“Physical Graffiti” by Led Zeppelin (1975)
The playlist of a Pittsburgh radio station served as the impetus for a game.
“Try this,” I told my son. “Guess how many songs until Led Zeppelin comes on again. I’ll say three.”
He said four. Two songs later, “The Immigrant Song” came blasting out of the speakers. So I guess I won.
Later, he told me he and his friends had gotten into the habit of playing the Led Zeppelin game. The winning number never was very high.
The radio station’s persistence helped skew my view of Led Zeppelin. Drummer John Bonham drank himself to death three weeks into my freshman year of college, and my roommate, Mike, and I decorated our dorm-room door to pay homage to the fallen Bonzo.
Eventually, though, I heard Zeppelin so often that I started to avoid it. Over the next few decades, I took the attitude that I’d pretty much heard all I needed from Bonham, Jones, Page and Plant.
Then came the release of archival material, “The BBC Sessions” and particularly “How the West Was Won.” Listening to the band beyond the context of its original discography reinvigorated my enthusiasm.
My favorite album from Led Zeppelin’s days as an active band is “Physical Graffiti,” and not just because it’s a two-LP set. The album is suitably eclectic: epics, toss-offs and solid pieces of songwriting demonstrate Zeppelin’s breadth as a recording unit.
Among the epics, the most enduring is “Kashmir” (which happens to be one of the songs I got tired of hearing on the radio). The Middle Eastern themes complex time signatures and effective use of varied instrumentation all serve to create what just might be Jimmy Page’s best all-around work, or at least his most original.
“In My Time of Dying” is an old blues song that came by way of Blind Willie Johnson and Bob Dylan, but their versions sound nothing like the 11-plus minutes that Led Zeppelin poured into its interpretation. Page’s slide guitar and Robert Plant’s howling vocal lead the way into a heavy, largely improvisational jam that concludes with a fit of coughing and some studio banter.
Another lengthy tune, “In the Light,” opens the third side of the LP (or second CD) with John Paul Jones’ ethereal synthesizer strains, eventually punctuated by Plant’s double-tracked voice: “And if you feel, that you can’t go on …” The sense of foreboding eventually eases with a major-key bridge with a relatively cheery, wordless Plant singalong, until the main theme returns.
Following “In the Light” is a brief acoustic guitar number that turns out to be one of the highlights of “Physical Graffiti.” Page recorded “Bron-Yr-Aur” way back in the summer of 1970, during the sessions for what became “Led Zeppelin III,” and the piece takes its name from the cottage in which the band was staying during those recordings.
Next is “Down By the Seaside,” another acoustically oriented songs, the origins of which date to the sessions for “Led Zeppelin IV.” Two other songs that eventually ended up on “Physical Graffiti” – “Night Flight” and “Boogie With Stu,” featuring the late Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart – also were recording during preparation for the fourth album.
The single taken from the album for the American market – the band never released a 45 in its native Britain – was “Trampled Under Foot,” an upbeat song highlighted by Jones’ Hohner Clavinet D6. The B-side, “Black Country Woman,” was recorded in a garden at Mick Jagger’s house!
One more song of particular note is “The Rover,” which stands as one of Plant’s periodic explorations of his ’60s roots and the ideals therein, as he implores: “If we could just join hands.”
Several months after the release of “Physical Graffiti,” Plant nearly was killed in a car crash in Greece. Two years after that, his son, Karac Pendragon Plant, died of a virus while the band was on its final American tour. A year later, Sandy Denny, the former Fairport Convention vocalist who’d sang harmony on “The Battle of Evermore” on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, died after falling down a flight of stairs.
Then came Bonham’s demise.
So “Physical Graffiti” in many ways stands as the high point of Zeppelin’s career, as an artistic achievement and before tragedy tore away at the band and eventually broke it.
Thirty-two years later, you still hear Led Zeppelin on the radio quite a bit. And contrary to what I might have thought at one point, that’s not a bad thing!