On this day in 1969, Led Zeppelin made their debut on the US singles chart with “Whole Lotta Love.” It went on to reach #4 on the chart and was the first of six Top 40 singles for the group in the US.
“Whole Lotta Love” was my own introduction to Zeppelin. Up until this point, as a 12-year-old, I was a Beatles fanatic. So much so I used to sometimes carry a Beatles album to school in the hope that maybe some other like-minded student might talk to me about the fabs, or even better, a girl might find my appreciation of The Beatles attractive and possibly talk to me!
What did happen though was one particular day, when my Beatles album of choice was Abbey Road, a guy called Pete Humphries came up to me and said, "Have you ever heard this?" He was holding a copy of Led Zeppelin II. “No,” was my reply, so we swapped albums and that afternoon when I arrived home I encountered a life-changing experience. I heard Led Zeppelin for the very first time and was hooked.
In the late 1960s, bands were expected to release more than one album a year, and they were usually happy to do so, since their income was derived more from live shows than from record sales, in the main. A new album also gave them the impetus to present new material and Zeppelin were no exception, although their debut album had been very successful. There was pressure from all quarters to have another album ready by the end of 1969, and the band were equally motivated; their debut had shown the potential for their four-way creative process and they had been playing a series of incendiary shows which were increasing their audiences in leaps and bounds. In America they had started in late 1968 opening for Vanilla Fudge, but before long they were assured headliners, with extended performances that became the stuff of legend.
The opening track on the band's second album, “Whole Lotta Love” was the first track to be credited to all four Zeppelin members, with the subsequent addition of Willie Dixon, recognising its superficial similarity to Dixon's “You Need Love” as performed by Muddy Waters. In fact, although both songs have a verse section that stays on one chord, the only similar sections are a small part of the top line and the words "way down inside/you need love," which isn't much in a song lasting 5:33. The blasting iconic guitar riff, doubled on bass, is original, as is the arrangement; extremely so, with its long percussion and vocal middle section, closed with a double riff, guitar histrionics, and a return to the main event.
Known as the 'orgasm' section, from 1:18 to 3:02 or so, you get John Bonham's hi-hat keeping time while Jimmy Page and Eddie Kramer pan psychedelic guitar sweeps and Robert Plant's vocal phrases around the spectrum, before the drums crash back in. At 4:00, the band stops and the live nature of Zeppelin's recording, done once again at Olympic Studios in London with George Chkiantz engineering, is evident: Robert Plant's first vocal is still there on the tape, bleeding across the room into (we assume) the drum mics, to blend in behind the new a cappella lead vocal, to give a ghostly effect. The band return and the song crashes to its fade, featuring a harmony guitar on the main riff as we go.
All in all, an unlikely single, but it stormed its way up radio playlists in the US, though perhaps placing them unfairly in a 'riff-rock' box along the way. After radio stations started editing out the middle section to create their own short versions, Atlantic Records quickly responded and shortened their own single, cutting it down from the full-length 5:33 to a brisker 3:10.
It became Zeppelin's first hit, peaking at #4 in the US in the summer of 1969 and selling over a million copies, as well as reaching #1 in Belgium and Germany.
Blocked from a UK single release by Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, “Whole Lotta Love” was still to gain familiarity to the British public as the theme tune to BBC TV's Top Of The Pops in a version by blues singer Alexis Korner's CCS. Coincidentally, just after The Band Of Joy and pre-Zeppelin, Robert Plant had briefly been in a version of an Alexis Korner group that included British pianist Steve Miller (not the US Space Cowboy).
I can still vividly remember hearing the opening riff for the very first time, and then Bonham’s drums—I’d never heard anything like it—and then the voice of Robert Plant:
You need coolin', baby, I'm not foolin'
I'm gonna send ya back to schoolin'
Way down inside, a-honey, you need it
I'm gonna give you my love
I'm gonna give you my love, oh
Wanna whole lotta love