The #1 Albums: “Led Zeppelin II”
In 2003, Eric Boehlert (now at Media Matters) wrote an essay for Salon called “The Greatest Week in Rock History” in which he proposed that the week of December 20, 1969, was “when revolutionary rock ‘n’ roll, powerhouse R&B, and shimmering pop creations all shared top billing as they never have before or since.” It was indeed a magical week, in which the majority of the acts among the week’s top 10 albums would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Boehlert’s essay places the music in context of the tumultuous period in American and world history in which it was heard, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of music writing.
Boehlert says that Led Zeppelin II, the album sitting at #2 during his Greatest Week, invented heavy metal: “Not just the relentless, thundering sound, but the strutting, cocksure attitude that would dominate rock (often in inflated, caricatured forms) for years to come.” He quotes Stephen Davis, author of the Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods, who observed that Led Zeppelin II and its lead single, “Whole Lotta Love,” were markers of a new generation rising: “Ironically, the song (and Led Zeppelin) didn’t much appeal to the kids of the sixties, who had grown up with the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan. Tired, jaded, disillusioned, they were turning towards softer sound, country rock. But their younger siblings, the high school kids, were determined to have more fun. Led Zeppelin was really their band. For the next decade Led Zeppelin would be the unchallenged monarchs of high school parking lots all over America.”
As if to declare to the universe that the 60s were over, Led Zeppelin II hit #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart on December 27, 1969. It would swap weeks with the last #1 album of the 60s, Abbey Road, until the end of January, when it would put a stranglehold on #1 and stay there five straight weeks, making seven overall.
That the album hangs together as well as it does is a bit of a miracle, given that it was written and recorded in various places around the world while Zeppelin toured during the first half of 1969. Inspired by the British blues boom of the 1960—and in fact borrowing from Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf without crediting them, at least until lawyers got involved—it took the blues in entirely new directions. Nearly half of its songs remain staples of the classic-rock genre: not just “Whole Lotta Love” but “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Heartbreaker”/”Living Loving Maid,” “The Lemon Song,” and “Ramble On.”
On this Thanksgiving Day, however, we single out a song that we can dedicate to those who have stood by us for all of our lives, and who, we hope, will stand by us for as long as life lasts. On “Thank You,” Robert Plant sings, “My love is strong, with you there is no wrong, together we shall go until we die.”