At some point, this day had to come. For many years, when asked what my favorite album of all time was, the answer was inevitably “Physical Graffiti”, and even today, it is still a strong contender for number one. It’s no secret to those who know me that I’m a passionate Led Zeppelin fan, and the diversity, quality and quantity of music on this album are just everything I love about music. By 1975, the cracks were starting to show through on the armor of Led Zeppelin, who had ruled the world of rock music for several years since the Beatles had disbanded. Drug use, bad karma, and differing opinions on the future direction of the band would take their toll all the way up until the tragic death of drummer John Bonham in 1980, and by 1975, the bulk of their best live performances and recorded work were in their rear-view mirror. This double album, which included eight new tracks and seven previously recorded and unreleased songs, was their final triumph of greatness, at least to this Zeppelin fan. Their last two studio albums, which of course will appear later in the journey, were less consistent and frankly lacked the harmony and collective contributions of all four band members that were so natural on the first six albums.
Side one opens with the intense and urgent rocker “Custard Pie”, one of several songs on this album that have Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham at their very tightest. By this point, Robert Plant could no longer reach the same upper range, but he evolved his voice in many ways to sustain his impact as one of rock’s greatest vocalists and front-men. “The Rover” follows, with a nasty Page riff and more collective greatness from the other three, and side one concludes with the traditional blues song “In My Time of Dying”, which I was very surprised to hear earlier this year recorded by Bob Dylan. I think you could argue this version gets a little excessive in duration and arrangement, but the basic slide guitar and drum power of this song is remarkable.
Side two opens with the song “Houses of the Holy”, and yes, that song was originally recorded and intended to be released on their album “Houses of the Holy”, but didn’t make the final cut. Honestly, I like it a lot more than several of the songs on “Houses of the Holy”, so I’m happy it emerged here. Plant’s vocals take you back to his high-end domination, with another great Page riff. Next comes “Trampled Underfoot”. This is a tough one for me, it is easily one of their most recognized songs on this landmark album, and it is probably one of my least favorite Led Zeppelin songs of all time. With John Paul Jones on clavinet, it is intended as a nod to “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, but I just have never cared for the hook, the vocals or any part of this song. I like it a little better as a live track, but it still isn’t a favorite by a long shot.
However, all is quickly forgiven with the next track, the truly epic song that is “Kashmir”. Like this album, if I had to pick Led Zeppelin’s greatest track, this would have to be my choice. The hypnotic and building guitar riff that blends with John Paul Jones on keyboards, with full string instrumentation, is stunning. Robert Plant’s vocals and lyrics, telling a story to a timeless travel across middle-eastern dusty sands fit the mood perfectly, and above all else, the drums from John Bonham are just on a different level, reinforcing why almost every poll or survey ranks him as rock’s greatest drummer ever. The sheer intensity and build of this song is unmatched, and it is truly their greatest triumph in a career filled with many high points.
Even though we have already uncovered some amazing music, the album rolls on with side three, and another extended track, “In The Light”, featuring John Paul Jones with a mesmerizing keyboard intro, followed by more greatness from the rest of the band. What follows is a complete 180 degree turn, to one of the most simple and beautiful instrumental acoustic melodies I have ever heard, “Bron-Yr-Aur”, named after, and written at, the infamous Welsh cottage where Jimmy Page, with Robert Plant, created much of “Led Zeppelin III”. Next is the melancholy “Down By the Seaside”, which I love, other than the fact I think the mood of the song is unnecessarily changed by an up-tempo mid-section. Another powerful song follow, built in the classic Led Zeppelin style of light and shade, mellow and intense on the same song, with “Ten Years Gone”. Written by Plant as an ode to a long lost love, the overdubbed and layered guitars on this song are unreal, and when Bonham thunders in as he often does, it is crushing in its sharpness.
Finally we come to side four, the only side without at least one song of significant extended length, and thus it contains five tracks. “Night Flight” is another great and tight song, which failed to make the cut for the fourth album, a truly unique sound like many of the songs on this record. For all of their synchronized and explosive accompaniment, there may not be anything that is quite as well-aligned as the three-piece backing for “The Wanton Song”. I heard Robert Plant recently espouse the sheer quality of his peers in Led Zeppelin, this song is another testimony to their talent. “Boogie With Stu” is a campy re-creation of “Ooh My Head” by Ritchie Valens. They even tried to credit the song to his mother, after learning she had not inherited any ownership to his music following his early death. The name of the song comes from Ian Stewart guesting on piano, just as he did on “Rock and Roll” on the fourth album. As we wind down, we have “Black Country Woman”, an acoustic track recorded outside during the “Houses of the Holy” sessions. Another sad and slightly pitiful tongue-in-cheek story of broken love, this is a great country folk rocker with an awkwardly amazing drum insertion from Bonham midway through the song. The album concludes with the other of two songs on this album I don’t really care for, the grungy-glam (is that a thing?) rocker that sheds an uncomfortable light on the L.A. underage groupie scene that was prevalent with many bands, to include Zeppelin in the 1970s. It hasn’t aged well in topic, and I never loved the melody or vocals anyway.
So, there we have “Physical Graffiti”, very high on my list, as you just read, for so many reasons. As I pondered how to best enjoy one of my favorite albums today, I promptly elected to go vinyl for the best of sound, and the setting wasn’t too bad either. I’m grateful to have this opportunity, and to have my love for music and life and those in my life so closely intertwined. Thank you 😊
“Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars fill my dream…”
“I am a traveler of both time and space, to be where I have been.”