Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti (1975)
Some consider this the pinnacle of Zeppelinism – a double album that sends to hell all these funk/reggae tendences of Houses in favour of Page/Plant’s more traditional hallmarks: heavy riffs and devilish screaming abound on this record, Bonham pounds as if his life depends on the effort he puts in his drums, and Jones mostly sticks to bass if you don’t count an occasional organ solo now and then (which, by the way, he used to do since the very beginning).
Everybody’s in top form, in short. But in the end, maybe it’s just that fact that makes the record unlistenable to a large extent. Now I’m not willing to lower this record in the eyes of the fans: everybody who worships Page more than Budda will get his load of kicks from this record. But for me, who likes Led Zeppelin just like ‘one more great Seventies band’, this is a real pain in the neck, I mean, c’mon people, how can you really sit through the entire record?
That said, Physical Graffiti has always been a critical favourite, and one of the trendiest things to do is to include it in numerous ‘Top 100’ or even ‘Top 10’ rock records of the last four thousand years (which, by the way, is an occupation comparable to defining the ‘Top 10 Writers of the Western Hemisphere’, i.e. fun, but with a zero percent intellectual value.) It’s easy to see why: it’s a double album, it has a wide range of styles, and it sounds acceptable. Double albums have always suffered that fate – when released by a notorious artist, they were either complete failures, or else they were halfway decent, in which case the critics raved up and proclaimed them ‘encyclopaedic masterpieces’.
Such is the case with the Stones’ Exile On Main Street; absolutely the same case is with Physical Graffiti. Except that Led Zeppelin were a less talented band than the Stones (ah, come on all you fans and throttle me – I’m ready for that!), so, naturally, Physical Graffiti is an even worse album. Encyclopaedic it may be, but it is also regressive, limited in its superficially ‘wide’ scope, and, yeah, right, boring. To some extent.
First of all, I’m not at all satisfied with the way they begin to sound from now on. In my humble opinion, Graffiti initiates the ‘late Zeppelin’ period when their hard rock (aka heavy metal) songs suddenly lost all traces of freshness and began sounding totally generic. Maybe it’s the low production value that’s responsible (although I couldn’t accuse Jimmy of not paying attention to production). Maybe it’s because of the overall ‘jamming’ atmosphere of the album: most of the songs sound raw and totally unpolished. But most probably it’s because Jimmy overabuses distortion and power chords, sounding from time to time like a bad parody on Pete Townshend.
Maybe there’s some other kind of reason. But when I hear ‘Custard Pie’, the by now familiar cock rocker that opens the album, I just can’t help saying: yup, the magic is gone. This is just your average heavy metal band that thinks of itself as sitting on top of the world while in fact what it does is rehashing the elder classic standards with all the diligency expected from a piece of used carbon paper. The witty Mark Prindle once remarked that some of these songs sound more like Grand Funk Railroad than Led Zeppelin, and to me, that’s definitely not a compliment – GFR are one of the most conservative and unimaginative hard rock bands to have ever existed. And the mighty Led Zep, once the kings of scary, jerky tension, have now degenerated to Mark Farner level? Come on now! And I’m not even mentioning their age!
Not that it ain’t really enjoyable, this ‘Custard Pie’: it’s a good piece of heavy boogie, and you can play air guitar and sing along and tap your foot and do everything. But what the heck – it doesn’t even have the power of ‘Black Dog’! It has the crunch, but it doesn’t have the angst and it doesn’t have the menace of that song – ‘Custard Pie’ is nothing to scare your parents with. More examples of the same include the ridiculous closing number ‘Sick Again’ with its hideous jam at the end; and even the more or less classic ‘Wanton Song’ that could have been inserted into ‘Custard Pie’ without anyone noticing the substitution, since the riffs are nearly identical (not that Page is plagiarizing himself for the first time, but never before was it so obvious).
Decent songs, all of them, but not even a little bit better than the contemporary efforts of Aerosmith or AC/DC or whoever. Or Grand Funk, yeah. The Led Zep chemistry that made the early albums so groovy, even if they were still patchy, is gone – almost entirely.
Of course, not all is lost, because on certain other numbers Jimmy tries steering the band into different directions and introducing new gimmicks to the sound – I’m ready to admit that. In doing so, he produces two of the weirdest tracks the band ever did. ‘In My Time Of Dying’ opens with a terrific slide guitar melody, and when Plant comes in with his lyrics it seems for a couple of moments that they almost succeed in recreating the fascinating guitar/vocals battle of old, especially on the oddly-sung line ‘…so I can die eaaaa-a-a-asy…’ And ‘Kashmir’, with its famous Eastern-tinged melody, is deservedly a fan favourite.
Are these violins that play throughout the song, or synthesizers? I’m not too sure, but that majestic ascending line is really something. On the other hand, not even good ideas can save Jimmy from fuckin’ up – ‘In My Time Of Dying’ exceeds all limits of decency by turning into a stupid jam just after four minutes and refusing to shut up for what seems like ages (moreover, at the very end some voice says ‘this is gonna be a long ending’, did they reprise it once again?), and ‘Kashmir’ soon turns out to be just a background setting for that violin line; it certainly does not deserve to be more than eight minutes long. And did I mention such laughable monsters as ‘Ten Years Gone’ or ‘In The Light’?
The first one easily defines ‘filler’, as the riff it is based upon is moderately good, but nothing is ever done to properly unveil the song’s potential – too soft and feeble for a rocker, but too cold and restrained for a ballad. What the hell? And ‘In The Light’… okay, I give: the intro to the song is moody and effective, with J. P. Jones drawing on a mighty fine and scary ‘kozmik’ synth line. The rest I could easily live without.
Did I mention ‘The Rover’ yet? Sounds nice until you realize that its most ’emotional’ parts are almost directly copied from the ‘heavier’ parts of ‘Stairway To Heaven’, with that descending riff near the solo section.
Other ‘novelty’ moments include outtakes from earlier albums, such as the blatantly-pop-disguised-as-heavy-rock ‘Houses Of The Holy’, or the pretty short acoustic instrumental ‘Bron-Y-Aur’ (not to be confounded with ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp’!!). There’s a funny boogie-woogie piano shuffle with Ian Stewart, the ‘sixth Rolling Stone’, at the piano (‘Boogie With Stu’), and a totally out of place country rocker (‘Black Country Woman’). But these are more or less tiny curious islands amidst a sea of pedestrian heavy riffage and mind-boggling jamming.
Track after track goes on and on and on, until you’re really beginning to wonder if these guys planned a double album simply because of lack of dough. And mind you, I said I really don’t dislike Page’s solos by pumping up the rating of The Song Remains The Same. But the fact is, he’s not really soloing: most of the time, he just delivers crunchy guitar lines that don’t suit his classic style at all. Compare Jimmy the guitarist in 1968 and Jimmy the guitarist in 1975 and you’ll see that he’s vilified his own techniques. Even worse, the kind of sound he developed on here serves mostly to mask the lack of truly creative musical ideas. The album really looks like an anthemic chef-d’aeuvre on the outside, but upon opening the nut one can easily ascertain that it’s almost hollow. Isn’t it? Sure is!
I originally gave it a 6, but it has grown on me enough to guarantee a relatively high seven, just because I’m rarely offended by those songs from this album that do not exceed six minutes (plus, I have finally gotten the point of ‘Trampled Underfoot’, which is indeed one of the band’s best attempts at a high-volume, high-energy funk rocker). Still, I wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life listening to ‘Down By The Seaside’ or ‘The Wanton Song’. I just see no point, thanks.
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