In turning my attention to writing about music, something I must confess I am new to, I was unsure of what to write about at first. I thought to myself: there must have been something released in the past year that means something to me. Something new that I would want to talk about. Something new that I feel an uncontrollable desire to tell everyone I meet to go out and listen to. Something relevant to a modern audience. After pondering this option, I thought, why bother? My bread-and-butter, classic rock, is foreign to most people today anyway, so why bother searching high and low for something new that other people might not have heard when there’s plenty of it lying right under my nose?
As a music-aholic, I’ve listened to my fair share of music. My friends know me as the person who blasts songs from yesteryear at all hours of the day, no matter what I’m doing. When other people tell me they can’t work with music in the background, my mind says: wait, what?
So I love music. A lot of music. And there are many albums that I hold near and dear to my heart. I could listen to anything by my favorite band, the Beatles (post- “A Hard Day’s Night” at least) for hours on end, and nothing gets me as excited as listening to the amazing four album run The Rolling Stones had between 1968 and 1972 (although consistently great, the absolute highlight of these albums for me is the haunting, brilliant “Gimmie Shelter” on the 1969’s “Let it Bleed”). And there are dozens of other albums blasting through my headphones at all times. But when I think about which album means the most to me, the answer is crystal clear. My absolute favorite album of all-time, standing head and shoulders above the rest, is Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti.” In thinking about what may be the best album by what is arguably the greatest rock band of all time, I immediately felt too humbled to write anything, but, picking my mouth up off the floor, I thought to myself, well, if I’m going to start writing about music, then I’d better start grand.
“Physical Graffiti,” Led Zeppelin’s sprawling, expansive 1975 masterpiece, is composed of two of the finest discs of music ever released. This album, consisting of what was at the time new material as well as leftovers initially recorded for previous albums, encompasses everything that is great about the seminal band. From the opening number to the closing track, it dishes out everything from simple, acoustic pleasures and towering, exotic epics to lumbering, bluesy stompers and muscular funk showcases to good-ol’-fashioned no-frills rock n’ roll. And, of all their albums, it represents probably the best case for why singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham are the strongest group of musicians to ever don a collective name.
The album kicks off with “Custard Pie,” a strong, funky number that really highlights the bands tight playing. But, impressive as that song is, it’s actually one of the weaker songs on the album (which, considering how good the song is, says quite a lot about the strength of the album as a whole). The band increases the intensity on “The Rover,” one of those truly great songs that you’ll never see on a greatest hits package (then again, a greatest hits CD for a band as consistently great as Led Zeppelin isn’t a good idea to begin with). This song really smokes too, featuring an emotional Plant vocal and some fantastic jamming from Page. Just as strong if not stronger is the brilliantly bluesy “In My Time of Dying,” one of their greatest traditional blues/gospel covers. The band truly makes this song their own, transforming it into a multi-sectioned epic highlighted by Bonham’s powerful, often frenetic drumming, and their performance here really drives home the value of trying something new when attempting a cover. Next up is the comparatively minor effort “Houses of the Holy”, a leftover from their previous album, “Houses of the Holy” (yes, you read that right). It’s a catchy, fun rock song, but the two songs that follow dwarf it in stature. “Trampled Under Foot,” a flat-out fantastic funk-explosion that really cooks from beginning to end, features typically stellar keyboard playing from the underrated Jones and some relentless riffage from Page.
Great though these songs are, none of them can hold a candle to the song that closes out disc one of the album. Arguably the finest single example of the band’s prowess, “Kashmir” is, simply put, one of the greatest songs of all time. Even if they had never released another song, this effort would assure Zep their place in the annals’ of rock n’ roll. Boasting a fantastic groove, an almost otherworldly atmosphere and a consistently building intensity, this expansive, exotic epic (a term I despise, but I can’t resist using it for this song) builds to several spine-tingling climaxes and features the band at the top of their game. Jones, who masterminded the strings arrangement for the song, shines particularly bright, again proving why he was indispensible to the band despite being its least appreciated member. Plus, Plant’s spooky vocal performance is simply one of the finest ever recorded, Page’s playing is beyond words and Bonham is as monumental as ever.
Far from a should-have-been-one-disc effort, the band fills the second disc with an equally impressive, equally diverse assortment of songs, several of which are amongst the greatest the band ever released. Opening the disc is the moody, alternately heavy and light “In the Light” which boasts an exotic, hypnotic vibe and starts off the back half of the album in fine style. Following “Bron-Yr-Aur,” a light but pleasant and emotional leftover from Led Zeppelin III, is “Down by the Seaside,” a dreamy, laid-back number that explodes halfway through before quieting down for an evocative, leisurely conclusion. Next up is my choice for the album’s second greatest song, the mystical, achingly heartfelt “Ten Years Gone.” The group-playing is simply stunning on this song, and Robert Plant delivers one of his most haunting, affectionate vocals as he sings about the 10 years that have passed since he chose to pursue his musical aspirations rather than remain with his then-girlfriend.
None of the final five songs scale the heights of this song or any of the other epics, but they’re all impressive regardless. “Night Flight” is a solid, fun pop song (to the extent that Led Zeppelin can be pop), where-as “The Wanton Song” is a great back-to-basics riff rocker, which is followed by “Boogie With Stu”, an effective piano-driven song with a nice barroom vibe. Closing out the album are “Black Country Woman,” a mostly acoustic number that is a minor, but still pleasant effort, and “Sick Again,” which is simply a great rock song without aspirations of being anything more.
And there you have it. Two discs of such great material can be exhausting to listen to (I’m exhausted just thinking about it), but if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of rock music then look no further (and, can you really say you like rock music without listening to at least one album by the genre’s quintessential band?). “Physical Graffiti” manages the almost impossible task of being incredibly consistent and containing numerous absolutely incendiary peaks. Although I’ve described the songs here, the real reason why the album is so great is how it works as a cohesive statement. It’s one of the few albums that is much more than a mere collection of songs (great though almost all of these songs are), and listening to it in its entirety is about as rewarding as listening to music can be (despite what classical music snobs may say). “Physical Graffiti” is an experience — one that any lover of music should be able to appreciate. And, no matter what I say, it will always retain its status as one of the greatest albums ever released. “Physical Graffiti,” like the band whose talent it serves as a testament to, is timeless.