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.
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.
According to Led Zeppelin lore, these guys had written too much material for their follow-up to Houses of Holy, so instead of cutting some material, they decided to expand it to a double album. Usually, that entailed filling the album with a ton of unused (and weaker) material from earlier albums. The result is one of the more scattershot and less “revolutionary” Led Zeppelin albums, but I’ll be a monkey’s great-aunt if I don’t find this thing to be entertaining.
This was planned to be a back-to-basics album as the progressive rock ambitions of Houses of Holy didn’t seem to pan out too well. This is an album filled with simple riff-rockers more or less. Not that I didn’t want musicians to expand their boundaries a little bit, but we all have to face the facts: Riff-rock was just their strength. There’s nothing finer than hearing these guys rip out a catchy riff over and over again while Robert Plant wails over it like he does (although he seemed to already lose some of his range since the classic days, which is surprising).
I had a copy of this album for quite some time, but I’ll admit that I never actually sat down and listened to the whole thing until I wrote this review. The reason I kept this album around was for one reason, and one reason only: “Kashmir.” I am with 99 percent of the rock ‘n’ roll population who thinks that’s a tremendously cool song. They come up with that ascending chord progression riff that sounds so epic that it should have been in a soundtrack to a ’50s movie in Technicolor starring Kirk Douglas. That epic. Even Bonham’s rather simple drumming seems larger than life! Robert Plant of course sings stuff over it, but even that doesn’t destroy the good mood.
Another song that wins me over for its badassery is “The Rover,” which is little more than a really awesomely played riff. Did we really want anything more from them? The album closer “Sick Again” is another one of my favorites. It’s little more than a dumb and dirty riff, but it’s catchy and I can actually get caught up in it. “The Wanton Song” features such a quickly played riff that it smacks me around and forces me to pay attention, and that constitutes another highlight.
There are a couple of oddball songs in here, which I appreciate, since it keeps this 15-track album from growing too samey. Although I’m not much of a fan of the nine-minute psychedelic/new-agey song, “In the Light.” There’s some interesting elements to it (such as a nicely done bendy synthesizer solo at the beginning), but that song seems to drag on for waaay too long, and its heavy guitar sections just seem flat to me. One of the album’s good oddball songs must be “Trampled Underfoot,” which contains such a tight and catchy groove that it forces me to tap my foot with it. John Bonham deserves credit for his inventive drum sounds in “Boogie With Stu” and “Black Country Woman,” which would have otherwise been boringly ordinary.
“In My Time of Dying” is another highlight that I feel the need to point out mostly because it is the sort of song that I thought I would have hated. It’s an 11-minute piece filled with nothing but bluesy licks, minimal drum beats, and Robert Plant sounding like he’s improvising a melody. But somehow, they keep those bluesy licks consistently interesting, so it doesn’t completely lose my attention.
A lot of Led Zeppelin fans consider Physical Graffiti to be their best. While I’m not with them on that assessment, I can see where they’re coming from. This is where Led Zeppelin started to lose some of their (honestly misguided) artistic ambition and just concentrated on songs that are fun to listen to. Sure, there is that weird exception (“In the Light”) and maybe a few songs that could have rocked out more (“Ten Years Gone”), but all in all this is right on the money.
By now Zeppelin was larger than life, being the biggest band in the world with their own record label (Swan Song) to boot. The band reveled in rock n’ roll excess to a dangerous degree, led by Bonzo’s gonzo antics and goaded along by their brilliant but bully-ish manager, the oversized Peter Grant.
But even though a dark cloud always seemed to hover over the band (Jones came seriously close to leaving in ’73), they always got it together when it came down to producing the musical goods. Befitting the band’s big stature, Physical Graffiti was their most ambitious outing. A double album (now a single cd) covering a vast amount of musical territory, Physical Graffiti contained an almost equal measure of new songs along with excellent songs left over from previous sessions.
This was their White Album, their Electric Ladyland, so to speak, and as such no other Led Zeppelin album ranges as far or better showcases the depth of their talents. Only Led Zeppelin IV (or whatever you want to call it) can seriously rival Physical Graffiti for the title of “best Led Zeppelin album,” as the album features incredibly tight playing and offers up far more spontaneous, flat-out heavier music than Houses Of The Holy.
Featuring some of Zep’s best, most far out and expansive epics (“In My Time Of Dying,” “Kashmir,” “In The Light,” “Ten Years Gone”), this album offers something for everyone, really, the only minor negatives being that perhaps it is a couple of tracks too long (I could easily live without “Night Flight” and “Black Country Woman”) and there are times when Plant’s voice sounds ragged and weathered as a result of a throat operation.
The band immediately delivered the goods on the muscular “Custard Pie,” a funky stomper with sledghammer riffs that borrows lyrics from Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em On Down” far more effectively than “Hats Off To Roy Harper,” that’s for sure. “The Rover,” a churning, melodic riff rocker, is one of the band’s most underrated great songs, with great high-pitched vocals from Plant (a dead giveaway that this song preceded his throat operation), who also helps out on harmonica, and a classy guitar solo from Page.
The band’s bruising, bluesy take on the traditional “In My Time Of Dying” (which had previously appeared on Bob Dylan’s first album) is an often-spectacular if perhaps slightly over-long 11-minute showcase for the band’s great group interplay and chemistry, as each member is in top form both collectively and individually. It’s cute how they left in Bonzo’s “that’s got to be the one, hasn’t it?” observation at the end of the song, too, and he must’ve known because this song is on the short list of his very best performances.
Continuing, “Houses Of The Holy” is a swinging, upbeat rocker that’s fittingly of a piece with the band’s previous album, whose recording sessions this song unsurprisingly orginated from. “Trampled Under Foot,” an explosively funky workout (led by Bonham) on which Plant’s vocals are noticeably ragged, is another undeniable classic, and is the most notable of several songs on which Jones plays an electric clavinet (that being a big instrument at the time courtesy of Stevie Wonder).
Page’s wah wah guitar outbursts don’t hurt either, nor does Plant’s horny sex and cars lyrics; what’s not to like? Still, even this powerhouse song, which crushes “The Crunge” in its attempt at funk, pales in comparison to the towering Eastern epic, “Kashmir.” Led by Jones’ brilliantly brooding orchestration, this atmospheric track slowly builds beautifully and majestically to an almost overwhelmingly powerful climax (on which Plant shines and Bonham is awe-inspiring), and no less an authority than Plant felt that the song captured the essence of everything that Led Zeppelin was all about. And that’s just the first cd!
What used to be side 3 may very well be the albums best. “In The Light” is another criminally underrated Eastern epic, led by Jones’ eerie keyboard drones and its soaring “in the light” guitar/vocal climax. This track leads into the pretty acoustic instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur” (which unsurprisingly originated from Led Zeppelin III), which segues perfectly into the beautifully relaxed melody, shimmering psychedelicized guitar textures, and catchy chorus of the poppy “Down By The Seaside.”
The monumental “Ten Years Gone” then takes over with another incredibly powerful Eastern-tinged epic that majestically showcases the band’s light-to-shade dynamics, led by Page, whose multi-tracked guitar is all over the place, and Plant, who delivers a wonderfully weary, deeply affecting vocal. On to side four, the funky power riffing of the sexually charged “The Wanton Song,” the relaxed ’50-styled piano rocker “Boogie With Stu” (featuring Rolling Stones crony/sideman Ian Stewart and a melody based on Richie Valens’ “Ooh! My Head”), and the pummeling, bluesy groupie “tribute” “Sick Again” are other highlights, though none scale as high as the previous major efforts and again I could live without a couple of tracks here.
Still, throughout Physical Graffiti even when the band (infrequently) missteps they do so with giant strides, causing Plant to proudly proclaim to Mojo magazine: “if I’m going to blow my trumpet about anything I’ve been connected with, then it would have to be that album.”
It had been nearly two years since Led Zeppelin had released a studio album when Physical Graffiti made its appearance February 24, 1975. It would become their second most successful commercial release, selling 16 million copies in the United States alone. Rolling Stone would name it to their list of The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.
Zeppelin’s contract with Atlantic had expired and they decided to form their own label, Swan Song. In addition to themselves, the label would become the home for such artists as Bad Company, Dave Edmunds, The Pretty Things, and Maggie Bell before folding during 1983. Today it is just used exclusively for reissues.
The album jacket cover of the original vinyl release was very innovative. It pictured an actual tenement building in New York City located at 96 and 98 St. Mark Place. The inner sleeve allowed you to change the pictures in the windows.
Physical Graffiti was a long, sprawling double album which reached out in a number of musical directions. Led Zeppelin’s albums were always an attack on the ears and senses and this double dose is almost overwhelming. The length allowed the group to try new things and also reach back into their past for some forgotten, unused material.
I have always found the first disc the stronger of the two with three of the tracks ranking among their best. The album begins with “Custard Pie” with blues riffing and wah-wah guitar by Page. The lyrics are filled with sexual innuendo and are an immediate attention grabber. “In My Time Of Dying” clocked in at over 11 minutes and was the longest studio track of their career. It had the sound and feel of improvisation which was always a good thing for the group. “Kashmir” remains one of my favorite Zeppelin tracks. Page’s playing is some of the best of his career as the tonal shifts and sophistication are phenomenal.
“Houses Of The Holy” was written for their previous album but was left off at the last minute; oddly, it was still the title of that album. This mid-tempo rock track features heavy bass riffs. I have read the song was never played live by the group. “Trampled Under Foot” is another solid rock song.
You have to dig a little deeper on the second disc. “In The Light” constantly reminds me just how good a keyboard player John Paul Jones was but it is Page’s use of a violin bow to play his acoustic guitar that makes the song unique. “Ten Years Gone” is a nice example of Page’s production prowess as he continually overdubs his guitar parts. “Boogie With Stu” was resurrected from 1971 when the Rolling Stone keyboardist, Ian Stewart, sat in on a studio jam. “Sick Again” is an ode to the teenage groupies that used to follow the band.
Physical Graffiti may not be cohesive and is a little excessive but it remains another definitive statement by Led Zeppelin. It is also another brilliant example of heavy rock music at its best.
They’ve sparked riots from Boston to Milan, sold out concerts from Hong Kong to Hamburg. Each of their five previous albums has gone platinum, selling more than one million copies; one, Led Zeppelin (IV), has sold more than three million. They’ve set new records for U.S. concert attendance, drawing 56,800 to a single show in Tampa, Florida, in 1973 and 120,000 to six concerts in the New York area in 1975. On paper at least, Led Zeppelin is unquestionably the world’s most popular rock band.
Yes. But is it the world’s best rock band?
That the question should even arise reflects not only this band’s status, but also the current state of the music. What’s the competition? The Rolling Stones. The Who. And?
Moreover, with the release of Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin’s sixth album, the question has actually become relevant. This two-record set, the product of almost two years’ labor, is the band’s Tommy, Beggar’s Banquet and Sgt. Pepper rolled into one: Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin’s bid for artistic respectability.
In a virtual recapitulation of the group’s career, Physical Graffiti touches all the bases. There’s a blues (“In My Time of Dying”) and a cosmic-cum-heavy ballad (“In the Light”); there’s an acoustic interlude (“Bron-Y-Aur”) and lots of bludgeoning hard rock, still this band’s forte (“Houses of the Holy,” “The Wanton Song”); there are also hints of Bo Diddley (“Custard Pie”), Burt Bacharach (“Down by the Seaside”) and Kool and the Gang (“Trampled under Foot”). If nothing else, Physical Graffiti is a tour de force.
The album’s — and the band’s — mainspring is Jimmy Page, guitarist extraordinaire. It was Page who formed Led Zeppelin in 1968, after the model of such guitar-oriented blues-rock units as Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and the Yardbirds, where Page, a former sessionman, had first come to prominence. And it is Page who continues to chart Zeppelin’s contemporary course, not only as the group’s lead guitarist, but also as the band’s producer.
His primary concern, both as producer and guitarist, is sound. His playing lacks the lyricism of Eric Clapton, the funk of Jimi Hendrix, the rhythmic flair of Peter Townshend; but of all the virtuoso guitarists of the Sixties, Page, along with Hendrix, has most expanded the instrument’s sonic vocabulary.
He has always exhibited a studio musician’s knack for functionalism. Unlike many of his peers, he rarely overplays, especially on record (and Led Zeppelin has never indulged itself with a live LP). Most of his playing instead evidences the restraint and rounded style of his avowed influences: the brooding, involuted blues lines of Otis Rush, the finely filigreed acoustic form of Bert Jansch, the echoed, subliminally driving accompaniments of Scotty Moore (behind Elvis Presley) and James Burton (behind Ricky Nelson) on early rockabilly records.
A facile soloist, Page excels at fills, obbligatos and tags. Playing off stock riffs, he modulates sonorities, developing momentum by modifying instrumental colors. To this end, he uses a wide array of effects, including on Physical Graffiti some echoed slide (“Time of Dying”), a countryish vibrato (“Seaside”), even a swimming, clear tone reminiscent of Lonnie Mack (the solo on “The Rover”). But his signature remains distortion. Avoiding “clean” timbres, Page usually pits fuzzed out overtones against a hugely recorded bottom, weaving his guitar in and out of the total mix, sometimes echoing Robert Plant’s contorted screams, sometimes tunneling behind a dryly thudding drum.
Page’s instrumental cohorts are John Paul Jones and John Bonham. Jones, another studio veteran, contributes keyboards as well as bass and is responsible, via his use of synthesizer, for bringing fullness as well as funk to the band. Bonham, on the other hand, is a steak-and-potatoes percussionist, handpicked, one assumes, for his ability to supply a plodding, stolid, rock-solid bottom — no one has ever accused Led Zeppelin of swinging.
Fronting the band onstage and sharing the spotlight with Page is vocalist Robert Plant. Like the Who’s Roger Daltrey, he is a singer of limited range and feeling, but he projects himself with an irrepressible flair. Plant’s acrobatics in fact complement Page’s preoccupation with sound. Not only does Plant warble limply as well as scream, he also adds yet another gravelly component to the band. In his production of Plant, Page constantly plays on this grittiness, the vocal counterpart to the distorted sound of his own guitar.
Although Zeppelin at the outset hewed closely to the standard blues-rock format of the late Sixties, the band soon abandoned blues retreads to concentrate on their own brand of hard rock. The group’s first album, Led Zeppelin, already contained such departures as “Dazed and Confused,” a searing wall of sound that inspired a generation of heavy-metal rockers. “Communication Breakdown,” also on the first LP, showed off the uptempo side of the Zeppelin format, with Page unleashing a blizzard of choppy chords. The jerky meter and crude attack remain favorite devices of Page, who, like Leiber and Stoller with the Coasters, understands the art of contriving a raucous sound (consider “Rock & Roll,” Zeppelin’s other masterpiece of distilled freneticism).
Thanks to Page’s production, Led Zeppelin quickly outdistanced such predecessors as Cream and the Yardbirds. Not only was Plant a stronger singer than the Yardbirds’ Keith Relf, but Page, in contrast to Clapton, Bruce and Baker, grasped the importance of crafting a coherent ensemble approach. Taking his cues from old Sun and Chess records, he used reverb and echo to mold the band into a unit, always accenting the bottom (bass and drums), always aiming at the biggest possible sound. As a result, Zeppelin’s early records still sound powerful, while Cream tracks like “White Room” in retrospect sound pale and disjointed. On such classics as “Whole Lotta Love,” Page’s production set new standards for recording hard rock.
By 1971 and the release of the fourth Led Zeppelin album, Page and the band had broadened their approach to include acoustic ballads and folk-derived material, a side of the band introduced on Led Zeppelin III. “Stairway to Heaven,” the band’s most popular song, delicately balanced acoustic and electric elements before climaxing in a patented fuzz assault. Plant’s controlled singing and Page’s development of texture both distinguish this track, which to this day confounds critics who denigrate Zeppelin as a band schooled only in the art of excess.
But in fact an attention to detail and a sense of economy and nuance have become hallmarks of the Zeppelin style. “Four Sticks,” from Led Zeppelin IV, to take a trifling example, sustains momentum by alternating a distorted electric riff with an acoustic progression doubled on keyboards. The percussion recalls Elvis’s “Mystery Train” more than Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” and it adds just the right touch of elegance to an otherwise elementary cut.
Physical Graffiti only confirms Led Zeppelin’s preeminence among hard rockers. Although it contains no startling breakthroughs, it does afford an impressive overview of the band’s skill. On “Houses of the Holy,” Plant’s lyrics mesh perfectly with Page’s stuttering licks. Here again, the details are half the fun: Bonham kicks the cut along with a cowbell while the two final verses add what sounds like a squeaky chorus of “doit”s behind the vocal; Plant meanwhile is almost inaudibly overdubbed on the song’s central chorus, underlining the phrase “let the music be your master.”
Throughout the album, Page and the band tap a strange lot of sources, although the result is always pure Zeppelin. On “Ten Years Gone,” a progression recalling the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” resolves in a beautifully waddling refrain, Page scooping broad and fuzzy chords behind Plant, who sounds a lot like Rod Stewart. Elsewhere, the band trundles out the Marrakech Symphony Orchestra (for “Kashmir”), Ian Stewart’s piano and even a mandolin (both for “Boogie with Stu”). Small matter: Jimmy Page could probably arrange a quartet for finger cymbals and have it come lumbering out of the loudspeakers sounding like Led Zeppelin.
Naturally, Graffiti is not without faults — Zeppelin is too intuitive a band to cut a flawless album. Although Page and Bonham mount a bristling attack on “The Rover,” this track, like several others, suffers from Plant’s indefinite pitch. Other cuts, such as the ten-minute “Kashmir” and “In My Time of Dying,” succumb to monotony. “In the Light,” one of the album’s most ambitious efforts, similarly fizzles down the home stretch, although the problem here is not tedium but a fragmentary composition that never quite jells: When Page on the final release plays an ascending run intended to sound majestic, the effect is more stilted than stately.
Despite such lapses, Physical Graffiti testifies to Page’s taste and Led Zeppelin’s versatility. Taken as a whole, it offers an astonishing variety of music, produced impeccably by Page. Not that this album will convince the doubters. Anyone with an antipathy to the posturing of Robert Plant or the wooden beat of John Bonham, be forewarned: A Led Zeppelin is a Led Zeppelin is a Led Zeppelin.
Physical Graffiti will likely also disappoint those who prefer their rock laced with lyrical significance: Led Zeppelin no more articulates a world view than Little Richard (or Cream) did. Yet while Zeppelin’s stature as cultural spokesmen can be questioned, their standing as rock musicians cannot.