Led Zeppelin had eight new songs or so – enough for a cool album, but too many minutes in running time to fit on a single vinyl album. They didn’t want to lose any of the songs they had, so took another solution. The initial idea was to include live material alongside the already recorded studio tracks. In the end Jimmy Page dug into the Zeppelin archives and took out songs left off the second, third, forth and fifth Leppelin albums – and put those on ‘Physical Graffiti’ as well. The result of this action is the feeling that ‘Physical Graffiti’ does absolutely everything, shows absolutely everything – that Led Zeppelin ever were. By the way, the album title comes partly from the effort the group took in piecing this album together.
By now Zeppelin were 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 The 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 missteps on rare occasions they generally 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.”