Top of the Pops: Physical Graffiti

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May 26, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Physical Graffiti is the greatest rock album of all time.  I feel like if I write that again it’ll convey the message that I’m not fucking around when I say that.  Physical Graffiti is the greatest rock album of all time.  Between its 15 tracks you will find everything that rock music ever was, is, and will be.  Physical Graffiti is an album that fucks you; it just grabs you by the dick and fucks you for 83 minutes.[1]

With that brief outburst out the way, Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin’s best, heaviest, and most sprawling album.  It is also their most eclectic because half of the tracks were discarded songs from previous albums.  This album encapsulates who Led Zeppelin was and what makes them the greatest rock band of all time; it’s a snapshot of their transcendent careers.  We’ve already known that Zeppelin is capable of producing epic songs such as “When the Levee Breaks” and “The Rain Song”, but Physical Graffiti proves that they can make an epic album.  Physical Graffiti is the sound of the greatest rock band of all time being the greatest rock band of all time.  It’s the culmination of a Led Zeppelin that is fully confident and steadfast in itself.

Mixing the old with the new is what gives Physical Graffiti a remarkable sense of balance, the secret to the success of any double album.  The songs recorded specifically for this album, tracks such as “Sick Again”, “The Wanton Song” and “Kashmir” all have a heaviness and ferociousness that eclipses any previous attempt.  The lingering image of Led Zeppelin being the progenitor of hard rock and heavy metal comes almost exclusively from these songs on the album.  Previously recorded songs, outtakes from prior sessions have a more delicate and lighter sound, most noticeable on cuts like “Houses of the Holy”, recorded for the titular album, “Down by the Seaside”, and “Boogie with Stu”, both recorded for IV.  Somehow the band managed to incorporate seven disparate and unsynchronized songs recorded at different times and successfully combine them with eight of their heaviest songs, written and recorded at the band’s peak, all with astonishing and near perfect results.

On both discs Zeppelin masterfully mixes heavy metal ferocity with operatic grandiosity, the likes of which have rarely been duplicated since.  From the slow crescendo of the opening riff of the first track “Custard Pie”, to the powerful torrential rhythm of “Kashmir” disc one of Physical Graffiti is a lesson in all things heavy and epic.  Following the metaphor for cunnilingus that is “Custard Pie”, a mere taste of the sexual nature of the rest of the album, is the ponderously melancholy delight, “The Rover”, a great song, but one that I’d be interested to hear as an acoustic track, as originally intended.

Knowing how to make an exit, all four sides of Physical Graffiti ends with a bang.  Closing out side one of disc one is “In My Time of Dying”, the blues rock equivalent of The Odyssey.  Like so much of the album, it’s Page’s guitar work that initially amazes you, but with subsequent replays, it’s John Bonham’s drumming that proves to be most impressive.  His drumming, particularly on “In My Time of Dying” will keep you guessing until the very end; you really have no idea of what he’ll do next, and that excitement propels the song.

Closing out the first half of the album is “Kashmir”, arguably the singular peak of the band, as both a musical act, and an ideal.  “Kashmir” is not a song, but a force of nature that comes to life thanks to Page’s unforgettable and imaginatively vivid riff; it makes you feel as if you are riding at the very edge of an impending and impervious storm front.

Off the heels of the wondrous “Kashmir”, is the more subdued epic “In the Light”, which opens up disc two.  If not for John Paul Jones’ synth and Plants’ contradictory lyrics, “In the Light” would sound redundant and unnecessary, but being what it is, it works well within the context of the album because it doesn’t try to be another “Kashmir” or “In My Time of Dying”; it’s different enough to be able to stand on its own two feet, even if it isn’t as good as the other epics.

Physical Graffiti presents the band at its most important and most musically potent.  Even though it is their heaviest, it still gives us the band’s most sincere and sensitive with “Ten Years Gone”.  If “The Rain Song” is their most beautiful ballad, “Ten Years Gone” is their most sentimental.  Besides “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and “Estranged” by Guns N’ Roses, never has there been a guitar solo that fit so perfectly into the lyrics of the song, than the one played by Jimmy Page on “Ten Years Gone”.  It sounds as if the guitar itself is weeping for a lost love that Robert Plant suffered on his way to superstardom.  The lyrics themselves are the purest poetry that Jim Morrison could have only wished he’d wrote.  It’s almost as if Plant is lamenting to himself that all the success that he’s gained from being in Led Zeppelin isn’t worth losing this one woman ten years prior.  And it’s in Page’s guitar that says everything that Plant doesn’t have to.  “Ten Years Gone” is Page/Plant at their very finest.

Disc two of Physical Graffiti is presented as more of a traditional album than is disc one.  It’s from disc one that this album gets its reputation for being the bands’ heaviest release; disc two is a bit more eclectic with the synth heavy “In the Light” the acoustic instrumental “Bron-Yr-Aur”, and the acoustic rockers “Boogie with Stu” and “Black Country Woman”.  The only knock against Physical Graffiti is found on disc two, in the form of “Down by the Seaside”.  It’s simply a dull song that offers nothing to the album; it’s rendered especially inferior since the following track is the master ballad “Ten Years Gone”.

The highlights of disc two come in the form of the two hardest rocking songs on the album; in keeping with the overt sexuality with the rest of the album in the form of “Custard Pie” and “Trampled Underfoot” they are also the most sexual on the album.  “The Wanton Song” a song about a “Silent woman in the night/you came/take my seed from my shaking frame” features the sexiest riff in all of rock history, courtesy of Jimmy Page.  The drumming is orgasmic and Robert Plants’ blistering calls to “Feel your healing rivers run” adds onto the sexual motivation of the song.  “The Wanton Song” is Physical Graffiti in its most concentrated form.  It’s the band playing the same earthly and primal music that they’ve always played, just to such an unparalleled degree that it seems to be otherworldly.

Closing out the album, and the golden age of Led Zeppelin is “Sick Again” the sister song to “The Wanton Song”.  Another heavy rocker that builds upon the heaviness of “Black Dog” from Led Zeppelin IV, “Sick Again” is an ode of recognition much the same way “The Ocean” closes out Houses of the Holy.  However, instead of being dedicated to the legion of loyal fans, “Sick Again” is a biographical ode to the groupies of the band and the sexual favors they would bestow upon the band.  Crushing bass grooves, unforgiving guitar riffs, pounding, yet methodical drum work and lyrics detailing sexual corruption was the formula for success for Led Zeppelin.  “Sick Again” is the culmination of everything that makes Led Zeppelin and Physical Graffiti great.  It shows us that even amongst the grandeur and splendor of tracks like “Stairway to Heaven”, and “Kashmir”, the band was still personable and gritty enough to write songs about dirty, primal sex and capricious misdeeds.

As an album, Physical Graffiti can be summed up by a line from the closing track “The fun of coming/O the pain in leaving”.  Much like the best nights of purely carnal lust, you can’t wait to start, and you never want it to end.  With Physical Graffiti, just like the best sex you ever had, it leaves you eagerly wanting more, and impatiently waiting for the next go around.

 

[1] Wow, two minutes in and I’ve already turned an album review into an X-rated article.

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