There are a few bands that are part of my DNA thanks to my parents. At a very young age I can remember hearing on the Zenith console stereo in the basement Aerosmith, The Doors, and Led Zeppelin on a very routine basis. My mom and dad had the first house out of all of my mom’s siblings, so the basement in my parents’ house was the go-to spot for pool, beer, smoking, and rock and roll shenanigans. There were plenty of records spun on those hazy nights, but those three bands I remember hearing a lot of. Of those bands, Led Zeppelin stuck. I was limited to my Zep love by the records my parents owned. Led Zeppelin II, III, and IV were the albums I came up on. “Black Dog”, “What Is And What Should Never Be”, “Going To California”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “Friends”, “Immigrant Song”, and “Out On The Tiles” were songs that stuck in my brain and never left. They were in my head so much that I recall getting in trouble in kindergarten for humming “Black Dog”, out loud, while the teacher was talking. In my defense I thought the humming was happening inside my head and not outside of it.
I mainly stuck with those three albums until I hit high school and I bought that 4-CD Led Zeppelin boxset that was released right around 1990 and I started hearing songs from Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti. It was like a whole new musical world opened up. You mean there was more to life than “Whole Lotta Love”, “Stairway To Heaven”, and “You Shook Me”?
The answer is undoubtedly yes.
Of the post-“numeral” albums, I think Physical Graffiti was the album that hit me the most. For a long time Houses of the Holy ranked at the top thanks to “Dancing Days”, “The Rain Song”, “The Crunge”, “The Song Remains The Same”, and of course “No Quarter”. Houses of the Holy was the post-high school Zeppelin album for sure. First beer buzzes, first long road trips, and first philosophical conversations about nothing in general were gathered around that 1973 record. But at some point, those bright and shiny tracks started to fade a bit. I’d found a vinyl copy of Physical Graffiti that my brother had bought in the late-80s. He’d found it at one of the last music stores in town where they still sold vinyl and bought it on a whim. I began spinning it on my parents Pioneer turntable and I was honestly floored. “In My Time Of Dying”, “Ten Years Gone”, and “Kashmir” were already pretty familiar to me(“Kashmir” thanks to Fast Times At Ridgemont High), but there were so many other songs on that record that I hadn’t gotten deep into that were honestly blowing me away.
Physical Graffiti was Zeppelin’s dark horse record.
Physical Graffiti began life way back in 1973 when Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham entered the studio to write but quickly halted the sessions because John Paul Jones was ill. But it was later revealed that Jones was thinking about quitting the band to take a job as the choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral. After a few weeks of being away he decided to stick it out with his Zeppelin mates and they reconvened in the studio and knocked out 8 “belters”, according to Plant.
And boy, he wasn’t kidding.
Up to this point Jimmy Page and Zeppelin made it a point to make these pristine rock records. Sonically rich and engineered to the nines. But as soon as album opener “Custard Pie” hits you things seem very different. There’s a rough edge in this track that makes it almost seem vulgar. Jones’ clavinet pushes Zeppelin into a funk territory they’d only mildly explored to this point. Even Plant’s voice sounds dirtied and broken. He can still hit those high notes, but he sounds like he just rolled out of bed after an all-nighter. Then “The Rover” comes rolling in like a derelict after a night of monkey business at the local pub. Page’s guitar is all spaced-out thanks to some groovy phaser and Plant lays on the ethereal whining beautifully. “I’ve been to London, seen seven wonders/ I know to trip is just to fall/ I used to rock it, sometimes I’d roll it/ I always knew what it was for” Plant sings over a rock and roll strut that is equal parts street trash and rock royalty. This is the point when Zeppelin truly take their music into modern times. They leave the blues rehashing at the studio door. “Houses of the Holy”, a leftover from the last record fits in quite nicely here in this set. Zeppelin always had a knack for heavy music, but making it something that you and your dad could enjoy together. This is generational metal.
Nowadays I find myself hitting fast forward for “In My Time Of Dying”. When I was younger I was enamored by this song. Dirge-y, slide guitar blues epics are what I lived for at 20 years old. At 43, it just gets a little old. I like hearing Zeppelin making something unique with their influences and inspirations. I don’t think “In My Time Of Dying” is that necessarily. It’s not bad, it’s just an 11 minute song that’s about 7 minutes too long. But “Trampled Under Foot”? Oh yes, most definitely. John Paul Jones truly shines on this album. With Presence and In Through The Out Door those records wouldn’t have existed without him. Between Page’s drug problems and Plant losing his daugther, Jones stepped in to keep things afloat. With Physical Graffiti he lets his musicianship and studio prowess shine. That clavinet, man. It sounds like Stevie Wonder jamming with the British rock titans. It’s not little Stevie, it’s just John Paul Jones blowing everyone out of the water.
I’ve heard “progressive” used to describe Zeppelin, and there have been a few moments on earlier records where I could hear that. “Dazed and Confused”, “No Quarter”, and “The Song Remains The Same” all sort of expand in your brain as you soak in their slightly psychedelic, slightly forward-thinking tones, but “In The Light” off Graffiti is about as progressive rock as they come. This could be my favorite Led Zeppelin song. There’s something about its eastern vibes mixed with an almost hippy-dippy uplift in the chorus that puts this track in a category all on its own. Once again, Jones takes Led Zeppelin into a Yogi-Maharishi-meets-Philip-K-Dick-in-an-opium-den vibe with those ethereal keyboard tones while Bonham reels his drums into a very controlled groove. I absolutely love Robert Plant’s vocals here, too. It’s part mysticism and part sweet crooning. Of course Page lays waste with his guitar. This track is simply transcendent.
Elsewhere, “Down By The Seaside” still gets me after all these years. Like Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend”, this song floats along on a cloud of wurlitizer electric piano as Jimmy Page does some magical thing with lapsteel run thru a Leslie speaker. This song dazzled me at 19 years old and it still dazzles me now. That middle section that pumps up the rock and roll only goes to turn this track into more of a legendary jam. And do I even need to mention “Ten Years Gone”? Do I? Okay, then holy shit what a song! It sits by itself as a musical entity completely of itself. I can remember my cousin learning this song when we were much younger men and I was completely floored. Those chords even run through a mini-Marshall stack and a slightly out of tune SG still gave me chills. Page was and still is one of the best rock and roll composers. His chordings and song structures remain untouched by most.
So I mentioned that gritty, raunchy vibe with this album earlier. “Night Flight”, “The Wanton Song”, and “Sick Again” absolutely ring my bell. There’s a gutter groove vibe going on. I love that a band like Led Zeppelin can step away from the maestro rock songs and put out stuff as gut punch-y as “Sick Again”, “Trampled Under Foot”, “Custard Pie”, and “The Rover”. These songs are like middle fingers in the form of rock songs. There’s just a feeling of four guys in a room turning it up to 11 and letting loose.
Physical Graffiti is the Led Zeppelin record you come to later on and realize there’s all this greatness buried deep inside of it. Diamonds in the rough like “Down By The Seaside”, “Ten Years Gone” and “Kashmir” block your view of the dirty, gritty rock numbers buried in there. I’ve read that this album is one of the band’s favorites because it sort of encapsulates everything they’d done up to this point, like a pop-up book of their musical tricks and idiosyncrasies. I would have to agree with that statement. Once we close this chapter things just aren’t the same for our Tolkien and Norse-loving Brits.
Physical Graffiti, as far as I’m concerned, is their rock and roll Valhalla.