An excessive album from the group that all but invented excess.
After Led Zeppelin released ‘Physical Graffiti’, any remaining doubts that they were merely the Rock band of the decade were blown away with the first bars of the strutting riff opener ‘Custard Pie‘. This prodigious double-album was an inventive mix of heavy blues, soul, folk, psych, acoustic and their trademark bludgeoning rock that demonstrated a freedom born of success and, for many, was seen as Led Zeppelin’s best work.
Inventive but still keeping hold of the Blues, over the course of 15 tracks and 80 minutes ‘Physical Graffiti’ established Led Zeppelin as the benchmark for everyone who followed. It is also their first release on their Swan Song label, whose roster also included Bad Company, Dave Edmunds and Wildlife.
It is difficult to know where to start with this behemoth of an album. It contains some of Zep’s best known work in the form of ‘Kashmir‘, ‘Trampled Under Foot‘ and ‘In My Time of Dying‘ but there is also much of merit to explore in the less well-tread ground. ‘Kashmir’ has of course become one of the trademark Led Zeppelin songs. The inexorable groove of this masterpiece with John Bonham‘s unyielding 4/4 backbeat anchoring the uneven guitar and mellotron time signatures pushes the song relentlessly forward with a rolling hypnotic grace. It is not only for the quality of the music that this album, and ‘Kashmir’ in particular, became a staple throughout the demo rooms of high-end hi-fi specialists; the production on here is warm, powerful and open. Check out Jimmy Page himself explaining when and how he came up with that epic riffage.
The deliciously funky riff on ‘Trampled Under Foot‘ also stands out; a Robert Johnson-inspired tune from ‘Terraplane Blues’ which ended up being a favourite of the subhuman scavengers of the sampling world. Other highlights include the John Paul Jones penned ‘In The Light‘ with its haunting intro created by Jimmy Page using a violin bow on an acoustic guitar, the light and shade of the masterful ‘Ten Years Gone‘ with its heavily overdubbed harmony section and ‘In My Time of Dying’, an arrangement of a traditional gospel music song which the band made their own.
The ‘padding’ for this double-album was provided by previously unreleased tracks from earlier recording sessions. The acoustic instrumental ‘Bron-Yr-Aur‘, originally recorded in 1970 for Led Zeppelin III, is an appealing ode to rural life in an open tuning and ‘Houses of the Holy‘, originally intended for inclusion on the album of the same name, is a standard Zep outing with a great hook. But the stand-out track from the previously recorded material has to be the bruising ‘The Rover‘ with its bluesy phase shifted licks, memorable solo and a typical pile-driving performance from Bonham on the sticks.
Physical Graffiti is a glorious culmination of all the different musical styles Led Zeppelin had explored on their previous outings. Their bluesy hard rock infused debut, the riff loaded second , the folk rock leanings of their third album, the masterful blending of light and shade on their untitled fourth and the multi-layered approach on ‘Houses of the Holy’ which included their first foray into funk rock; all of this is present on ‘Physical Graffiti’ but it’s mellower, funkier, more dynamic and more powerful than anything they had done before. But this album is not merely an amalgamation of previous endeavours. It has a character all of its own. It is bold and dynamic while still managing to remain warm and engaging and it is dense and complex while still retaining a sheen of accessibility.
Robert Plant has stated that he considers ‘Physical Graffiti’ to be Zep ‘at its most innovative’ and Jimmy Page has referred to it as the high point in the band’s career. And who could argue? This is the creative zenith of arguably the greatest Rock And Roll band ever to grace the globe and an essential purchase for anyone remotely interested in Led Zeppelin and their legacy.