Whole Lotta LP
WHOLE LOTTA LP
Wanting a fiftieth anniversary blast of prototype British heavy rock, I asked a Led Zeppelin fanatic of my acquaintance which release of their second album he would recommend.
“Tricky,” he said. “There have been quite a few versions but I don’t have them all.”
“Really?” My surprise was obvious. “I thought you owned a dozen copies.”
“Nineteen, at last count.”
“Surely that must cover it.”
“You kidding? Worldwide, there are hundreds and hundreds of versions of Led Zeppelin II. My holding is pathetic.”
Pathetic wasn’t really the descriptor that sprang to mind, so I decided to change tack.
“Let’s have a listen to my 2014 Jimmy Page remaster.”
Led Zeppelin II opens with the mighty “Whole Lotta Love”, its killer riff roaring out of the speakers like a pack of Harley-Davidsons. When the bass and drums really kick in, it’s thrilling… even five decades on. Then there’s the breakdown section where bongos patter, things echo between the speakers and general weirdness reigns until THAT riff returns after an electrifying Jimmy Page solo. All this and more are nicely captured in Page’s 2014 remaster. In particular, he did a lovely job on Robert Plant’s vocals, which are crisp and clear throughout.
Whipping off the 180g re-issue, we substituted a 1969 UK pressing. Unfortunately the copy had significant surface noise, making comparisons difficult, but there were certainly some small differences to be heard. The earlier fade on Plant’s final wail is one example.
I offered my mid-price Greek re-issue (year uncertain) but we didn’t even get to the “Whole Lotta Love” breakdown before wailing drowned out the music. “Get it OFFFF!”.
Once he’d regained composure, my Zepp mate instructed me to sit down and shut up. He reverently placed a slightly careworn copy of II on the coffee table and stared lovingly at it for a moment.
“And?” I said, a trifle testily. After all, I’d carried my copy of II around Greece for over a month back in 1990 and was very fond of it, despite it sounding crap.
“This,” he said, “Is the Robert Ludwig cut.”
Wanting to appear neither rude nor ignorant, I said nothing.
My friend explained that Mr. Ludwig did a cut of the LP from the master tapes for Atlantic USA. This pressing was described as ‘hot’, meaning that the highs were high, the lows were real low and everything was pushed just a bit further than normal. Sadly, many copies were returned because on cheap record players the stylus tended to jump in response to the huge bass. But there was nothing at all wrong with the pressing, and copies with Bob’s initials on the run out are now sought after by collectors and audiophiles. Many consider the Ludwig version to be even better than the MoFi release.
Out charged “Whole Lotta Love” once again and by golly, it sounded good! John Bonham’s drums are, ahem, rock solid and the bass is truly enormous. There’s an almost jagged edge to some of the guitar slashes, but no distortion. It sounds terrific.
That’s a fair overall description of the Ludwig version. The powerful bottom end adds a swagger matching Led Zeppelin’s music perfectly. Indeed, the biggest beneficiary of the RL cut was certainly the bass of John Paul Jones, heard to particular advantage on juicy blues “The Lemon Song” where the baseline prances, shimmies and warbles like a baritone bird. Same thing on “Heartbreaker”. Superb.
But it’s not all about squeezing lemons (though often it is). The last song on side one hints at the direction Led Zeppelin would head next. “Thank You” has a ballad section delivered with great tenderness by Robert Plant, amply demonstrating his prowess as a vocalist. Page’s acoustic guitar adds a delicate sheen to this song, picked up beautifully by both Ludwig’s ’69 cut and Jimmy’s 2014 remix.
In the final analysis, the recent vinyl version will suit most people (and their turntables, and their budgets) very well indeed. Yet if you have top notch gear and a handsome line of credit, and you happen to encounter the Robert Ludwig version, grab it with two (gloved) hands. It may not be worth selling your firstborn for, but it is bloody good.
So thank you Mr. Ludwig, thank you Mr. Page, and thank you Led Zeppelin. Your second album is a robust fifty-year old thrumming with power. It’s a whole lotta LP.
Bruce Jenkins © October 2019