enter his heavy rhythms after the long breaks in “Whole Lotta Love”. Decades later I would read somewhere that he sometimes played with the thick ends of the sticks to increase the impact even more, and the way it sounds on this album he might have just done it more or less all the time.
It was really fascinating, even without knowing what was going on. I was even too young to really understand the concept of a rock band, or fandom. I didn’t buy a Led Zeppelin album until I was 17, and I think it was “Presence” (with one of my absolutely favorites, “Tea For One”), but there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest rock band ever.
The one thing that I think I understood in that moment is that I can deeply relate to something that is done with total conviction. With a complete disregard of any tactics to appeal to someone, with no other roots than the ones that the musicians have picked up and developed, giving it all and not giving a damn about what others may think, absolutely straight and no chasers. Purity, in a way. The guys did something and you liked it, and it’s not because they did something to make you like it.
I mean – who would have thought of putting a track on an album that is basically just a drummer’s showcase? Yes, back in the late sixties plenty of bands had these fifteen minute songs that included seemingly endless drum solos. We might just remember “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” but there were plenty more. But a track just for the drummer? That was different. Especially as it wasn’t just a filler, it was one of the center pieces of the album with an epic guitar riff to open and close it. “Moby Dick”. A four and a half minute drum solo that was way more than just a solo, and often expanded to way beyond 20 minutes during live performances. Epic, especially as it proved that Bonham couldn’t just beat the crap out of his drums but had a very fine touch as well, even playing with his bare hands. It’s no wonder that the band couldn’t go on without him. No one could play like Bonham, not even his own son.
This album obviously has a lot more to offer than just these two jewels, and I grew to really enjoy “What Is And What Should Never Be”, the song that had the monstrously difficult task of following up “Whole Lotta Love”. The bluesy ease and reflective mood taking turns with the heavier sections, the big riffs of the second half – as much as “Whole Lotta Love” maybe the band’s signature song, this one might even be a better showcase of what made this band so special.
“The Lemon Song” got the band into trouble a few years after the release of the album. Being based on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” they simply didn’t include the proper credits – at least not until they settled the case out of court leading to an inclusion of the necessary credits on later releases. I always liked it when the band’s Blues roots were used to tinge their own unique brand of Rock and a little less when they stayed more traditional in their interpretation. What I loved was when they simply chose to do stuff in a way that hadn’t been done before – like that unexpected unaccompanied solo in “Heartbreaker” and the subsequent part that may easily serve as proof of why Led Zeppelin defined what we later labeled Heavy Metal.
For decades I didn’t really see the late sixties’ influence on the album – but of course they are present, especially in “Thank You” and “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)”. And of course there’s a touch of folk, the ingredient that would gain more importance on the albums that followed. “Ramble On” has a touch of it, a song that could easily have become a standard in live performances but was never played live while the band was still together.
And in the end, they “Bring It On Home” – closing an album that exemplifies perfectly how the band had always insisted that an album is an album and that it needs to be regarded as a whole, not as a random selection of songs. Each of the nine tracks highlights a different facet of what these four gentlemen were able to create, and in the end they all but lead back to the beginning of the album.
As (probably) unplayable as my original copy of this album may be, I am cherishing it like Scrooge McDuck his first dime. Just not displayed like that. It even received a sleeve soon after I took it from my mother’s collection. I simply slipped it into an empty one – it was the soundtrack of “Doctor Zhivago”, and the record was missing. I always wondered whether my mother’s cousin went home to discover one day that his Led Zeppelin record sleeve suddenly contained a record with melodramatic movie music, and I imagined what the look on his face might have been, and wondered why he never returned to get his cherished Led Zeppelin album. But who knows. Maybe he hadn’t really been a cousin after all.
Release for review:
LED ZEPPELIN – II – ATLANTIC – 40 037