“Led Zeppelin was pretty much what made me pick up drumsticks.” -Jon Fishman
“I may not believe in myself, but I believe in what I’m doing.” -Jimmy Page
It was the 60’s, the late 60’s particularly. The world, and especially America, as they were known were turning upside down. Tensions between the global superpowers of the East and West were at each other’s throats, and now they had nuclear weaponry. The world nearly ended amidst the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the man who prevented doomsday, the American President Kennedy, would later be assassinated on his own soil, never getting to see his countrymen walk on the moon. Tensions within America were high as civil rights activism ramped up and Martin Luther King and Malcom X became household names. Young American men were in Vietnam fighting a war that need not be fought, and people back home not only opposed the involvement, but resented those who served. Mind expanding drugs came onto the scene and became as popular as they were accessible. Free love became as much a lifestyle as it was an excuse for the youth to act impulsively without considering consequences. During this time, modern art would hit a turning point. While western filmmakers like Kubrik and Nichols were making 2001 and The Graduate, overseas Leone and Kurosawa were shooting The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Yojimbo. Popular music was exploding in every different direction. With pioneers like The Beatles bringing art into the mainstream and giving freedom to pop and rock, Hendrix showing what could be done with the guitar and in the studio, and The Beach Boys mixing classical instrumentation into pop music, the door was really wide open. Anybody could do anything, and an aspiring guitarist from the suburbs of London was on a mission to make something really great. Sought out and assembled by a young Jimmy Page, the talented youth of Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John “Bonzo” Bonham would come together to form one of the most influential and beloved rock bands of all time. As I’m sure you already know, they went by the name Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin’s contribution to Rock and Roll is substantial, to say the least. There are some groups and artists whose influences are so pronounced that you can actually sense the change in their medium between how it was before they started and how it had changed after they ended. Tracing the great befores and afters of Rock usually reads something like this: Chuck Berry brought it all together for the first time, Elvis Presley brought it into the mainstream, The Beatles broke down barriers and gave Rock a kind of freedom, and Led Zeppelin gave rock balls. That’s right, folks. Balls.
What I mean by this is that they pushed Rock and Roll, a genre which was considered somewhat offensive or unclean from the very beginning, even deeper into levels of boldness and heaviness than the genre had gone before. Today’s album for the Musical Training Plan showcases Led Zeppelin at what might have been their boldest. From the very end of the 1960’s, today’s pick is Led Zeppelin’s 2nd album, the one which would prove they were far from a flash in the pan and elevate an otherwise unknown group of session artists to the annals of Rock history. It’s Led Zeppelin’s sophomore effort, cleverly titled Led Zeppelin II.
Zeppelin II is such a great representative for where Rock was in the late 60’s because it also kind of acts as a bridge, foreshadowing what was to come. Over the course of the 60’s, Rock and Roll lost its innocence (as is gloriously described on Don McLean’s “American Pie”). Led Zeppelin was not afraid of this, in fact, they leaned into it and almost acted as harbingers of a new kind of Rock music. Zeppelin II does not reach the heights of greatness that the band would reach on their untitled 4th album or Physical Graffiti, but that doesn’t make me love it any less. On only their second album, only a few months after their debut, you can feel that this group of guys had something special. From the very first heavy notes of the iconic opener “Whole Lotta Love”, you know that you’re in for a ride. Each song on this album is raw, tapping into something that only upset and horny young men can really find. Every track feels like it is coated in a thin layer of grease, but the dirt and the grime only drive it home and make the album all the more effective. At the time, this was not your mother’s Rock album. Doing the twist with a pretty gal and going to the malt shop had become participating in casual sex and psychedelic drugs. Although it may seem tame compared to some contemporary songs, lines like “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” and “Squeeze my lemon ’til the juice runs down my leg” are still pretty suggestive, and I can only imagine how hearing that would have felt in 1969. Led Zeppelin were a lot of things, but innocent was not one of them.
Beyond just sounding dirty and having dirty lyrics, the members of Led Zeppelin actually advanced the genre sonically. Their first 2 albums are 2 of the earliest examples, and still essential pieces, of what we call Hard Rock. They paved the way for the likes AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue, and many more. Jimmy Page was an absolute talent in the production studio, cleverly and carefully using the technology of the time to achieve the sound that he wanted his group to deliver. While Page’s remarkable guitar work, the rock solid bass and keyboard parts of JPJ, and Plant’s signature vocals are all awesome, John Bonham really comes into his own on this album, contributing to his case as the greatest kit drummer to ever live. The way Bonzo played the drums was technically impressive on a level that few could dream of achieving, the way that he wrote his parts to play with and around the melody and his ability to sit in the feel of the song are what set him apart. His power is pretty pronounced on “Moby Dick”, but I encourage you to lend a little bit more attention to the drums on the rest of the album, you won’t be disappointed.
Lyrically, Plant does more than just make straight laced people frown. The group were fascinated with a number of somewhat odd things, most notably the occult and the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Direct references to the character Gollum and the black land of Mordor from Tolkien’s writings (most famously The Hobbit, and The Lord of The Rings) can be heard in “Ramble On” and sprinkled throughout the band’s discography. These influences play into the epic lyrics and themes of many of Led Zeppelin’s songs, resulting in a timeless feel to much of their music. It makes one think of another giant of music in the 60’s, Bob Dylan, insofar as the words seem like they were written hundreds of years ago and just yesterday somehow at the same time. Plant doesn’t do this quite like Dylan could, but the idea and influence, are there, particularly on the album’s final track “Bring It On Home”. And of course, Plant’s high pitched vocals managed to capture something so confident, masculine, and at times sexy entirely against the odds. The way he sang would inspire countless artists, my favorite of which is obviously Geddy Lee of Rush. But Geddy would give up the Plant impression and find himself, which is probably for the better. Nobody will ever be able to do it quite like Plant did, after all.
Rock and Roll had exploded and changed just as much as the cultures surrounding it did. The innocence was gone right alongside the short, clean haircuts and formulaic methods of songwriting. Led Zeppelin initialed their legendary career with a pair of albums that punctuated the decade, and Rock would never be the same. But the utopian optimism of the mid to late 60s wasn’t gone yet, there was still plenty of hope and brightness in the music. So much had changed in the 60’s, and as the greatest decade of western music so far was entering its twilight, nobody had any idea what would come next.
Oh no, here comes the 70’s.
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