Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Physical Graffiti (1975)

Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin's first (and only, among their original studio albums) double album, and the last album during what I would label their classic period. The band had made a name for themselves, and their sound had matured. It was 1975, and the classic rock format was well established (although obviously not called "classic" at the time). It was still contemporary, but it wasn't new and fresh anymore, like it was at the turn of the decade. And though good rock music would continue to be made through the end of the decade, and - to a much lesser extent - into the '80s and beyond, by this time the popularity of punk and disco was on the rise.

Led Zeppelin, gods of their genre that they were, could be propped up as a prime example of the concept of the "dinosaur rock" band, bloated on excess and their own popularity, selling out huge stadiums in the mid-'70s. That Physical Graffiti is a double album could be interpreted as an expression of their ego and ambition. Of course, it could also be interpreted as evidence that this was a band that loved playing music and writing songs (well, when they weren't recording other people's songs), and wanted to share that with its fans. As I said, Physical Graffiti is Zep's last "classic" album, but I don't believe their coming decline was yet in evidence here.

This is a long one, so I'm going to jump right in. The opening track pretty much sets the stage for the album. Gone is the light and airy sound of the previous album, and in its place we have Led Zeppelin in their heavy mode, but with a sound that's even crunchier, and perhaps closer to the heavy metal style that they could be credited as being among the progenitors of, than they were on their previous albums. Custard Pie is another amalgam of old blues tunes, and though it's never gotten the recognition of some of Zep's other rocked up blues frankensteins, it's got a biting riff and I think it's really good.

But The Rover is even better. It ranks up there for me, with Since I've Been Loving You and No Quarter, as one of those several Zep tracks that never really get a lot of radio play, but that I would rate as some of the best tracks they ever recorded. SIBLY was blues, and No Quarter had an eerie atmosphere, but The Rover is straight up hard rock. And one of its most shining qualities is the kick-ass guitar riffage that Jimmy plays, that weaves through the song and supports Robert Plant's vocals. Overall the song just trucks along with a steady momentum, and the changing guitar parts give it a sense of motion, like you're actually getting somewhere, and not just repeating the same riff over and over for five and a half minutes. It's a damn fine piece of music, if you ask me.

And after the fadeout, cue the intro to In My Time of Dying, which instantly recalls the slide tradition of blues - one that this band hadn't properly addressed, until now. Soon enough the rock and roll kicks in, and the eleven minute long journey begins, as the song builds up gradually in intensity to a jamming crescendo of rock energy. In My Time of Dying is not an original composition, but an old folk/blues tune, sometimes titled Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed. If you compare it to most previous versions - Bob Dylan's on his debut album for example - Zep's is a world apart. But the missing link is a 1969 recording by an unknown band called Fear Itself, who attacked the song with psychedelic rock energy, producing an extended version with prominent fuzz guitar. I would be surprised if Led Zeppelin weren't influenced by this previous recording, but their own version is somewhat more accessible, and Jimmy's slide guitar restores that bridge to the song's roots in the blues. Regardless, it's one of those tracks, like The Doors' L.A. Woman, where you can sense that the band is in a groove in the studio, managing to totally nail the track while having a whole lot of fun in the process.

I think that Houses of the Holy (curiously not appearing on the album of the same name) is probably the most poppy song on Physical Graffiti. That having been said, it's still fairly heavy (love that riff!), which actually makes for a nice combination. Although I do often prefer the harder tracks, it's nice to have something a little more fun to break up the monotony, and you can be sure that you'll hear this one on the radio every now and again. And compared to a song like Dancing Days (which I always want to compare to this one for some reason), it's got a little more oomph to make it more interesting (in my opinion).

Trampled Under Foot (which might just as well have been called "Talkin' Bout Love") follows in the tradition of Robert Johnson's Terraplane Blues, as a song that uses automobile terminology as a metaphor for sex. And as far as songs about cars go, it could quite possibly give Deep Purple's Highway Star a run for its money. Trampled Under Foot is ultra-heavy, with a driving guitar riff that's maddeningly difficult to get down (if you've ever tried to play it on guitar), and some cool organ stuff working in the background. Truth be told, it is a little repetitive, and I wonder how it's a more popular radio track than, say, The Rover, which is the same length but more dynamic. But I guess it's got a really good groove, and I'm sure that rock fans (especially later ones who've grown up with heavy metal) are able to appreciate its almost sludgy atmosphere.

The first half of Physical Graffiti closes with Kashmir, which in some circles has been raised to the level of contender with Stairway To Heaven for the title of Led Zeppelin's greatest song. I am not in that camp, however I do like Kashmir a lot. It's got an interesting ascending riff, and the lyrics that Robert Plant sings, about searching for a magical place that seems to have become lost in a wasteland, are among his most captivating and imaginative. There is a symphonic accompaniment to the song, but it manages to complement the song's weight quite well, and avoids making it sound too orchestra-y. The overall effect is somewhat hypnotic. And where Kashmir has been credited as an example of Led Zeppelin's interest in Indian-flavored world music, the fact that it maintains such a heavy atmosphere makes it more effective than, for example, Page and Plant's subsequent attempt to channel Eastern influences in Most High (on their semi-reunion album, Walking Into Clarksdale). Kashmir is, undoubtedly, an impressive musical accomplishment, but I listen to music with my ears, not my brain, and so, while I like it, I don't usually count it as one of my favorites, and I'd just as soon put on Achilles Last Stand if I'm looking for an epic, fantasy-themed, heavy rocker.

In all honesty, I think the first half of Physical Graffiti would have made for a very strong album all on its own. The second half is a lot more experimental, and a lot less heavy, but there are still a couple more heavy tracks left, and a few others very much worth listening to, as well. In The Light is one of the stranger ones. It opens with an eerie, bagpipe-y intro, that leads into a bunch of neat synthesize-y stuff. Eventually, a rock guitar kicks in, salvaging this song from the fate of total obscurity. The result is an effective but very unique song to add to Led Zeppelin's catalog, and one of the few with more of an emphasis on the keyboard than the guitar.

If you played Bron-Yr-Aur (not to be confused with Bron-Y-Aur Stomp) out of context, you might not guess that it's a Led Zeppelin song. You don't even have any lyrics to recognize Robert Plant's voice by. But as an acoustic instrumental, it follows in the rare steps of White Summer and Black Mountain Side. It's a very short piece, barely breaking the two minute mark, but it's very beautiful, with a kind of undulating sound that recalls to my mind the babbling of a gentle brook. There's hardly enough substance to satisfy you, so it's not surprising this song never gets played on the radio or anywhere else, but it's a shame, because it really is one of the prettiest pieces in Zep's catalog.

Down By The Seaside is interesting, because it's one of those songs where I'm not quite sure how to categorize it. It continues the watery theme suggested in Bron-Yr-Aur, both in lyrics and in the watery instrumental tones in use, but has an almost country feel to it. Then, of course, in true Zeppelin fashion, the song takes a left turn and gets all fast and heavy. It's one of those tracks that I kinda like, but not really super like. The sort that offers some variety from all those hard-rocking hits, in a way that's not quite as captivating as those hits, but is at least more interesting and more effective than some of Zep's other off-the-wall experiments (I'm looking at you Led Zeppelin III, and parts of Houses of the Holy). In Survivor parlance, I wouldn't vote it off the island (this week), but I'm not gunning for it to win, either.

Ten Years Gone, however, would find itself in the final round, neck and neck with The Rover (can't we have two winners? It's a double album after all!). TYG is a gorgeous song. And so under-appreciated. When was the last time you heard it on the radio? It has a haunting quality to it that recalls Tangerine, but this piece is heavier and more substantial. If you play guitar, I implore you to learn - at the very least - the opening chords. They're every bit as beautiful as Bron-Yr-Aur, but this song is an electric ballad and not an acoustic interlude. It's beautiful and it's rock n roll! Seriously, this is how rock ballads should be done.

I find myself struggling to like Night Flight more than I do, and I wonder if this is maybe one of the songs on this album where the more substantial keyboard parts detract from the overall sound. Then again, even the guitar part has a kind of mediocre, chugging rhythm. The lyrics are interesting though, evoking an adventurous journey that may or may not involve the end of the world (or just the end of somebody's life), and may tap into the same wanderer's mentality that was in evidence on Ramble On. But even when Robert sings about a gun being shoved into his hand, the upbeat atmosphere of the song makes it feel more like an exciting fantasy (like if you were sitting in the theater watching a movie), than anything real or substantial. My head fills with images of Indiana Jones on a train... The best (and funniest) part of the song is the very end, when Robert exhales an "uh!" as if to cue the end of the song, but the song keeps going, so Robert lets out a few more insistent uhs until the song actually does end.

Appropriately titled, The Wanton Song finds us back in the mindset of the first half of Physical Graffiti, all unrelenting and heavy. Like all the other great heavy songs on this album, it's got a great riff, and a driving rhythm, with Robert shouting over all the instruments. I guess it's not all that dynamic, but I like it, and it's pretty refreshing after all these less-heavy experimental tracks, to find Zep doing what they do best - play good, hard rock.

The next two songs are, in my opinion, the low point of the entire album, as much as I hate to heap anything but praise on Zep's recorded works. Boogie With Stu features guest pianist Ian Stewart (who played with The Rolling Stones) playing a variation of Richie Valens' Ooh! My Head which might have as much in common with Little Richard's Ooh! My Soul, another variation on the theme. The song is upbeat, and more of a light-hearted in-studio jam than a serious piece of music, and, personally, the boogie-woogie piano doesn't suit my fancy. The clap-like beat also fails to impress me. I just can't get into it.

Black Country Woman seems to be a little bit more consciously composed, and is an acoustic piece with a pretty strong back beat (channeling the more effective Bron-Y-Aur Stomp), where the mandolin makes another appearance. But unlike Zeppelin's best acoustic pieces, that utilize the instrument's natural harmonies to create beautiful melodies, this sounds closer to an afterthought you might hear on an unplugged album, or something performed in a bar after the band you came to see has gone home. The lyrics tell of a man wronged by a no-good woman, but the overall, upbeat atmosphere of the piece precludes me from feeling much in the way of empathy - it seems more like an opportunity to dish dirt while drunk and lonely, but not especially depressed.

And Physical Graffiti finishes - appropriately (you could never accuse Led Zeppelin of not paying attention to song order on their albums) - with another heavy track. Sick Again is something of a critical look at the teenage groupies that would dog the band. Though Plant assures that he takes pity on their degenerate lifestyles (it's not like the members of the band weren't indulging in all kinds of despotic acts and chemical influences themselves), you'll notice that he doesn't sing about turning down their advances (quite the contrary). If anything on this album is evidence that Led Zeppelin were becoming self-important dinosaurs, it's this. Woe be to the ultra-hip, super-popular rock band that doesn't properly appreciate its teenage groupies. ;-p

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