Classic Rock Review

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Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti (1975)

led-zeppelin-physical-graffiti-front-coverFrom guypetersreviews.com

Since I’ve always considered this album John Bonham’s finest moment (making it required listening if you ever aspire to be a (good) rock drummer), I have a tendency to nag about the drumming on this album. It’s fantastic.

Bonham may not have been a technically gifted stylist like Carl Palmer or Vinnie Colaiuta or Simon Phillips – there are none of those lightning-fast fills (or not too many), dazzling shifts in time signatures or “impossible” accents, rolls and tricks – but the guy comes up with all the appropriate power and groove necessary to make these songs even much better than most of them already were. Of course, the impact wouldn’t be as impressive if it weren’t for the actual sound of the drums.

Even though these songs were recorded over the course of several years – 8 songs were recorded in 1974, 7 others were ‘leftovers’ recorded in the first four years before it (“Bron-Yr-Aur” is from 1970!) – I’ve rarely heard an album with such a consistently awesome, natural and massive drum sound. It’s totally thunderous (apocalyptic even), nothing less and it takes even the slightest songs into epic territory. Is there anyone – a drummer, a studio technician, a Zephead, a wise-ass – who can tell me why not even a legion of engineers and producers can’t capture that sound anymore? Is it the kit? Is it the recording equipment?

Or is it the simple fact that a few strategically placed mics are so much more effective than today’s “advanced” technology? Tell me. Anyway, its not just the powerhouse drumming that makes this one gargantuan slab of rock ‘n’ roll excess, as the whole package is larger than life: 4 album sides, 15 songs (almost half of them longer than five minutes), self-indulgent jams, unashamedly struttin’ rhythms, and some of the most physical hard rock this sound of James Brown.

It has all their virtues and vices combined into 80 minutes of rawk. It’s nowhere near as innovative as their first few albums and it’s not the transitional, innovative album Houses of the Holy was, either. If anything, Physical Graffiti is a consolidation of their unquestionable reign as rock Gods. Some people criticised the album, calling it a retread, a hodgepodge of stale ideas and mediocre songwriting, but I say it’s just a band at work that had nothing left to prove. So they did what they do best: rock and let the creativity flow.

Like all their other albums, Physical Graffiti has its share of filler (and perhaps more than that – so, no perfect ’10’, I’m sorry!), but it also has the swagger, the monumental riffs, amazing musicianship, sex and sprawl that only make the best double albums out there (Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles, Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime, that kind) so valuable, despite their faults. Fifteen years ago, I would’ve raged on and on and on, foam dangling at the corner of my mouth, how the first disc (songs 1-6) messes with all the rules of good rock ‘n’ roll, but nowadays, I consider it an almost flawless triumph. “Custard Pie” is easily the weakest of those songs, yet it not only proves Plant’s limitless linguistic talent (how many synonyms and metaphors did he use for “pussy”?), but it’s also a dirty, pumping slice of hard rock, featuring Jones’ awkwardly funky clavinet parts (yeah, it’s that “Superstition”-sound), greasy axe-work by Page and ragged vocals by the sore-throated banshee (and check out how he totally misses the mark 3:09 into the song).

“The Rover” is kicked off by Bonham’s hi-hat and snare drum, which soon gives way to another monstrous riff, but while it suggests it’s a monotonous boogie-rocker, it soon blooms into one of their most underrated, melodic rock songs and when Plants croons that melancholy “There can be no denyin’ that the wind’ll shake ’em down”-line, how can you not like that? And it still gets better, and this is where I’m treading on dangerous ground. “In My Time of Dying” (credited to the band, but actually a cover of the same song Bob Dylan included on his debut album) is basically a repetitive 11-minute blues-jam, but boy, does it kick ass, not in the least because of Bonham’s awesome performance.

Of course, the biblical references give it an aura of aural corpulence even they rarely achieved (unless they were playing live), but man! Listen! Page’s menacing slide playing, Plant’s moaning, the way Page and Bonham switch to that second part four minutes into the songs, the hollerin’, the delirious blues soloing. It may not be pretty, it may not be original, but play it loud (and I mean, crank it up!) and you’ll realize it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll. As far as jammin’ goes, this is a monster band at work and few classic rock bands ever managed to make a similar impact. And no, The Doors didn’t even come close with their similarly lengthy “When the Music’s Over.” They didn’t.

The next three songs (second vinyl side), the album’s most recognizable and unique songs, are probably even better. The funky strut of “Houses of the Holy” is Led Zeppelin at their catchiest (can you sit still? honestly?), “Trampled Under Foot” even betrays hints of disco rhythms with that insistent groove and cheesy use of clavinet, but is as sexual as the band ever got musically, and Plant’s “OOOoooooooooohhhyeahyeahyeah” is one for the books.

The best is yet to come, though, as “Kashmir” remains one of their crowning achievements, even though it’s been overplayed and almost put to shame by the shithead entrepreneur with the silly sunglasses and the clothing line. It remains a stunning combination of rock groove and outlandish melodies, guitars, brass and strings, drama and uh, more drama. And all the while, Bonham keeps that simple, but majestic beat going. It’s eight and a half minutes long and worth it. Every bombastic second. And that’s all I have to say about that.

If you’re fed up with the big, ambitious rock songs, there’s always the second disc to turn your attention to, as it contains a mixed bag of straightforward boogie, more acoustic-oriented material and the occasional oddball. It’s also this batch of songs that ensured Physical Graffiti’s stature as Led Zeppelin’s White Album – which does make sense if you’re talkin’ about the album being a loose display of their styles and sounds, even though the sequence suggests they considered this material less essential.

When I heard the keyboard-intro to “In the Light” for the first time I was, like many others I presume, almost shocked, as it has more in common with lo-fi sci-fi music, or Tangerine Dream (!) than the world’s greatest cock rock band. Of course they didn’t have the guts to continue like that, so what you get (twice) is a long, extended intro with eventually also baroquely treated vocals (or are they multi-tracked?), then a pummeling monotonous groove and finally a lyrical part with exquisite guitar work. If you’re waiting for the pay-off, you’ll have to be patient, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this one.

The next three songs (which make up the rest of side 3) have nothing in common with each other, as “Bron-Yr-Aur” is an acoustic folk instrumental that’s tenderly pastoral, “Down by the Seaside” a gently swaying kind of sea-shanty with shimmering guitar parts with a terrific solo part in the middle and “Ten Years Gone” a patiently developing, smooth slice of folk, pop and rock combined into one, while being a long shot from the densely arranged stuff on the first album.

It would’ve fit nicely on III or IV. The final five songs are often considered the album’s ultimate le tdown, but again, they’re surprisingly enjoyable, as long as you don’t expect another “Kashmir” or “Trampled Under Foot.” “Night Flight” is concise, melodic and laidback boogie-pop, “The Wanton Song” and “Sick Again” are greasy groove-rockers with the especially the latter offering dirty guitar sounds, “Black Country Woman” is a nice blend of folk and… country that’s perhaps a bit too unsubstantial for its own good and “Boogie with Stu” finally, the black sheep, is actually enjoyable as hell, as the combination of mechanic percussion, barrelhouse piano done Pinetop Perkins-style and Plant’s retro-rock ‘n’ roll vocals are sheer fun. None of the songs on the album’s second half would end up in my Led Zeppelin Top 10, but exactly because they’re not overweight, pompous and ambitious, they work perfectly fine as an extra bonus to the better, but also more exhausting first half.

I heard Physical Graffiti for the first time in the summer of 1991 and didn’t wanna admit I actually like quite a lot of it. Two months later a band from Seattle made some impact, sent my preferences off in another direction and I forgot about Led Zeppelin for a while, until I revisited them in the mid/late nineties (many, many hours of music listening later) and asked myself what I’d been thinking. Sure, Physical Graffiti is still the perfect target if you’re a punk rocker narrow-minded enough to set out to prove that the epitome of ’70’s rock was too self-satisfied, not always very smart (because the lyrics do become trite once in a while) and such a drag, but if you turn up the volume and listen, you’ll have to admit that these guys were still going strong after already having released five excellent albums in a row.

You can feel, however, that it also was a turning point for the band, breaking or bending, as their adventurous spirit was kept in check and virtuoso hard rock had been confronted with its limitations in the meantime (and things did go downhill – really fast). Aerosmith and AC/DC were waiting around the corner to become the new emperors of rock ‘n’ roll, but even they will have to admit that the core of Physical Graffiti is exactly what bands had been looking for the two decades before them and three decades since: the devil’s music wrapped up in irresistible adrenalin that tells you you’re the man.

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May 26, 2013 - Posted by | Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti |

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