More often than not, the greatest songs seem to fall out of thin air – as if there were some great big cloud of music up there in the stratosphere which, ever so occasionally, let’s slip something fully-formed and utterly sublime. All a songwriter can hope for is that one of these pieces of music finds them when they are clutching their guitar or sitting at the piano – hands poised. Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was rarely away from his instrument and was subsequently a frequent recipient of these droplets of musical brilliance, some of which found their way onto his group’s sophomore album Led Zeppelin II.
Led Zeppelin’s second studio album was written during a particularly busy time in the band’s career. In 1969, they were on top of the world, having embarked on four American and European tours. As you would expect, the band spent a lot of time on the road, where they would jam to pass the time.
Many of the songs on Led Zeppelin II are a product of those extended improv sessions, and a good deal of them were recorded at separate studios around the US and UK while the band were still on tour. Hoping to record their second album while they were on the rise, Page and the band were forced to carve out chunks of time wherever they could, going so far as to jump from an afterparty following their sell-out show New York City’s Fillmore East to a recording studio that same night. It is this urgency that drives Led Zeppelin II, forcing Page to come up with many of his guitar lines on the spot.
An excellent example comes in the form of Page’s solo on ‘Heartbreaker’. As Page once recalled, the solo was entirely improvised, plucked seemingly from nowhere when the band were looking for something to give the track a much-needed edge. “I just fancied doing it,” Page explained in a 1993 interview.
“I was always trying to do something different or something that no one else had thought of,” he added. “But the interesting thing about that solo is that it was recorded after we had already finished ‘Heartbreaker’ – it was an afterthought. That whole section was recorded in a different studio and was sort of slotted in the middle. If you notice, the whole sound of the guitar is different.”
He’s right, the solo is markedly different in tone. Unlike the previously recorded guitar tracks, Page employed his Gibson Les Paul for the ‘Heartbreaker’ overdubs, choosing to hook it up to a red-hot Marshall stack. The pairing was thrown together out of sheer necessity but would end up becoming Page’s signature combo, going on to define the sound of Led Zeppelin’s subsequent records – and it was all little more than an afterthought.