“On the second LP, you can really hear the group identity coming together,” Jimmy Page recalled years after the release of Led Zeppelin’s second LP. While the group recorded its first album in three weeks after a single, two-week Scandinavian tour, Led Zeppelin II was cut over six months on tour in London, New York, Vancouver and Los Angeles, with the band carrying the master tapes along the way in a steamer trunk.
“It was quite insane, really,” Page said. “We had no time, and we had to write numbers in hotel rooms. By the time the album came out, I was really fed up with it. I’d just heard it so many times in so many places. I really think I had lost confidence in it.”
In reality, they made one of the greatest, heaviest and raunchiest albums ever, steeped in both Delta and Chicago blues, Sixties psychedelia and gentle-to-bone-crushing dynamics. Highlights ranged from the chugging, apocalyptic chaos of “Whole Lotta Love” to the bullet-fast fuzz riffs of “Heartbreaker” to “Bring It on Home,” a juke-joint blues gone mad. “They were the first numbers written with the band in mind,” Page told writer Mick Wall later. “It was music more tailor-made for the elements you’ve got. Like knowing that Bonzo’s gonna come in hard at some point, and building that in.”
Less than four months after the release of their first LP, in January 1969, Atlantic was already prodding the band for new material in time for the Christmas season. In April, Zeppelin headed into London’s Olympic Studios with engineer George Chkiantz. “Whole Lotta Love” was one of the first tracks they worked on; it was constructed from a riff Page invented during one of their 15-minute-plus live versions of “As Long As I Have You,” with Plant adding lyrics taken straight from Muddy Waters’ 1962 single “You Need Love.” They finished it in New York with Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, who helped execute the terrifying middle section, incorporating a variety of sounds: Page’s slide guitar mixed backward, his eerie theremin, a female orgasm and a napalm-bomb explosion. Said Page, “It’s sort of what psychedelia would have been if they could have got there.”
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Guitar solos were recorded in studio hallways; Bonham played the percussion part to “Ramble On” on a guitar case, a drum stool or a garbage can (no one recalls which), and his showpiece “Moby Dick” solo was patched together from several recordings in separate studios.
The recording methods may have been ad hoc, but the results were fully realized. “What Is and What Should Never Be” used stereo mixing to send Page’s guitar and Plant’s squeals ping-ponging from speaker to speaker as if mimicking a bad acid trip. “The Lemon Song” — their version of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” — was cut live in the studio, seamlessly time-shifting from smoky cool to frantic boogie, Plant howling, “Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg!”
“Thank You,” a folk hymn drenched in 12-string guitar and organ, was Plant’s first writing effort, penned for his wife during a time of intense changes; in less than a year, the band had gone from slogging it on tour in snowy English car rides to weeklong stays at the Chateau Marmont, watching Elvis Presley from the front row in Vegas and mingling with L.A.’s groupie elite, the GTOs.
Amid all this chaos, Zeppelin remained focused and worked feverishly. A studio perfectionist, Page refused to get distracted. In July, on the night the group celebrated its gold record for Led Zeppelin at the Plaza Hotel in New York, the guitarist sent the band straight to the studio afterward.
“There was an urgency to being in the States,” Bonham said. “I remember we went out to the airport to meet our wives, got them back to the hotel and then went straight back to the studio and did ‘Bring It on Home.’ We did a lot that year like that.”
“I could see the battle fatigue taking its toll on Jimmy,” road manager Richard Cole said, describing a London session. “His face seemed drawn. The circles under his eyes were getting darker. He started smoking more cigarettes than usual.”
It paid off. Even “Living Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)” – a twangy rocker Page said he wrote about “a degenerate old woman who tries to be young,” and which he later said was his least-favorite Zeppelin song – was undeniable. By August, they had finished recording, Kramer and Page mixing the LP in two days at New York’s A&R Studios on a 12-channel Altec board. “It was the most primitive console you could imagine,” Kramer said.
Released October 22nd, 1969, Led Zeppelin II went on to sell 3 million copies within six months, taking the Number One spot from Abbey Road in December. “Whole Lotta Love” hit Number Four in the U.S. in January 1970, foreshadowing heavy metal more than a decade early.
“Our whole lives changed,” Plant said. “It was such a sudden change we weren’t sure how to handle it.”
This story is from the special Rolling Stone edition Led Zeppelin: The Ultimate Guide to Their Music & Legend, January 31st, 2013.