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Best Album

Physical Graffiti—9 

 

Released: 1975

1) Custard Pie  2) The Rover  3) In My Time of Dying  4) Houses of the Holy  5) Trampled Underfoot  6) Kashmir

 

1) In The Light  2) Bron-Yr-Aur  3) Down By The Seaside  4) Ten Years Gone  5) Night Flight  6) The Wanton Song  7) Boogie With Stu  8) Black Country Woman  9) Sick Again

 

You’re trying to get the music media and your peers to accept your band as a bonafide group…not just some macho, blues stealing, cock-rockin, menace to society.  You want them to see you as an artist…a serious artist, with a serious statement.  So what do you do?  First you release an album with an entire side full of acoustic music to show them you can mellow out and can actually play your instruments.  When that doesn’t work, and they still call your group obnoxious and fake, you figure you better just make an album of your most perfect songs, with lyrics that didn’t seem like a horny fifteen-year-old boy wrote them.  You’ll even disguise this album by not putting your name on the cover, thinking that if no one knows it is by your group, they might appreciate it more.  But your group is too big…every critic knew it was you and thought you were childish and slight for doing something like that (the exact things some of them said about most your music). 

 

So for the next album you throw caution to the wind and play songs out of character; experimenting with music you know that you maybe shouldn’t be…you play it so well though, that the public eats it up, only making you look that much more like sellouts by the very people you are trying to impress.  So what do you do to change people’s minds?  How do you finally, once and for all, demonstrate that you are a serious artist, capable of a serious statement?  You do the one thing every serious band does…you release a double album. 

 

Like all double albums ever made, “Physical Graffiti” could have been much better as one record, but that is not what Jimmy Page was going for… he had been threatening to make a double album for years, hoping that it would enhance the band’s rep, and was willing to release some tracks that were previously considered not up to scratch to showcase the band’s diversity and fill out the vinyl.  As such, the quality, in this case, wasn’t as important as the quantity.  Not to say there aren’t some absolutely stellar songs on this ginormous album, but virtually every tune is minutes too long, as if the band were trying to inflate each track’s importance by making it last beyond common sense’s tolerance.  And those downright filler tunes at the end were simply pointless to release.  But, it wasn’t about making a perfect album, it was about proving to the world that Led Zeppelin were capable of artistic substance.

 

And the band did not disappoint.  The entire first half of the album is stylishly similar…with each tune being murky and saturated.  The title perfectly sums up the sound and the album cover itself is a visual interpretation of the music found inside: dirty, sleazy, and structured.  Everything gets started with the opening “Custard Pie.”  This is a funky Stones sounding piece with a lip curling thrust to it.  Robert Plant’s vocals are mixed way down, sounding like they are part of the music, mashing everything together.  Page’s guitar solo starts off so filthy…sweating, almost as if the strings were stuck together, and the song goes on for too long, but those “When The Levee Breaks” harmonica fills in the coda rule, as does Plant’s vocal homage to “Not Fade Away.”  In their more mature age, the band now wasn’t stealing songs directly as often as they used to: they were instead taking snatches and pieces of a few tunes, blending them together, and calling them their own.  With “Custard Pie” they took portions of Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em Down” and Blind Joe Fuller’s “I Want Some of Your Pie” among others, and of course, didn’t give any of them credit. 

 

With no time to clean yourself off or question authorship, “The Rover” comes in next and despite being an outtake from the previous album, is another song with that swagger, that soiled strut.  The riff and Plant’s high-pitched vocals (which are way too clean for the raunch of the tune) are undoubtedly the inspiration behind many similarly overlong heavy metal songs.  Although better than this, the track always reminds me of the Scorpions and since I’m of a younger generation than Zeppelin, it still makes me think of Slash from Guns and Roses: all dirty, hairy, smoking, drunk, and just plain sloppy, but it has a certain cool to it.  All those adjectives could easily describe the next tune (and the entire album) as well.  But “In My Time of Dying” begins with just a little something more.  Those slide chords…that drone…those desperate lyrics…it really could have been a classic.  It almost is anyway.  The whole song sounds like it was recorded live, with Page’s solo particularly having that forceful buzz to it.  The tune lasts for a way beyond capacity ELEVEN MINUTES, but is just head stomping, brain thumping, put the headphones on, relentless.  Page’s brilliantly bawdy solos and the light weight studio chatter only add to the live feel and push this towards the most powerful of all Zeppelin’s offerings (despite the band again shamelessly crediting themselves as sole writers of this Blind Willie Johnson blues).

 

Houses of the Holy,” an outtake from the album of the same name, is another sticky, boastful tune, but with a little more of a pop feel as a result of its double tracked background vocals and owl hoots.  It is the least powerful song thus far, mercifully relieving the grunge, but it is still fairly muddy, and an excellent rock song.  Had it been on “Houses of the Holy,” it might have been my favorite tune on there…but here it feels like one of the gang.  Conversely, “Trampled Underfoot” sticks out like Robert’s cock in those tight jeans.  Not because it is stylishly different from the rest of the album (in fact, it sounds like “Custard Pie”), but the tune just absolutely grooves, with an underlying funkiness never heard before from the band.  Not the joke of “The Crunge,” this careless, tough, pounding is just intense, but keeps its sense of humor.  Jones’s organ sounds like Stevie Wonder just found out he was blind…pissed, pulsating, angry, but somehow still smiling.  Although it contains more of Robert’s smutty lyrics and goes on for two minutes too long, it wouldn’t make me mad if it went on for another ten.                                

 

The monumental, looming  Kashmir” finishes off the first album, and unlike some of the previous tracks, Robert’s voice matches the gloom perfectly.  There is a strange echo sound on the song, like it was recorded in a large empty room, only adding to the fog of the record.  The Eastern flavor, length, string arrangements, hypnotic melody, and hearty drums make this one of the band’s most representational tunes and the line, “All I see turns to brown,” is another perfect description of how you feel when listening to this album…with all the sounds, lyrics, and instruments melding together in a murky, stained, brownness. 

 

The second album picks up right where “Kashmir” left off with “In The Light.”  The tune starts with more droning and Easterness, this time courtesy of Jones’s synthesizers.  The buildup is a little long in the beginning, but it does make for a foreboding feel.  When the entire band finally comes in, they sound like the Doors, but only for a second before they turn on the pit staining hard rock.  For a few minutes, everything fits snuggly into the grime of first record, until, out-of-nowhere, the band breaks into a beautifully mellow organ groove and clever little melodic guitar riff that actually does sound like someone has finally seen the light.  Unfortunately they needlessly dip back into those Eastern synthesizers, repeating the process and making the tune last almost double the time that it should.  If only they had just inserted that AMAZING coda the first time around, this song would be an easy highlight.  Regardless of the length though, it is still an impressive world weary effort.        

 

The solo acoustic Page number “Bron-Yr-Aur,” an outtake from “Led Zeppelin III,” is two-minutes of stunning eminence.  It seemingly doesn’t fit at all with its gentle, pretty melody, but in actuality it acts as a strikingly gorgeous cleansing…a soft setup, ending the muddled murkiness enough for the band to slide into “Down By The Seaside.”  Another “Zeppelin III” leftover, this placid tune is most similar to the type of vacation resort music Robert Plant would make in his solo career and features a leisure-like slide guitar hook and matching Plant calls: each as fascinating as they are out of place for the album.  The more forceful middle instrumental section is brilliant and eases back into the main structure beautifully, capping this overlong, but great song.  Ten Years Gone” follows, bringing with it a return of the misty gloom.  But with its delicate introduction and tender Plant lyrics, the return is purposely deliberate.  This song is as underrated a masterpiece as the band has produced.  Now, I know “underrated” and Zeppelin can never really be said, but the track is an absolute monster…but the most elegant monster imaginable, with Page’s guitar so emotional, it is just crying.    

 

Night Flight,” an extra track from “Led Zeppelin IV,” begins too clean, virtually country and western, but is still a very good song in which Plant sounds like Rod Stewart.  The middle manages to maintain some of that drunken, out at the bar, good time fun and Jones’s organ expertly adds to that beerlogged atmosphere (while his bass playing is incredible as well).  And then, abruptly, “The Wanton Song” takes us right back to the HARD ROCK of the first half of the album.  The tune really pushes, but Page’s solo is one of his least effective, actually fairly boring, despite sounding like it was recorded underwater.               

 

Boogie With Stu” is a slower interpretation of Richie Valens’s “Ooh My Head,” but of course the band never originally gave him credit.  The tune was hashed out during the “Zeppelin IV” sessions with guest Ian Stewart of The Rolling Stones playing perfect boogie piano.  Plant played rhythm guitar on this just-for-fun throwaway, but Page’s splendid solo is what to listen for.  Black Country Woman,” an outtake from “Houses of the Holy,” actually sounds a lot like the song “House of the Holy,” only slower and acoustic.  It is FAR too repetitive to warrant lasting four and a half minutes, but the harmonica solo is cool, and the song isn’t bad, just boring (although on tour, John Paul Jones would liven things up, playing an upright bass to add to the skiffle mood).  The closing “Sick Again” has sufficiently raunchy music soundtracking Plant’s disgusting ode to teenaged groupies.  It isn’t terrible at all, but really sounds VERY similar to “Custard Pie,” “The Rover,” and eighty percent of everything else on the album, and at this point, it is all just too much… 

 

In fact, the entire album is all just too much.  There is just so much to take in, and the tunes are so sodden that it is hard to breathe, much less appreciate each one individually.  Many critics think that by shortening most of the existing tracks, and just plain leaving off the last few, “Physical Graffiti” could have been transformed into one of rock's greatest achievements.  I think it is anyway...an artistic masterpiece, the hardest and best hard rock album ever made.  As dirty and tough as heavy metal tried to be in the 1980s.  Page finally found a way to give into the fans that demanded more “Led Zeppelin II” cock-rock and still create music of substance.  But be aware…this might take four or five listens before you realize its value and a few years before you realize practically every song needed to be as long as it was.

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