July 2, 2015 Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti – An Epic Achievement 4 Decades Later
At the time of its release, February 1975, Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus, Physical Graffiti, the band was the biggest in the world. With their previous five albums achieving multi-platinum sales and the band smashing attendance records at concert venues around the globe, Led Zeppelin were on top of the world. Following after a departure from The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page (guitar) put together a powerhouse band featuring John Paul Jones (bass, keys), Robert Plant (vocals), and John Bonham (drums). Blues-based Rock was dominating the scene with bands such as Cream and The Jeff Beck Group churning out heavy, Proto-Metal slabs of hard-driving Rock-n-Roll. Jones and Page, in their early twenties, were the elder statesmen of the band as Plant and Bonham had just emerged from their teens at the band’s inception.
Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut in 1969was drenched in fuzzed-out guitars, bombastic drumming, and soul-drenched vocals. While the Blues were the foundation, the band was pioneers of the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal sound that would dominate the seventies. Active from 1969 to 1979, Led Zeppelin were far and away the biggest band of that era, bigger than country mates, and legendary acts like The Who and The Rolling Stones. Prior to 1975’s Physical Graffiti, the band released Led Zeppelin II in 1969, another heavy masterpiece, Led Zeppelin III in 1970, which showcased the band’s versatility as side one was more Heavy Rock and side two was an all acoustic affair touching on Rockabilly, Country, and Folk. Led Zeppelin IV in 1971 was another mix of Rock, Blues, as well as acoustic Rock, and featured the band’s most popular song, the epic “Stairway to Heaven.” This was followed by 1973’s Houses of the Holy, another multi-platinum effort that touched on all of the band’s influences, and even incorporated some Reggae (“D’yer Maker”).
With the release of five albums from 1969 – 1973, the band took two years to put together Physical Graffiti. The album featured tracks that began to take shape as far back as 1970 as the band was constantly recording during breaks from touring as well as spending time in the studio. With so much material available, Physical Graffiti would become a four-sided double LP by the time they were done. Led Zeppelin would release two more studio albums, Presence in 1976 and In Through the Out Door in 1979, before drummer John Bonham’s untimely death in 1980, which led to the band calling it quits. Physical Graffiti is a portrait of a band at their zenith, as it packs a multitude of styles over more than an hour’s worth of time.
“Custard Pie” starts the party with a fuzz-drenched bluesy riff over a Bo Diddley beat as the band makes it clear that they came to Rock-n-Roll. Paying homage to the music that brought the four men together (’50s Rock-n-Roll, early ’60s Soul, and the Delta Blues), Page’s guitar wails like his heroes from America’s Blues scene in the ’30s, but instead of a rickety acoustic, Page drenches the riff in distortion while Jones and Bonham lay down a simple rhythm. Infamous for their sexual escapades, Plant belts out line after line rife with sexual innuendo. Halfway through, Page takes a break from the feedback and lays down a bright, melodic solo. Plant adds yet another element to the song with a turn on harmonica over the last third of the track. This is followed by “The Rover,” which opens with a simple drum beat from Bonham. While the beat is simple, it is undeniably powerful. Bonham’s heaviness is the driving force behind his being regarded as one of the all-time greats. He clearly did not come from a Jazz background, and was not a technical wizard, but he played with such force that although he was not flashy, the listener could not help but pay attention. Page plays a heavy line over the drums for the first half of the song, then breaks off into a Funk-based riff which then gives way to another solo from Page in which he eschews the hard and heavy sound for a bouncy solo.
Closing out side one is “In My Time of Dying.” Clocking in at over eleven minutes, it features Page’s best slide work over his storied career. A slow, droning, classic Blues riff dominates the beginning of the affair, and it slowly and steadily escalates and eventually takes off for the stratosphere as Page cranks out solo after solo, breaking only to play in unison with Bonham while catching his breath. The song eventually comes full circle as it slows down, virtually to a halt, as Plant closes the ceremonies a cappella.
Side two opens with “Houses of the Holy,” an outtake from the album of the same name. Very similar in tone to “The Ocean” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” from Houses of the Holy, the song has a chugging bass line, over which Plant plays a, for Led Zeppelin, airy melody. The song moves along at a fast pace and never lets up. Another rare trait for a Led Zeppelin track, the song prominently features backing vocals. Delving into more uncharted territory, “Trampled Under Foot” is driven by a riff on clavinet, which Jones credits Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” for inspiration. Accenting the heavy Funk on clavinet, Page delivers an equally funky performance on guitar throughout with heavy use of the wah-wah pedal. Jones takes center stage on an extended clavinet solo while Page provides the rhythm with looping guitars. With lyrics like “trouble-free transmission, helps your oil flow/mama, let me pump your gas………/factory air-conditioned……..guaranteed to run for hours, mama its perfect size,” Plant pays tribute to the classic Rock and Roll motif of comparing women to cars.
Probably second to “Stairway to Heaven” as far as popularity in the Led Zeppelin canon, the first half of the album is closed with “Kashmir.” Again, the band takes the guitar out of the spotlight and lays down a simple, yet electrifying melody courtesy of an uncredited string section. The simple, circular melody is constant throughout the song, a tactic employed, to great success, on Beethoven’s “5th symphony” and Deep Purple’s classic “Smoke on the Water.” A minimalist groove on strings accentuated by ominous, dark, commanding drums from Bonham create a Heavy Metal symphony that had never been heard before. Truly an incredible feat for a band to force the listener to think about classical music while banging their head at the same time. This was the sheer genius of Led Zeppelin.
The second half of Physical Graffiti finds the band again stretching out with the over eight minute “In The Light,” which opens again with Jones front and center as he provides an eerie soundscape on keys over which Plant’s multi-tracked vocals sound like something out of a satanic ritual for nearly three minutes. Utilizing brilliant juxtaposition, while Plant’s voice sounds like something from the depths of hell, the lyrics sound like something from the Summer of Love as Plant bellows, “….if you feel that you can’t go on/and your will’s sinking low……../just believe………../in the light, you will find the road.” The keys fall out and Page and Bonham take over with a dense, staccato riff in tandem. The song then slows down again as Plant delivers a strong vocal before Page plays a solo that sounds like it could have come off of a late ’60s Beatles record. Once again, Page uses another tool in his arsenal. An extended outro featuring more lighthearted playing from Page winds things down. The two minute “Bron-Yr-Aur”, which features only Page on acoustic guitar and no vocals seems out of place on the record. Coming practically right in the middle of the proceedings, which up to this point have been mostly on the hard-driving, upbeat tick, maybe the band felt the listener needed a respite from the sonic onslaught that preceded it. A chance to catch their breath.
“Down By the Seaside” personifies Physical Graffiti. A laid-back mellow riff on organ gets the song going as Plant sings nostalgic lines about nature. This quickly gives way to a foreboding riff and thrashing drums, as had been heard in the heftier cuts up to this point, before falling right back into the light-hearted ruminations of the opening portion. Being all over the map and cohesive at the same time is what defines this album. And “Down By the Seaside” has those elements in spades. “Ten Years Gone” closes side three with another escalating voyage on the Rock-n-Roll vessel known as Led Zeppelin. A somber, twangy guitar lead opens the track and then quickly incorporates elements of the Hard Rock sound that had propelled the band to their peak of popularity, as Plant quietly sings of a long lost love. Alternating between the hard and soft guitars, as well as plaintive and wailing vocals, this was the blueprint for bands like the Pixies and Nirvana who consistently produced songs that utilized the yin-yang blend of passivity and aggression. Never ones to shy away from blazing new trails, here Led Zeppelin laid down one of the building blocks for a musical scene that would take over Pop music some fifteen years later.
Featuring five songs, side four of Physical Graffiti is highlighted by “Night Flight,” the closest thing to a Pop song the band ever produced. Clocking in at just over three and a half minutes, “Night Flight” is a lively jaunt with lyrics that would not seem out of place on a Paul Simon or Cat Stevens record, plenty of “yeahs” and “oohs,” a basic organ part, simple chords on guitar, and, certainly for Led Zeppelin, light, shuffling drums. There is no guitar solo, no thundering drums, no dark themes, and not a hint of the Blues. While “Bron-Yr-Aur” did not seem to fit, while “Night Flight” certainly finds the band outside of their comfort zone, it works because it is simply a well-crafted, downright fun song. “The Wanton Song” follows and lays to rest any fear the listener may have that the band has lost its edge. A thick, fast, down-tuned riff, much like “Communication Breakdown,” the Proto-Punk gem from their debut, reels the listener right back into the hard and heavy fray. In addition to the raging riff, Bonham absolutely abuses his cymbals throughout the song, and Jones belts out an organ solo that echoes the best of ’60s heavy-Psych.
“Boogie with Stu” and “Black Country Woman” showcase the band’s affinity for Country and Honky-Tonk. “Boogie with Stu” was so named as it featured original Rolling Stone Ian Stewart on piano. Although he was kicked out of the Stones shortly after their founding, he stayed on as their manager and was featured on a vast majority of their recordings. Based on Stewart’s classic Honky-Tonk piano playing, the song is a simple one that has the piano up front in the mix from start to finish. “Black Country Woman” is a Country romper that sounds like it was left off of side two of Led Zeppelin III, but was actually an outtake from Houses of the Holy album. Classic acoustic guitar, lots of kick drum, and harmonica make for delightful slice of America’s backwoods.
Album closer “Sick Again” is a dirty, sleazy tale of groupies with a sludgy guitar lead, blistering drums, and vocals that sound like Plant had not slept for days. This song encapsulated everything the band was famous, and infamous for, and as the closer on their sixth album, the perfect summation of their career up to that point, both sonically and with regards to content. Led Zeppelin would go on to dominate the world of music for another five years, completing a ten year run not rivaled before, or since.
Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti plays as the band’s autobiography four decades later. On the album they are as heavy as anything in popular music up to that point. They pay respect to the sounds that influenced them not only growing up, but throughout their career as they dabbled in Heavy Metal, Rock-n-Roll, Funk, Folk, Country, and of course, the Blues. Physical Graffiti, a four-sided, double album masterpiece with over sixty minutes of music, somehow manages to leave the listener pining for more.