Choosing the best record of all time, the top record or your favorite record is impossible for anyone. For a music critic, it is quite possibly the most daunting task to have to face. There are sleepless nights spent pouring over shelves upon shelves of CDs and rifling through multiple genres of music. Feeling under qualified to write about, say the intricacies of the John Coltrane Vanguard sessions, and wondering why in the world you once thought that Kiss ever produced anything but catchy cheese melodies over simplistic lyrics that a two-year-old could write, you search in vain for something that has and will forever stand the test of time—at least in your mind.
Trying not to get swept up in what is currently dominating the CD changer, or popular consensus that certain records are great because the critics have said so in the past; for instance, does anyone really listen to Born to Run anymore save for the stalwarts at classic rock stations? Going by sales is no good either, as certainly no one would own up to actively being in possession of the Eagles Greatest Hits, the current number one seller of all time (according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Ignoring the fact that to choose one Beatles record would require excluding all of their other masterpieces, resting easy that they remain the greatest group ever and that anyone who says different is either lying or just being difficult. Realizing that the Stones never really put out a perfect record from top to bottom, there is only one choice from one band: Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti.
Released smack in the middle of their career, on the surface, the double record set appears to be simply another example of the ‘70s rock behemoths wielding more power than necessary. The expansive album packaging depicts a four story brown building, which, when opened, reveals pictures of Marlene Dietrich, the Queen of England, Charles Atlas, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the band themselves in drag along with dozens more offbeat images within it’s die cut windows. Three songs are listed at being over eight and a half minutes long with the rest hovering near and beyond the five-minute mark. Simply put, it reeks of excess. Get past the scent of something overdone though, and what’s deeper in the packaging is indispensable.
Taken from a dwelling located on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, the cover is metaphorical for the music. Guitarist Jimmy Page stated on numerous occasions that Zeppelin was constantly striving to find the perfect balance between light and shade. Physical Graffiti accomplishes the feat like no other. Phasing in and out of radically different styles, much like the “something different behind every door” way of thinking.
Initially, the band went through a deep heavy blues phase, demonstrated on their first two recordings released in 1969. This was followed by a complete 180 on the third record, which, while still pushing up the volume knob at times, delved mainly into an acoustic side that showed Zeppelin was more than simply cock rock held over from the Yardbirds’ era of guitar heroes. The next two records cemented the legacy of the band, who, while routinely written off and chastised by the music press at large, continued to outsell every seventies act in both album and ticket sales—including the Rolling Stones.
Physical Graffiti, encompassing the best pieces of the first releases, shows why.
From the opening lick of “Custard Pie”, with its multi-layered guitar and Robert Plant’s lyrical lifts paying homage to both Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em on Down” and “Drop Down Daddy” by Sleepy John Estes, the Mighty Zep show that they haven’t forgotten about the strength of the Delta Blues. “The Rover” plays on a menacing riff by Page and an unbelievable bottom end held together expertly by John Paul Jones where the bassist comes dangerously close to overshadowing his guitarist with funked out, lazy but quick fills.
While drummer John Bonham easily holds his own on the first two tracks, it’s during the epic slide guitar led blues of “In My Time of Dying” where he thunders through his strongest drumming ever on a Zeppelin record (a title taken away one album later on the song “Achilles Last Stand”). Going clear past any other drummer in history in terms of power and intensity, Bonzo matches Page note for note when not bashing away rolls left and right, only to lead the stop and start at the three-forths mark of the song. Plant’s pleas for Jesus to “Make up his dying bed” would later cast a pall over the band, imaginary or not, but surely some price had to be paid for the unbridled power and magnitude of the piece.
“Houses of the Holy”, held over from the sessions that produced the album of the same name is one of the more pop based songs that Zeppelin has recorded, while “Trampled Underfoot” became a showcase for John Paul Jones and his use of keyboards; unlike Deep Purple, but breaching into what later became known as heavy metal all the same.
“Kashmir”, and its lofty orchestral arrangement rising and falling throughout, provides a vehicle for Plant and Page to wax on their Middle Eastern fascination. No one in the mid-seventies driving around in tricked out Mustangs and small block Camaros had clue about what all this talk of “all I see turns to brown” was, but it sounded bad ass nonetheless. Diluted somewhat by incessant radio play over the years, in the context of the rest of Physical Graffiti, it loses none of the original muscle.
By the time the second disc, or third side rolls around, a respite is given from the weight of the first six songs.
“In the Light” is the true centerpiece of the record, and is quite possibly the best example of the light and shade Page was chasing. More than just a ballad, it builds and builds until falling away in a crescendo of wailing guitar flurries. The gentle and intense acoustic piece “Bron-Yr-Aur” is the perfect segue into “Down By the Seaside”, which shifts from many soft “ooohs” and “aaaahs” in the chorus into a dark beat indicative of the upcoming foray back into an edgier tilt.
“Ten Years Gone” is the blueprint (though “Stairway to Heaven” is to blame) for most of the ballads that came to fruition in the ‘80s. Plant becomes wistful and regretful while Page lays down a passionate solo culminating in Plant begging for someone to identify with his longing “Did you ever really need somebody—and really need them bad?”
“Night Flight” has Bonham showing his Buddy Rich style of drumming while “Boogie With Stu” gives the rest of the band a shot at honky tonk courtesy of sometime Rolling Stone pianist Ian Stewart. “Black Country Woman”, from the infamous Stargroves sessions, begins with engineer Eddie Kramer attempting to remove the sound of an airplane flying over the outdoor recording session. Plant tells him to “leave it in” while the band gets caught up in a moment of an acoustic “Hey, hey mama . . . why you treat me mean? That’s all right, I know your sisters too”. It’s subject matter of pining for girl who’s broken him down, and realizing that a good blues piece is coming from it, makes it all the easier to dismiss the woman with a “Whas’ a matter wit you mama?”
“The Wanton Song” and album closer “Sick Again” are the stereotypical all out assault that Zeppelin is often categorized as. On the latter, Bonham pounds away at the high hats before pulling back to let Page rip into a fiery solo, setting Plant up for some golden god sexual innuendoes that he laid into with the utmost in ego—all of which, like the rest of the record, is appropriate and well-deserved.
At over 15 times platinum according to the RIAA, Led Zeppelin obviously did something right. The double record wasn’t a case of ‘70s gluttony, but rather an encapsulation of a band in their prime who were just dead on top of their game. This was when their craft was honed and Zeppelin was a well-oiled machine. The riffs were coming from left and right, and there was no reason to hold them over until a later release. It was just before tragedy and drug addiction began to eat away at the core of the band, leaving only the angry and defiant Presence and the John Paul Jones attempt at salvation, In Through the Out Door. Then Bonham died, Plant renounced the group, Jones disappeared, and Page got lost in the mire of the ‘80s.
With that, Physical Graffiti is the true testament to the greatest rock group that there ever was. Unfortunate for the musicians they influenced who don’t get it, Led Zeppelin was more than just the aggressive salvos of guitar, bass, drum and caterwauls of a singer with a blonde mane in tight jeans. Physical Graffiti shows that like no other, light and shade can be accomplished—deftly.