When it comes to defining years, 1969 is a standout in Led Zeppelin’s history. It was only in October ’68 that Jimmy Page had adopted the Zep moniker for his new band, who had briefly been treading the boards of Europe as The New Yardbirds, dutifully fulfilling contractual negotiations for the legendary R&B outfit from which the new heavier line-up had emerged.
But within the space of just 12 months, drummer John Bonham, bassist John Paul Jones, vocalist Robert Plant and guitarist / production visionary Page had recorded and released Led Zeppelin I and II – two of the greatest rock ’n’ roll records of the era – and duly cemented themselves as the Brit kings of heavy.
Despite further lukewarm reviews from both the UK and the US press, Led Zeppelin II soared to the top of the album charts in both territories and the 1970s was now Zep’s decade for the taking.
From the moment Page’s iconic guitar riff kicked off proceedings for album opener Whole Lotta Love, it was clear the blues-rock script was being rewritten with both raw power and recording subtleties. Jimmy’s production job, aided and abetted by the wizardry of Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer, was bold and experimental, and the long player’s nine tracks offered no let-up in the macho swagger stakes.
“Led Zep II was very virile,” Robert Plant told Uncut’s Nigel Williamson in 2005. “That was the album that was going to dictate whether or not we had the staying power and the capacity to stimulate. It was still blues-based but it was a much more carnal approach to the music and quite flamboyant. It was created on the run between hotel rooms and the GTOs [famed LA groupies, often referred to as ‘Girls Together Outrageously’], and that was quite something.”
Indeed, while Led Zep’s debut album had been hammered out in a 36-hour stint at London’s Olympic Studios, Led Zeppelin II was largely written and arranged at US soundchecks and during elongated onstage jam renditions of Dazed And Confused. Studios were booked at last-minute across the UK, US and Canada – whenever there was a spare hour or two to lay down a rhythm track or overdub. The band’s live performances were ripping up venues across America and the band couldn’t afford to sit still for a single minute.
“It was done wherever we could get into a studio, in bits and pieces, so I couldn’t even tell you how long it actually took,” Jimmy Page explained to Trouser Press magazine’s Dave Schulps in 1977. “I remember we did vocal overdubs in an eight-track studio in Vancouver where they didn’t even have proper headphones. Can you imagine that? It was just recorded while we were on the road… Thank You, The Lemon Song, and Moby Dick were overdubbed on tour and the mixing of Whole Lotta Love and Heartbreaker was done on tour.”
As far as Led Zeppelin II’s innovative approach to recording and mixing goes, there was no doubting who was head honcho: “With Zeppelin, you always knew who was the boss – Jimmy Page!” engineer Eddie Kramer told Mix magazine in 2003. “He had very specific ideas of what it should sound like, what the solos should be, how the vocal fits in with the overall sound. He was very, very much in charge at all times, and very talented.”
Bring It On Home is the last song on Led Zeppelin II and it kicks off and closes with a slow 12-bar shuffle, with Plant's howling blues harp interspersed with his throaty whisper of a vocal.
While Zep claimed a full songwriting credit for the track, these two sections resulted in a lawsuit for the band as the parts were lifted from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s 1963 recording, Bring It On Home, penned by Willie Dixon.
During Zepelin’s life as a band, they would often be accused of stealing from other artists and II would lead to three successful cases against them. As well as for Bring It On Home, Willie Dixon also won damages and a future credit for Whole Lotta Love, which included lyrical lifts from his song You Need Love (recorded by Muddy Waters in 1962), while Howlin’ Wolf’s representatives were successful in suing the band and gaining a credit for Chester Burnett over The Lemon Song and the elements it took from 1964 cut, Killing Floor. Such cases narked the guys in the band.
“The thing is, they were traditional lyrics and they went back far before a lot of people that one related them to,” Jimmy told Trouser Press. “The thing with Bring It On Home – Christ, there’s only a tiny bit taken from Sonny Boy Williamson’s version and we threw that in as a tribute to him. People say, ‘Oh, Bring It On Home is stolen’. Well, there’s only a little bit in the song that relates to anything that had gone before it, just the end.”
Gear-wise, Jimmy Page mostly played his ’59 Gibson Les Paul in tandem with a 100-watt Marshall across the whole of the album, including Bring It On Home. This historic Les Paul and Marshall combination brought together a sound that has seen Led Zeppelin II widely and deservedly heralded as one of the greatest and most influential rock albums of all time.
The record’s engineer, Eddie Kramer, is certainly still proud of it. “It was a marvellous record and so different from the first album,” Kramer told Dave Lewis of Tight But Loose magazine in 2009. “With the mixing process, it was an organic thing – we instinctively went for something different. Jimmy did some really interesting stuff with the sound and the way the songs were structured and thought out. It’s a very hard-hitting record and its power when you listen to it today is still all there. It’s not a super-loud record, but when you hear it on the radio you think, ‘F*** me, what’s that?’ It still has that effect.”