Recorded all over the place, amid all sorts of off-stage shenanigans that would become the stuff of legend, Led Zeppelin’s second album turned the rock heirs into its kings.
Recorded all over the place, amid all sorts of off-stage shenanigans that would become the stuff of legend, Led Zeppelin’s second album turned the rock heirs into its kings.
Those dirty-fingernail skull-ring riffs that hook you like a harpoon. Those devil’s-scream vocals that spread like wildfire across the devastated hilltops of your tiny ruined mind. The voodoo-ritual drums and bad-medicine bass that cause the blood to pulse and ooze like a radiation sore erupting from your already dead soul. You know, that whole mounting explosion that constitutes the second Led Zeppelin album?
It was born of real adventures out there on the as-yet untamed American road, at a time, 1969, when Charles Manson was killing for fun and men were walking on the Moon. A time when Woodstock was about wondering, and Altamont lay just around the corner like one of Charlie’s angels ready to pounce again.
At a time when Led Zeppelin were making their bones as the greatest rock band of all time, zig-zagging from coast to coast, while recording, piecemeal, what for Zep diehards remains the greatest, certainly the heaviest, album the band would ever put their name to.
At the end of May, with the first Zep album at No.10, the band ended their second US tour with two sold-out nights at the Fillmore East in New York City. Reviewing the show, Variety wrote of the band’s “obsession with power, volume and melodramatic theatrics… forsaking their music sense for the sheer power that entices their predominantly juvenile audience.”
After the second show, Atlantic Records held a party for them at the Plaza hotel, where they were presented with their first gold record for their Led Zeppelin debut. It was also here that Jimmy Page was informed that they would need to pull their fingers out and get the second album finished, as the label wanted a follow-up out pronto. Stung into action, Jimmy ordered the band back to the studio straight after the party.
The music was evolving at a faster rate on stage, too, with many of the spontaneous jams of the first US tour now taking on a life of their own, turning into fully-fledged songs – Whole Lotta Love, which had first surfaced on tour as part of an extended improvisation during As Long As I Have You; the snake-eyed What Is And What Should Never Be; and a shorter, bouncy rocker called Ramble On.
Their US touring routine was now well established. Clive Coulson oversaw the technical logistics. Richard Cole kept the band ‘entertained’ – a euphemism for getting them drunk and stoned and introducing them to willing groupies.
This could lead to some tricky situations, most often for Plant, who was still in the habit of going barefoot wherever possible, his hair now stretching down his back. He was routinely spat at, yelled at and generally abused by anyone who objected to the sight of an obviously stoned hippie in their midst.
‘Led Zeppelin II was the biggestselling album in America that year, deposing Abbey Road from No.1 and keeping the Stones’
Let It Bleed from the top spot.’
In Chicago, at a filled-tocapacity Kinetic Circus, Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant discovered the hall manager selling tickets out of the back door and pocketing the cash. He and Cole grabbed him and made him hand over the money. Then ransacked his office, where they discovered wreaths of bogus ticket stubs. Grant had seen it all before, you couldn’t fool him. If God was in the detail, Grant was his vengeful messenger.
It wasn’t just their music that was getting Zeppelin noticed. Ann Wilson, later of Heart, went with her sister Nancy to see Zeppelin at the Greenlake Aquatheater in Seattle. “The level of sexual arousal of the older girls in the audience was an eye-opener,” she recalled with a smile. “This was no Three Dog Night show we were attending!”
For 25-year-old Jimmy Page, already highly attuned to life on the American road from his years on tour with The Yardbirds, none of this was new – things like as having Bonzo dress up as a waiter and ‘serving’ Jimmy on a room service cart to a roomful of delighted young women.
It wasn’t just in Los Angeles or New York that the groupies gathered, either. “There were quite a few of them,” Plant recalled with a smile, “Miss Murphy, the Butter Queen, Little Rock Connie from Arkansas. Some of them are still around, too – but now they’re teachers and lawyers.”
In Los Angeles in 1969, there was no groupie more highly thought of, or lusted after, than Pamela Ann Miller, aka Miss Pamela, aka Pamela Des Barres (as she became better-known in the mid-70s after marrying rock singer Michael Des Barres). Miss P “was too romantic for one-night stands”. If she was with you, it was “for the whole tour – at least locally!”
Seeing Zeppelin for the first time at the Whisky A Go Go in LA, Miss Pamela, who went with her friend Miss Mercy, thought Page, in a pink velvet suit, looked frail and helpless, “like Sarah Bernhardt”. At the end of the set, she recalled, Jimmy collapsed to the floor, and was carried up the stairs by two roadies, “one of them stopping to retrieve Jimmy’s cherry-red patent-leather slipper”.
After the show, there was a party held for the band at LA’s then most fashionable hangout, a club called Thee Charming Experience, where Miss Pamela watched Zeppelin “carousing at the darkest table at the back”. She watched Richard Cole “carrying a young girl around upside-down, her high heels flailing in the air, panties spinning
“I look like what I was: a Black Country hippie full of high ideals and low-cost living.”
around one ankle. He had his face buried in her crotch and she was hanging on to his knees for dear life, her red mouth open wide in a scream that no one could hear. It was hard to tell if she was enjoying herself or living a nightmare. Someone else was getting it right on the table.”
Nevertheless, she found it hard to keep her eyes from straying towards Jimmy, who “sat apart from it all, observing the scene as if he had imagined it: overseer, creator, impossibly gorgeous pop star”. Appalled, she fled the scene. But she, too, had been noticed, and when the band next returned to LA, Page would send Cole out to find her…
“It wasn’t just them,” said Pamela. “The Who were doing that stuff, and the Hendrix boys.” Although, as she adds, “Zeppelin were a little extreme, they got a little rude sometimes. The girls would do anything to get near them and they sort of took advantage of that.”
Page already had “an evil reputation” as a “heartbreaking, gut-wrenching lady-killer,
wielding a whip and handcuffs, a concept that appeared to be in total contradiction to his perfectly poetic, angelic face.”
But that didn’t stop her from becoming his LA girlfriend throughout the rest of 1969. On days off in August he would stay with Pamela, listening over and again to test pressings of Led Zeppelin II and taking “reams of notes”. Robert, meanwhile, was spending time with one of Pamela’s friends, Michele Overman.
Comprised of material built on ideas begun in motel rooms, tinkered with at sound-checks and rehearsals, and thrown into the creative furnace of live improvisations, Led Zeppelin II (as Page had already decided it would be called) was to become the speed-of-night 70s road
album par-excellence, the sheer exuberance of the band at that time captured in the grooves which, 50 years later, still virtually crackle with energy; the sound, although produced in so many different places, obtaining a formidable three-dimensional quality unlike any achieved on record before – a feat made all the more remarkable considering the scattershot approach to its creation.
The American engineer on the sessions, Eddie Kramer, who the previous year had worked with Hendrix on Electric Ladyland, recalled “scrounging” recording time in any studio he could. Some of Jimmy’s guitar solos were taped in hallways, he said. The end results were mixed in just two days at A&R studios in New York “on the most primitive console you could imagine”.
“The goal [while recording LZII] was synaesthesia, creating pictures with sound.”
“They were all over the place – some things were done in London, some were on the road; they had this huge trunk of tapes,” Kramer recalls. “I got a phone call from their office in New York: ‘The boys are in town, and they want to know if you want to help put this record together.’”
“The goal was synaesthesia,” Page said. “Creating pictures with sound.” Still only halfway through what would be the busiest year of their lives, the flight of the Zeppelin had only just begun.
In New York on July 13, they made another headline-grabbing appearance, at the Schaefer Music Festival at Flushing Meadow’s Singer Bowl. Cashbox reviewed it glowingly, describing Plant as an “outstanding candidate for superstardom”.
What most of the 25,000 people there would remember best, though, was the encore section, featuring a mammoth nine-man jam between members of Zeppelin, the Jeff Beck Group, Ten Years After and Jethro Tull.
They were in the middle of an extended Jailhouse Rock when Bonzo suddenly took over the drums and altered the beat to that of The Stripper, then began ripping off his own clothes. According to Ten Years After drummer Ric Lee, “Bonham, who had been drinking, took off his trousers and underpants. The police saw it, and I saw Richard Cole and Peter Grant spotting the police. The number fizzled out, and Peter and Richard ran on stage, each grabbing one of Bonzo’s arms, and you could see his bare arse disappearing as they carried him off. But they got his trousers on before the police arrived.”
Naturally, the fun and games weren’t confined to the stage. Bill Harry, the band’s newly appointed London-based PR who joined the US tour for several dates, recalled hanging out after one show with that fast-becoming perennial double-act Bonzo and ‘Ricardo’ Cole. After scaring the rest of the hotel guests by dancing on the tables, “Richard went to the fridge and took out all the cans of lager, loading them up in a sack. ‘Let’s go back to Bonzo’s room.’ He was dragging this sack like Santa Claus. Then we stopped and looked out in the car park. We could see a bare arse moving up and down, and it was one of the band with a girl in a car. We went up to the room, and a detective followed us because we had a couple of girls with us. Richard slipped him a few dollars and he vanished. So we went into the room, and one of the boys went to say something to one of the girls and he was sick all over her.”
Released in October ’69, it might be said that 70s-style rock arrived three months early with Led Zeppelin II. With advance orders in the US of half-a-million, it was the biggest-selling album in America that year, deposing the final Beatles album, Abbey Road, from No.1 and keeping the Stones’ Let It Bleed from the top spot.
Well, almost. It was also on that third US tour in 1969 that what later became known as the famous ‘red snapper’ incident occurred, after their appearance at the Seattle Pop Festival in July. An incident involving a groupie and a red snapper fish,
“We often found ourselves in contretemps with the prevailing trend, without even realising we had done anything.” Robert Plant
often told through the years, according to Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmine Appice “it was just all in fun. The chick was my groupie. I found her, we had a day off and she kept wanting to be on film with us.”
Or as Plant later said: “The thing people forget when they tut-tut about this stuff is what a laugh we were having. People have a tendency to look back on the band as this dark force spreading its wings, when we were just young guys having a good time. The main thing I remember most about those days now is the laughter.”
One festival appearance they declined to make that summer, however, was the now legendary Woodstock free festival – billed as ‘An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music’ – in front of an estimated 500,000 people, which took place at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm near in Bethel, New York, 43 miles from Woodstock, beginning on the morning of Friday, August 15 and ending in the early hours of Monday, August 18. It had originally been announced that Zeppelin would be appearing on the night of August 16, as were the Jeff Beck Group. In the event neither showed up.
Why Grant unilaterally decided that Zeppelin should pull out has never been fully addressed.
The surviving members are vague on the subject, to say the least. But then they weren’t really involved in the decision. On balance, it almost certainly had to do with money. The thought of playing for free was anathema to someone like Peter Grant. And the idea that someone other than the band would also profit from a movie and record album would certainly not have held appeal, either. Looking for assurances – and receiving none – that Zeppelin would get a slice of the pie, it appears that Grant simply took a professional decision and decided to concentrate the band’s attentions on more easily accessible streams of revenue, plumping for a brace of highpaying dates across the border in Canada that weekend instead.
“At Woodstock we’d have just been another band on the bill,” Grant said. “It might have changed critical perception of them, though. Instead their absence only reinforced the idea of Zeppelin as quintessential outsiders.
“That period was a major time for us,” Plant recalled. “Ramshackle times when the music really was from the other side of the tracks. We often found ourselves in contretemps with the prevailing trend, without even realising we had done anything. When we played it really did feel like we inhabited a parallel universe, quite apart from everything else, including the rock world of the times.”
Released in the UK 10 days later than in the US, it was a similar story, Zeppelin II beginning an unbroken 138-week chart residency, eventually climbing to No.1 in February 1970. Within six months it had sold nearly five million copies worldwide.
Their fourth US tour had also begun in October, this time with a brace of stunning shows at New York’s Carnegie Hall – the first rock shows there since the venue had banned the Stones after a riotous performance five years before. Clearly, a new order had arrived, and with it a whole new chapter for the four Zeppelin members.
“Our whole lives changed, particularly me and Bonzo’s,” Plant told me. “It was such a sudden change we weren’t quite sure how to handle it. Bonzo was still in a council flat in Dudley, and he had a Rolls-Royce at the bottom of the lift. Somebody keyed it one day and he couldn’t understand why.”
Chris Welch, who reviewed the Carnegie Hall show for Melody Maker, remembers “every
“Playing live was the real jewel in our existence. On the right night, a Led Zeppelin show was a spectacular place to be.” Robert Plant
musician that happened to be in town standing at the side of the stage during the show. I also remember the audience. It was the first time I had ever seen a New York audience and I couldn’t believe how wild and noisy they were. They literally went completely mad the moment the band came on.”
There was no party, as such, afterwards, “just lots of drinking back at the hotel”. Although somebody – he presumes Jimmy, as “he was the only one I really knew at that point” – did send some prostitutes with whips to his hotel room in the small hours. “There was a lot of sniggering over breakfast the next morning as they awaited my reaction. But I just sent them away. I was a bit shocked, actually.”
Reviews of Led Zeppelin II were generally supportive, too. In Britain, Time Out praised the
album for being “much looser than the group’s first,” adding that it was “worth buying anyway for Plant’s tortured voice and Page’s guitar, which at times sounds as disturbing as car tyres screaming to a crash”. Disc & Music Echo pointed out that: “It’s difficult to capture stage excitement on record, but Led Zeppelin II comes very near to it.” Even Rolling Stone, which had slated the first album, approved – at least superficially – calling it “one fucking heavyweight of an album!” It soon became apparent, however, that Rolling Stone’s John Mendelssohn (again) was having difficulty maintaining a straight face. He added, pointedly, that he’d been listening to the album “on some heavy Vietnamese weed… mescaline, some old Romilar, novocaine, and ground up Fusion, and it was just as mind-boggling as before.”
Ultimately, the message remained the same: two years after The Beatles had sung beatifically about only needing love, here were the brutish Zeppelin threatening to give every inch of their love to anyone who came near enough for them to do so. The contrast could not have been starker. While The Beatles addressed us from somewhere up there in the cloudless blue sky, Led Zeppelin were the sound of voices writhing in the murky sprawl below, the black pieces on the chessboard to the Beatles’ white.
Fortunately for the band, their fans’ enthusiasm remained immune to such cartoonish characterisations. Elemental to its core, the music on Led Zeppelin II simply defied analysis, as gloriously impervious to criticism as the sound of a thunderclap on a stormy night.
“Zeppelin were a little extreme, they got a little
rude sometimes. The girls would do anything to get near them.” Groupie Pamela Des Barres
Known to fans affectionately as the Brown Bomber, due to its sepia-tinted cover – essentially the first album sleeve again, in jaundiced silhouette – in keeping with the band-on-the-run feel of the recording, British designer David Juniper had just a few days to come up with a rough idea for it. Given nothing to work on, just told to come up with something “interesting”, he hit upon the idea of doctoring a period photo of the Jasta Division of the German Luftwaffe, which had launched the zeppelins that bombed Britain during the First World War. Hand-tinting the photo, he crudely cut the four band members’ faces from already muchused promotional shots and glued them on to the faces of four of the Jasta pilots.
Page suggested Juniper also cut out head shots of Grant, Cole and Blind Willie Johnson and glue them on to four of the other pilots, as well as the blonde actress Glynis Johns, who had played the children’s mother in the film Mary Poppins. It has since been assumed that this was Page’s joke on engineer Glyn Johns, who didn’t work on the album, but whose younger brother Andy did. Others speculate it may have had something to do with the suggestion that the original Mary Poppins books by PL Travers mixed fantasy with real-life magical events such as inanimate objects coming to life. Neither suggestion, however, seems likely on its own. What is more mysterious now, though, is that close-ups of the cover shot, provided by Juniper, naming each figure, look nothing like who they’re supposed to – certainly not Cole or Grant, while the Blind Willie Johnson face is identified by the designer now as that of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, although again it looks nothing like him.
As if to underline the band’s increasing sense of self-worth, the inside of the original gatefold sleeve – “my entire idea,” Juniper says now – opened out to show a spotlight-swathed golden airship hovering over an ancient acropolis-type structure, beneath which are four coffin-like columns each bearing a band member’s name. Again, the deeper significance of this has never been established, although themes of Ascensionism seem clear – the idea that a melding of science and religion is the next evolutionary step past the “natural” human condition into immortality and beyond; the pyramid surmounted by a sun (see also the Masonic seal on the US dollar bill).
Not that the album’s most ardent supporters would necessarily have gotten all that from it, the inside of the sleeve mainly being seen as a portable tray on which to roll joints. The rest was just pretty patterns, man…
W“Peter Grant and Richard Cole ran on stage grabbing Bonzo’s arms, and you could see his bare arse disappearing as they carried him off.” TYA’s Ric Lee
hen an edited-down version of Whole Lotta Love reached No.4 in the US singles chart in January 1970, selling more than 900,000 copies along the way, the band’s fate over the coming decade was sealed. Critics be damned; next to Led Zeppelin, even The Beatles and the Stones seemed positively old-fashioned.
That didn’t prevent Page being against the idea of the track being released minus more than a minute of his greatest triumph
yet as a producer, the psychedelic middle section. But he reluctantly accepted Atlantic Rrecords’ logic when some AM radio stations started making their own edits to the album track to make it fit the three-minute format.
As a result, similar bite-size versions of the song hit No.1 as a single in Germany and Belgium. But when Atlantic decided to repeat the process in the UK with an official release, on December 5, Jimmy insisted that Grant put his considerable foot down and veto the idea. Much to the chagrin of Atlantic’s recently appointed London chief, Phil Carson.
“I went around to see Peter Grant,” Carson recalls, “and I tried to say: ‘Well, I’m the marketing genius around here, you know, and I’m telling you that if you want to sell albums, you’ve got to have a single’. In the end he convinced me that it shouldn’t come out – in his own subtle way.” Grant was, he adds, “really insistent”.
As it turned out, Page was proved right, with the resultant publicity from not releasing a single helping Led Zeppelin II sell as fast as a single could sell in those days, with repeat orders of between three and five thousand units a day right through the busy Christmas period. After that, says Carson, “I could never again say no to Peter Grant.”
As with America, it would be Zeppelin’s supernatural live performances that swung the balance for them at home in Britain – not least the powerhouse performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall on January 9, 1970 – Page’s twenty sixth birthday.
Grant had arranged for the Albert Hall show to be filmed documentary-style by the film-makers Peter Whitehead and Stanley Dorfman, and their crew literally followed the band on to the stage that night, where they clustered about them in such close proximity the surviving footage provides a splendidly candid representation of just how powerful and fully realised the Zeppelin live experience now was. The band had played more than 140 shows in the preceding 12 months, the vast majority of them in the US, and it shows on the film footage, from the opening gunshot of Bonham’s volcanic drums on We’re Gonna Groove, to Plant’s unfathomably vast vocal pyrotechnics, lion’s mane of hair shaking as his hands pummel an invisible drum or guitar, to that huge but surprisingly nimble bass with which Jones effortlessly anchors the rhythm.
Page, of course, is the one you can’t keep your eyes off, though, dressed down in his sleeveless harlequin cardigan and skinny straight-legged jeans, skipping about the stage with the guitar at his knees, full of a savage intensity belied only by the way he peeps almost shyly out at the audience occasionally from behind the curtains of dark hair that smother his face.
“I look at the Albert Hall footage now,” Plant told me, “and the first thing I notice is how young we all are. I look like what I was: a Black Country hippie full of high ideals and low-cost living. Playing live was the real jewel in our existence, everybody had the capacity to take it and move it around until it took on whole new meanings. On the right night, a Led Zeppelin show was a spectacular place to be.”
Back for their fifth US tour in April, at a show in Memphis the manager of the venue, one Bubba Bland, became so alarmed at the over-the-top reaction of the audience, he panicked and demanded Grant stop the show. When Grant just laughed in his face, Bland pulled a gun on him. “If you don’t cut the show,” he bellowed, “I’m gonna shoot ya!”
“They were all over the place – some things were done in London, some were on the road; they had this huge trunk of tapes.” Recording engineer Eddie Kramer
Plant stopped the show mid-way through Whole Lotta Love and told the audience: “Please everyone, sit down, the show cannot continue. They’ve actually threatened us back here, I need your help.” The crowd settled down, and then, rat-a-tat-tat, they went back into Whole Lotta Love and people were going crazy again.
With the band escaping the venue later, several fans took off in a car chase. Zeppelin engineer Terry Manning, also in the car, recalled: “All the way through the streets of Memphis, with everybody screaming and yelling: ‘I know you’re in there!’ And Jimmy was just freaking out. While this was happening I had Heartbreaker panning back and forth on the car stereo. It was like a bizarre scene from hell…”
One, though, with Heaven waiting just round the corner…