Let’s Get Physical: A Celebration of the Highest Flight of Led Zeppelin

Hello everybody! I hope you have all recovered from the hour we sprung past on our forward march into daylight savings time. If you don’t like losing an hour from your weekend then blame the Germans, apparently. I’m also doing some springing forward today (no, not that kind, you perv) as what follows is what I intended to be last week’s post, yet the deaths of two of my personal heroes took precedence, so now this post has been sprung forward into the future that is now the present and will be the past for you. So please forgive me for being later in my celebration of the 40th anniversary of my favorite music album.

On February 24, 1975, English rock and roll band Led Zeppelin released their sixth studio album Physical Graffiti. Bandmates Jimmy Page (guitar), Robert Plant (vocals), John Paul Jones (bass, synthesizer, basically every other non-percussion instrument found in a song), and John Bonham (drums, basically every other percussion instrument found in a song) were riding the crest of the wave of rock and roll admiration thanks to the success of their incredible stage performances and previous albums: Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin IILed Zeppelin III, the technically untitled album commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV, and Houses of the Holy (orange you glad I didn’t say Led Zeppelin V?). They were the top of the top in a time filled with superbands all striving to show they truly had the right… wait, that’s another thing, but every rock band in the mid-70s was definitely shooting for the moon (so was NASA, and they actually made it a few times) yet none ever reached the bar set by Led Zeppelin. And how could they? Listen to any of those first five albums of theirs and you’ll be blown away. There are so many huge hits that are still among the most played songs on classic rock radio stations around the world, and that’s just scratching the surface. Many of Zeppelin’s other great songs are simply lost in the shadow of supermassive hits like “Dazed and Confused”, “Whole Lotta Love”, “The Immigrant Song”, “Stairway to Heaven”, and “The Ocean”. Especially in the case of Led Zeppelin IV which contains the likes of “Black Dog”, “Rock and Roll”, “Misty Mountain Hop”, “When the Levee Breaks”, and of course, “Stairway to Heaven”. You can tune into any classic rock station and stand a good chance of hearing one of those songs play without any listeners calling in to request them (By the way, why do people still do that? Do they not have the songs on some medium to listen to at their leisure? Don’t they know the internet and iTunes exists?). It’s easy to forget the songs on Zeppelin IV besides those classics (“The Battle of Evermore”, Four Sticks”, and “Going to California” in case you were wondering) and they are all really good. It’s easy to see why Led Zeppelin IV is considered by many to be the band’s best album. But fuck that, now I’m going to tell you why Physical Graffiti is the best for me.

Prior to Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin had kept to the 40-ish minutes formula for an LP, often cutting out tracks in order to maintain this rough time mark. However, while working in the studio in during 1973-74, the band and their producer, Peter Grant, realized that they had once again gone past that 40-ish minute mark and had a hard time deciding what songs were to go on the chopping block, so they opted to throw the chopping block on the chopping block and made a double album with the songs they were placing on the new album and some of the songs they cut from previous albums. One of my friends said I was cheating in declaring Physical Graffiti as my favorite album since it is a double album, but I feel that manufacturing an album that is twice as long as normal and still hitting it out of the park with every song is a tremendous accomplishment. Furthermore, no other album of theirs has such a terrifically unique ensemble of styles. Biographer Dave Lewis who wrote The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, called it “a finely balanced embarrassment of riches” and it certainly is. The previously cut tracks are all solid and it’s surprising that they were cut from their respective albums in the first place (especially “Houses of the Holy”; how was that not on Houses of the Holy?). Add in the tracks made for the sixth album, one of which is definitively one of their greatest ever, and you’ve got an album that excels beyond even Led Zeppelin IV. How does it do that? Let’s look at each of the 15 songs one by one to find out.

Side 1

Custard Pie” – Physical Graffiti begins with this hard rock tribute to Robert Johnson and his fellow early bluesmen who liked to sing about going down south and savoring the hot, wet stickiness of it all. Of course, these blues singers were not talking about where they lived in America, nor were they discussing your conventional custard pie in the kitchen. As a song, “Custard Pie” contains that signature Led Zeppelin sound when they take a blues style and crank up the volume on it. A perfect starter.

The Rover” – Continuing the heavy metal power they blast out so well, Zeppelin supplies us with a song that is very much within their style, and well it should be as it was written at the Bron-Yr-Aur Cottage that Plant and Page came up with many a song while relaxing there in 1970. “The Rover” was one of those songs cut from Houses of the Holy that thankfully was placed onto this one. Originally meant to be acoustic, Page wisely plugged into an amp for the final version. While it’s one of my favorites to strum the riff of on guitar, the band rarely played it live, which has helped it to fall into obscurity and become regarded as one of their deep cuts.

In My Time of Dying” – The longest studio song on any Zeppelin record (11 minutes, 8 seconds), this is a very Led Zeppelin heavy metal recreation of an old gospel standard called “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed”. Many artists have covered the song – the exact origin is sketchy at best – since the 1930s, including Bob Dylan, but this version is easily the best known as it is the most rockin’ and received a lot of playtime at Led Zeppelin’s concerts. Not to mention even the studio version turns into a jam session that ends with Plant singing about someone’s cough in the studio.

Side 2

Houses of the Holy” – I was quite surprised when I first learned that this got pushed from the previous album that shares its name, especially since it’s such a catchy song that is a rock radio staple now. It was written as that album’s title track, but was determined to not fit the overall theme and was removed. The “Houses of the Holy” they sing about are the concert venues they loved to fill in and blare their music out of. Ready for another shock? Despite all this, they never played it live. Seriously Led Zeppelin, what have you got against “Houses of the Holy”?

Trampled Under Foot” – Another up-and-at-’em tempo jam that fits so well with Zeppelin’s style with a heavy dose of funk mixed in. Based on another Robert Johnson song called “Terraplane Blues” that was about (you guessed it!) sex, “Trampled Under Foot” is again regarding a similar subject. Plant is indeed “talkin’ ’bout love”.

Kashmir” – Simply put, this is easily the best song on the album and one of Led Zeppelin’s best songs ever. All four band members, countless music critics, and die-hard and casual fans alike have all declared it as such, and I concur. This is Zeppelin’s best song lyrically, and as such is much more complete than “Stairway to Heaven”. Jimmy Page had wanted to incorporate more eastern sounds and composed an Arabic-style song that the others really enjoyed. The lyrics were inspired by Robert Plant’s excursion through the Sahara Desert while in Morocco. As sweeping and grandiose as the desert landscape, “Kashmir” just might be Led Zeppelin’s best song, and it contains all the elements that represent the band according to John Paul Jones.

Side 3

In the Light” – If I had succeeded in my first career aspiration to be a professional baseball player then my walk-up music would be the riff from “In the Light”. I’d put on my best indifferent scowl and take my practice swings as I stare down the pitcher who would be shaken by the thumping sound pouring out of the speakers. It’d be badass. Kind of like this underrated song that unlike me doesn’t strike out. This track is predominantly John Paul Jones’ baby, and it’s the song where he proved his point that synthesizers can be supercool in a Led Zeppelin song. This also was one of the instances where Page produced a vibrating hum by drawing a violin bow across the strings of a guitar; he had done it originally on “Dazed and Confused” and would later use a similar technique on “In the Evening” – good company for a song to be in.

Bron-Yr-Aur” – Named after and written in the cottage Robert Plant’s family often vacationed at where he and Page geeked out over The Lord of the Rings and wrote most of Led Zeppelin III (including that album’s “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” which probably bumped this song off of that album), this mellow instrumental guitar composition by Page is a welcome respite from all the headbanging and air guitaring we’ve been doing leading up to it and it leads perfectly into the next song. At 2 minutes, 6 seconds it is the shortest of the band’s studio songs, meaning that Physical Graffiti has both the longest and shortest songs that Led Zeppelin ever recorded. Truly, this is a diverse album.

Down by the Seaside” – This chill summer tune is also a formerly cut track originally set to be placed on Led Zeppelin IV. It was thankfully transplanted to here where it fits so well behind “Bron-Yr-Aur” and before “Ten Years Gone”. It helps to keep Side 3 as the easy-going, soothing side, but fear not! There is an interjection of heavier, faster rock and roll in the middle of the song that defibrillates the tempo and reminds us that we’re still listening to Led Zeppelin and more hard rockin’ will be in store.

Ten Years Gone” – This is my favorite Led Zeppelin song, and one that I included in my list of songs that everyone should hear to take stock of life and better themselves. The song is another softer track in which a man muses on whether or not his ex from ten years ago still thinks of him in the same way he thinks of her. Page wrote it initially as an instrumental, but Plant added the poetic lyrics based on one of his own ex-girlfriend’s who gave him an “it’s me or the dog” ultimatum with his music and fans playing the part of the dog. Plant made the right choice for my satisfaction and I’m assuming his too, and besides this gem we got many other great Led Zeppelin songs, an incredibly happy fanbase, and one woman who’s probably kicking herself really hard every time she hears this beautiful piece.

Side 4

Night Flight” – This is probably the weakest song on the album, with fluffy lyrics that tell the story of a draft dodger. It comes across a little out of place, but I suppose that is expected of any song that is tasked with picking back up the tempo from the more relaxed paces of the songs of Side 3. To be fair, it was originally made for inclusion on Zeppelin IV, although I think the biggest reason that “Night Flight” leaves us wanting a little more is because it doesn’t have a guitar solo. A Led Zeppelin song where Page doesn’t pop out those duck lips and dry hump his guitar while shredding it to pieces!?! Nevertheless, I still like this song and think it fits best on an album where 14 other songs can pick up the slack for it.

The Wanton Song” – Picking up that slack immediately is this hard rockin’ jam about having a wild time with a woman of a more promiscuous nature. It’s really that straightforward, as the title implies, and this is a straightforward Led Zeppelin rock and roll romp that is in the right place on the album.

Boogie with Stu” – Nearing the end of the album we downshift into more acoustic sounds with this and the next song. On this song Page dons a mandolin and puts it to good use. The featured musical element though is a terrific piano track from Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart that plays throughout and keeps the upbeat tempo put on by the first two songs on this final side. Like “The Wanton Song” this is a jam, and even more so with an even more straightforward title as it describes the band’s sudden fun “boogie” with Ian Stewart who supposedly was hanging around and joined in, thereby keeping with the relatively open atmosphere of the Headley Grange recording house that the album’s newer tracks where written and recorded at. The song is styled after Ritchie Valens “Ooh, My Head” and as such the band and Stewart felt they should give a credit to “Mrs. Valens”, Ritchie’s mother who had never received any royalties from her son’s songs, but while she may have thought it was a nice gesture, Valens’ record company sued for copyright infringement.

Black Country Woman” – This comical little ditty was meant to be part of Houses of the Holy, but as we’ve seen with so many other songs, it didn’t work there. Fortunately it works splendidly here. This time Page grabs a guitar again and John Paul Jones picks up the mandolin while Plant sings about a woman from the “black country” of Birmingham where he and Bonham lived in their youth. The song was recorded outside in Mick Jagger’s backyard and the opening dialogue is about whether or not to start the recording again because of an airplane flying overhead. Plant says, “Nah, leave it, yeah,” as if to say, “Fuck it. This will most likely go on an album where we kind of make a collage of new and old songs that’ll combine to make magic.”

Sick Again” – The final song of this excellent album ties it off with another traditional hard rock session that showcases Zeppelin in their prime. And that fucking solo! Jimmy Page is my favorite guitarist behind only the incomparable Jimi Hendrix, and that quick yet potent guitar solo shows just the surface of a comprehensive talent that produced every one of the band’s albums. This song about groupies getting ever younger is as perfect an endpiece to such a wild menagerie as “Custard Pie” is as an opener.

It is ironically fitting that this last great album from Led Zeppelin was the first that they released on their own label called Swan Song Records, and that its featured image of Greek god Apollo is based on William Rimmer’s painting called “Evening (The Fall of Day)”. Yet while Physical Graffiti marked the apex of Led Zeppelin’s albums they were far from over being the gods of heavy metal rock and roll. Three more albums were released by the band: Presence, In Through the Out Door, and Coda. While none of these had the slambang power and cultural impact of any of their previous releases, there are some oft overlooked songs that are pure gold, especially the opening tracks of Presence and In Through the Out Door: “Achilles Last Stand” and “In the Evening” respectively. Coda was the band’s final release, but it was never meant to be a stand-alone album and is a collection of previously unreleased tracks and songs that were composed and/or dominated by drummer John Bonham, whose death in 1980 led the other three band members to decide to formally end Led Zeppelin. This decision still tasks many die-hard fans today, yet there are some who feel that the band wisely halted their descent into mediocrity brought on by age and the excess of success. In other words, they did a lot of drugs and it was starting to have a seriously detrimental effect on their music and relationships with one another.

Regardless of how you feel on the matter of Led Zeppelin’s exit from the music scene – or about the band in general – there can be no denying that they were on top of the rock and roll world during one of the most important periods in the genre’s history and are still a major musical influence today whose place in rock and roll lore is at the top of the pyramid with the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and the early blues acts they so often drew from (sometimes more closely than was legally permitted).

Thanks for reading! Rock on back next week for another jam of another sort. Direct your comments and questions to the appropriate section below or at monotrememadness@gmail.com.

Rock on,

Alex

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