Led Zeppelin are widely hailed as one of the most important and admirable rock bands of all time, and the impact of their introductory sequence is largely to credit for that success. Released in January 1969, Led Zeppelin’s mix of blues, heavy metal, and folk-rock was a game-changer that launched a thousand careers and established its creators as some of the most distinctive and praiseworthy players in popular music.
Naturally, Led Zeppelin II — which came out less than a year later, in October — had big shoes to fill. And boy, does it. Recorded while on tour in North America and the United Kingdom during the first half of 1969, it marks the first of several collaborations with engineer Eddie Kramer (whose earlier work with legends like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix are equally essential). Musically, it sees them sticking to their established sound and penchant for reimagining — to put it mildly — the work of others while also improving their production and expanding their stylistic palette. It’s not definitively superior to their initial LP (at least not in terms of songwriting), but its sound is certainly stronger.
As with Led Zeppelin, reviews weren’t unanimously positive at the start, yet today Led Zeppelin II is revered by many critics as downright indispensable. Likewise, many fans rank it as one of the English quartet’s top outings, as well as an exemplary instance of an artist avoiding the dreaded “sophomore slump.” How it compares to its surrounding records is up to the listener, of course, but five full decades later, Led Zeppelin II still gives us a whole lotta reasons to love it. At least 50, in fact.
“Whole Lotta Love”
01. As a whole, the opening track shows off its bluesy rock core, picking up where Led Zeppelin left off, and allowing this second effort to feel like the logical extension of the first before it deviates.
02. Jimmy Page’s contributions throughout! I mean, it kicks off with one of the most recognizable riffs in all of rock music (one that just about every burgeoning guitarist has had to learn), and then Page complements it with an awesome soaring sound during the chorus, not to mention an additional killer guitar solo towards the end.
03. Robert Plant’s opening lines — “You need cooling/ Baby, I’m not fooling/ I’m gonna send ya/ Back to schooling” — are just as synonymous with the genre. As with a few Led Zeppelin classics, it comes from someone else (in this case, Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”, for which he sued the band in 1985 and won), but they make it their own.
04. The sexuality of it all (which would become a Led Zeppelin staple). For one thing, Plant’s moans — which oscillate between stereo channels to increase the effect — represent the risqué nature of classic rock at its height. Also, the line “Shake for me girl/ I wanna be your back door man” is an overt double entendre, as its purported primary meaning relates to the blues-rock trope of a man escaping from an adulterous situation.
05. The choice to wait until just before the chorus for John Bonham to storm in. It shows strong dynamic range and really pulls you in once it gets going.
06. Speaking of ebbs and flows, the atmospheric break in the middle (which eventually gives way to Page’s solo) is striving, surreal, and even a bit sinister. It also signals how much more unpredictable and experimental Led Zeppelin II is compared to the debut, due in part to Page’s use of a Theremin.
07. How the tune became Led Zeppelin’s biggest single ever (reaching No. 4 in America, with “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” as the B-side) without them even wanting to release it. Going off of that, how Page fought against a shortened version coming out in the UK at the time. However, in 1997, a 4:50 edit was put out to commemorate the group’s 30th anniversary.
08. It spawned countless cover versions over the years, with artists such as Mary J. Blige, Jack Johnson, Alexis Korner, and Tina Turner taking a crack at it. Also, the Collective Consciousness Society’s version wound up being used for the BBC TV show Top of the Pops.
“What Is and What Should Never Be”
09. It’s one of the earliest times Page used his trademark Gibson Les Paul on a track. It’s also the premiere of Bonham’s Chinese gong, as well as the first time Page and Plant are credited as the sole writers of a piece.
10. Its subject matter — allegedly around the protagonists’ taboo desire to sleep with his wife’s younger sister — is finely alluded to with lyrics like “And if you say to me tomorrow/ Oh, what fun it all would be / Then what’s to stop us, pretty baby? / But what is and what should never be?”
11. The stark shifts between its sparsely contemplative verses (with a daydream vocal effect) and its riotous chorus.
12. The harmonies after the chorus. They’re understated but lovely.
13. The quirky way Plant pronounces “happiness.” It’s objectively so cool.
14. Page’s [un]intentional foreshadowing of “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” about three and a half minutes in.
“The Lemon Song”
15. The way it maintains Led Zeppelin II’s exploration of sexuality, particularly with racy imagery like ‘Squeeze me baby/ ‘Till the juice runs down my leg/ The way you squeeze my lemon/ I’m gonna fall right out of bed.” Of course, “squeeze my lemon” comes from two 1937 blues classics –Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues” and Arthur McKay & Roosevelt Sykes’ “She Squeeze My Lemon”, the first of which Led Zeppelin covered live in June 1969 — but they once again do something special with it.
16. Along the same lines, how it demonstrates their ability to modernize someone else’s song (in this case, “Killing Floor” by Chester Arthur Burnett aka Howlin’ Wolf). Actually, they initially called it “Killing Floor” and ultimately had to give Burnett credit as a co-songwriter. It’s blatantly similar to the original, but it’s also different enough to feel distinctive.
17. The Hendrix-esque style Page implements. In particular, it’s kind of like if “Foxy Lady” were grimier and followed a basic I-IV-V chord progression.
18. John Paul Jones’ bassline is consistently bouncy and intriguing — but also pretty simple — as it moves around Page’s strikes. It really stands out during the cooldown (about three minutes in).
19. The sudden tempo changes that keep you on your toes!
20. The bizarre echoes at the end. These little, signature touches deviate from the norm and brand the record as subtly weird.
21. In general, how it showcases their evolution as acoustic ballad songwriters (which would obviously continue on the acoustic-heavy Led Zeppelin III with gems like “Tangerine”). Sure, their debut had “Your Time Is Gonna Come”, but “Thank You” is a clear step beyond that, allowing Side A to end exquisitely.
22. The peacefully nostalgic fade-in, as it both sets you up for gentle splendor and expertly juxtaposes the aggressiveness of the prior three selections.
23. The fact that it’s a tribute to Plant’s then-wife, Maurine (so Led Zeppelin II finds him tapping into romantic cheating and commitment in nearly one fell swoop).
24. On that note, it’s the first song whose lyrics Plant wrote by himself — at Page’s suggestion — with bookended nods to Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and wonderful original poeticisms such as “Tears of loves lost in the days gone by” in the middle.
25. Page’s backing vocal during the “Little drops of rain” portion, more so for how they cement his shared leadership with Plant than for their quality.
26. Jones’ Hammond organ accents, which are just about as important as Page’s twangy 12-string strums in terms of making “Thank You” so gorgeously affecting.
Click ahead for Side B and more reasons to love Led Zeppelin II…
27. The believable notion that it was written to highlight Page’s skills. True or not, it’s a delightfully ego-driven, yet apt, motivation.
28. Add to that how its blistering guitar solo — which was recorded separately, as an addendum — inspired Eddie Van Halen’s two-handed tapping technique.
29. That it opens Side B with an iconic riff, just as “Whole Lotta Love” does with Side A.
30. The irony of Plant condemning a woman’s infidelity when earlier in the collection, he wrestles with his own.
“Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)”
31. How it flows seamlessly out of “Heartbreaker”, like it’s the second half of a roughly seven-minute track.
32. The unapologetic, almost painful raspiness of Plant’s performance. It’s his most cutthroat singing on the whole album.
33. It’s reported role as mere filler by Page, who openly dislikes it. Although it does feel a bit superficial and rushed — even in regards to its subject matter: an annoying groupie whom they met on tour — it’s a good bit of fun nonetheless.
34. Page’s solo, while brief, is pleasingly idiosyncratic.
35. It’s another exceptional example of how well Led Zeppelin balanced acoustic and electric elements, with folksy verses separating hard rock choruses. This distinction has always set them apart from the pack, after all.
36. That it’s the first Led Zeppelin song to tie into J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, with the narrator seemingly on his own quest in Middle Earth. (The lines “’Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor/ I met a girl so fair/ But Gollum, and the evil one/ Crept up and slipped away with her” clarify this.) Obviously, they’d return to the saga on two songs from 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV: “The Battle of Evermore” and “Misty Mountain Hop”.
37. It’s among the most immediately catchy Led Zeppelin songs, plain and simple.
38. How Page’s mournful guitar lines before the second chorus are complemented by Jones’ downtrodden bass pattern. It’s very evocative.
39. The eclectic percussion. In addition to his drums, Bonham supposedly also used a plastic garbage pail and a hard guitar case.
40. The default gustiness of essentially making a drum solo its own track. It’s a decidedly polarizing choice, but Led Zeppelin have always had the gusto to challenge audiences.
41. That said, Page and Jones’ opening and closing contributions are certainly an important part of the cumulative fire. The guitar licks, in particular, are among the most inventive and hip on the whole LP (even if they do bare a strong resemblance to 1961’s “Watch Your Step” by Bobby Parker).
42. That it took its name from another piece of literature — Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — after they decided not to call it “Pat’s Delight” (in reference to Bonham’s wife). A few years later, it would also be known as “Over the Top” when played live.
43. In concert, Bonham would extend it to around 20 minutes while the rest of the group took a break. Sometimes, his hands would even bleed afterward.
“Bring It On Home”
44. Its changes to the Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson original, including a quicker middle section.
45. Its vast stylistic differences, not only internally but also in comparison to prior tunes. It’s the final solidification of Led Zeppelin II as a very varied record.
46. How much it also conjures The Guess Who’s “American Woman” from the next year, not only in its blues patterns but also in Plant’s vocal style at the start and end. To the end, it’s like Plant is a different singer entirely during these parts.
47. The use of the harmonica, period.
48. Page and Kramer get a couple of nods for how good the mix and arrangements are on Led Zeppelin II. It breathes more and is generally more wide-ranging and polished than Led Zeppelin. Fortunately, the same can be said for its successors.
49. The fact that it became their first record to reach No. 1 in the UK and US (famously knocking out The Beatles’ Abbey Road in the process).
50. The album cover, which is commonly called the “Brown Bomber” and was nominated in the Best Recording Package category of the 1970 Grammy Awards. Designed by guitarist Jimmy Page’s Sutton Art College schoolmate, David Juniper, it’s inspired by a military photograph from World War I. Specifically, Juniper placed the band’s faces — as well as a few others, including that of French actress Delphine Seyrig — on top of the original image. That imaginative approach, combined with its colorized visual allusion to its precursor, makes it both a surface-level treat and a symbolic nod to Led Zeppelin’s creative growth.