Counterbalance No. 98: Led Zeppelin's 'Physical Graffiti'
So the world is spinning faster—are you dizzy when you're stoned? Let the music be your master. Will you heed the master's call? Led Zeppelin’s 1975 double-disc monolith is the 98th most acclaimed album of all time.
Mendelsohn: I woke up this morning and found myself trying to fight off that strange sense of déjà vu, and I couldn't figure out why until I got into my car and Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti came blaring through the speakers at full volume somewhere in the middle of "In My Time Of Dying" (I have no idea what I was doing last night but it must have been awesome or maybe I was just driving home from work). And then it dawned on me. I feel like we've been here before. And in many respects, we have. This is now the third Led Zeppelin album we've encountered on our trip through the Great List. A lot of the material that wound up on Physical Graffiti was leftover from previous recording sessions, tracks that didn't make the cut for one reason or another—the flotsam and jetsam in the wake of a rock 'n' roll career. Tossing those things together on a record can be a risky proposition. It worked for the Rolling Stones with Exile on Main Street, and for my money, it works incredibly well for the boys of Led Zeppelin.
I was never good at differentiating one Zep record from another—it all sounds like Led Zeppelin to me. It wasn't until I spent some time with Physical Graffiti a couple years ago that I finally saw the wildly divergent musical styles at work within this group. When you get right down to it, Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin's greatest hits record without the greatest hits (mostly). Track to track, the style changes dramatically. Within the confines of this double album we see Zep rock like Golden Gods with "Custard Pie", explore funk in "Trampled Under Foot", brandish Eastern influences in "Kashmir", lay the groundwork for heavy metal with "In The Light", relish in the blues with "In My Time of Dying", write the perfect pop rocker "Houses of the Holy", wax introspectively with "Ten Years Gone", glory in the early days of rock with "Boogie With Stu" -- and that's just the beginning. I'm guessing the scattershot styles may have hurt this record's ranking but I'm having trouble finding any faults with it. Plus, that interactive album cover is just plain awesome.
Klinger: Yeah, that cover's fun. (You know, that’s the same building where the Rolling Stones filmed their “Waiting on a Friend” video.) And I'm glad to hear you're having such a positive experience with Physical Graffiti. It is a gargantuan album, both as a function of its doublosity and its scope, and the fact that so many of its songs threaten to burst at the seams throughout. Not only do so many songs make their way toward the six-minute mark, but loads of them also turn on a dime and back again. Even a relatively minor track like "Down by the Seaside", for example, starts out as a vaguely novelty-ish country number, but then without warning it kicks into high gear. And then all of a sudden you're right back where you started, slightly confused but ready for more. Same with the majestic “In the Light”, which uses John Paul Jones’ synths and Jimmy Page’s bowed guitar to great effect, shifting from sinister psych into something approaching sweet soul to create one of their most impressive-sounding tracks.
It's a testament to the stunning rhythmic facility of Messrs. Page, Jones, and Bonham (especially John Bonham, who never fails to surprise me with a tricky added beat or fill). Critics may have initially pummeled them for their lack of subtlety, but they were able to navigate complicated maneuvers with the choreography of the Avengers—without the CGI. It's the main reason why "In My Time of Dying" is nowhere near as excruciating as an 11-minute workout could be. I never much liked Led Zeppelin growing up (like Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, I grew up rebelling against the music of my high school parking lot), but now that the pressure's off, I can hear their performances for what they are.
Mendelsohn: I too had some issues connecting with the Zep in my younger days, but the passage of time and a little bit of knowledge in the realm of rock 'n' roll history has really increased my appreciation for this band. And over the years, I've come to realize that Led Zeppelin are like a fine wine. Sure, just slamming glass after glass will get you where you want to go but if you slow down a bit and enjoy the subtleties, a whole new realm opens up and you are greeted with a world of flavors that can easily be missed if you aren't patient enough.
As for "In My Time of Dying", I always find myself a little shocked when I look at the time count in iTunes and see that 11 minutes-plus staring back at me. That song, by far my favorite on this record, doesn't seem anywhere near that long and I have, on occasion, just put it on repeat and let it keep playing. Page's slinky slide work and Plant's croon make this song, accented by Bonham's rolling thunder and some great bass groundwork by Jones before they completely switch it up into a surging monster of a track that refuses to back down. It begs to be played at full volume, which seems to be why whenever I get into my car after listening to Physical Graffiti I'm still in the middle of this song and the volume is completely cranked up. Apparently most of my car trips are under 11 minutes. Cough.
Klinger: Yeah. Plant. About that. It's taken me until this point to figure it out, but I think he might have been the reason why I've always been so reluctant to get into Zeppelin. I mean, you describe it as a "croon", but I think you could also make a drinking game out of how many times he makes that "Oooooh" noise that sounds like the horn on an old-timey Model A. (You'd take your first swig the first time he opens his mouth, six seconds into the first track.)
Don’t get me wrong -- Plant is in many ways the archetype of the rock frontman, and his voice is a powerful component of the Zeppelin sound. But while other blues-influenced rock singers can and do dig into a song -- really get behind it and push -- Plant tends to sound like he's skating along over the top of it, belting out syllables rather than searching for the underlying emotional gravity of the song. For example, in the closing minutes of "Custard Pie" he morphs "Drop down" into something very near "Trump Tower". And "In My Time of Dying" is the real motherlode, as he starts with "Oh my Jesus", drifts into "On my TV", and by the end I'm pretty sure he's singing "Ocho cheesy".
Much as I enjoy Physical Graffiti on balance, this is the point where the seams start to show in the Led Zeppelin mystique. Apart from the absolute Murderer's Row that is side two of the first disc, where the full-tilt "Houses of the Holy" goes right into the deeply funky "Trampled Underfoot" and caps of with "Kashmir" (which really should be acknowledged as their unassailable magnum opus and we should all just stop talking about "Stairway to Heaven" right now), Physical Graffiti marks the point where they start to become—dare I say it—a regular rock band.
Mendelsohn: It couldn't last forever. At some point, Led Zeppelin had to come back to earth. The only real question was, would they crash and burn or would they glide gracefully in for a heroes’ welcome in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll? I think it’s pretty clear they executed the perfect landing (before having a minor accident in the hangar when the wheels fell off with Presence and In Through The Out Door) Physical Graffiti really shows the band going out on the top of its game—a smorgasbord of eclectic styles that the Zep had cultivated over the course of their career, a mini retrospective of rock 'n' roll prowess. And if there are seams, and there always are, can we really fault them? Physical Graffiti wasn't an album they built from the ground up, it was slapped together with found pieces, the little bits that were left over from previous records and then fleshed out with some of the best material Led Zeppelin had ever recorded—and that includes "Kashmir".
I agree with you about "Kashmir" being Led Zeppelin's true magnum opus. Unfortunately, it never captured the imagination of the youth as well as "Stairway to Heaven". To me, "Kashmir" has an element of the Other, foreign riffs and a sinister surge that would immediately eliminate it from the running for prom theme songs.
Klinger: Maybe if "Kashmir" had been my prom theme, I might have tried harder to find a date. (Oh, who am I kidding . . .) There's still a lot to be said for the way that Physical Graffiti brought Led Zeppelin down from their misty mountain top, with all of its attendant sorcery and wizardry and hobbitry and whatnot, making them a group whose influence could be spread out more easily. It extends well beyond "The Rover", which pretty much invents the hard rock that came in Zep's wake, from Van Halen to Def Leppard. When I settled in and listened to this album, I suddenly realized that you can hear elements of that Led Zeppelin feel in places ranging from the big beats of the Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin to the Hold Steady's riff-rocking. Led Zeppelin's first clutch of albums made them gods. Their last bunch made them real. Turns out, to tell the story, you need them both.