It was released forty years ago this week and I didn’t even know it came out.
I was living in Sandy, Utah and there was only one rock station in Salt Lake and they didn’t play the new stuff and I was over Zeppelin anyway.
That’s right, I was burned out, couldn’t hear “D’yer Mak’er” one more time. They’re rewriting history and extolling the virtues of “Houses Of The Holy” but the truth is despite the hits it was a bit of a disappointment, certainly artistically, it was safe whereas everything before it was unexpected with rough edges that pushed the envelope. It was like the band was on a premature victory lap.
And then came “Physical Graffiti.”
I was into Zeppelin early. Had the first album way before the second. And you’ve got to know, when the second came out it penetrated the culture in a way that is unfathomable today. It’s all you heard for a month. Not only was “Whole Lotta Love” played incessantly on the radio, both the hip and wannabe hip bought the gatefold LP and you knew it by heart and to hear it again made you wince.
And “III” was a truly a disappointment. A left turn. Confounding expectations. I loved “Gallows Pole” and “Immigrant Song” and “Tangerine” but whereas the albums that came before were incredibly consistent, “III” was not. I didn’t even buy “IV” on the day of release. And “IV” is spectacular, for “The Battle Of Evermore” and “When The Levee Breaks,” never mind “Stairway,” but the debut was always my favorite until…
Well, maybe they’re tied.
But they’re so different.
I first heard “Physical Graffiti” on Jimmy Kay’s stereo in a frat house on the University of Utah campus at the end of April 1975 when we had a meeting and we all tossed in fifty bucks towards a ski house in Mammoth for May. I didn’t know these people and the music was so loud and Zeppelin seemed so adolescent that I made them give me a receipt, a hedge against them absconding with my money.
But they didn’t.
I heard “Physical Graffiti” one time more before I left the Beehive State. Actually, the night before. My next door neighbor blasted it while he toked up and I was torn between staying or leaving and I stayed way too late and as a result got a speeding ticket on the drive to Reno the very next day but…
I don’t want to get too far off course.
Bottom line, we rented that house in Mammoth and I had to endure “Physical Graffiti” incessantly from dawn to midnight, except when Jimmy played the Doobie Brothers, who I soon learned were not a joke.
And it was an 8-track made from LP. And the songs were not in order. But what first impressed me, got under my skin, was…
A bludgeoning riff from an era when the riff was everything, majestic and orchestral with Robert Plant on top and once your brain clicks and you like “Kashmir” you can’t stop playing it. For a long time it was the third most popular song on FM radio, it came after “Stairway To Heaven” and “Free Bird” on all the surveys but they don’t do those anymore.
TEN YEARS GONE
This one hit me unexpectedly. It’s now my favorite Zeppelin track, my go-to cut, it speaks to me when nothing else does. Actually, that’s an important point about “Physical Graffiti,” it seems to be made without the audience in mind. That’s right, it’s hermetically sealed, it’s a peek into the life of musicians who are on their own journey and that’s what makes it so appealing, so different from today when everybody is pandering and trying to get you to like them. Zeppelin didn’t care if you liked them. Then again, maybe they knew they were so good that you couldn’t help but like them. “Ten Years Gone” contains Zeppelin’s magic trick, the transition from acoustic to electric and back again, from quiet to noisy and back. Just like the Beatles employed the bridge as part of their magic, Zeppelin utilized this shift in dynamics to hook young people all around the world. “Ten Years Gone” sounds like nothing else but it sounds so right.
BOOGIE WITH STU
Sounds like a throwaway, noodling in the studio, but it’s not. First of all, it’s Ian Stewart, the sadly-departed sixth Stone, tickling the ivories. And Robert Plant seems on such a lark. Talk about capturing lightning in a bottle…some of the best things in life are the simplest.
A tear. You don’t have time to ponder whether you like it or not, you’ve got to jump on or be left out. It amps up the beginning of side four after the contemplative quietude of “Ten Years Gone” at the end of side three. And as great as Page’s playing is, it’s Robert dancing all over the track that makes you love it, along with the stop and stutter halfway through and then the following acceleration. We were all ready to meet the band in the morning, the middle of the night, wherever they deigned to show up.
DOWN BY THE SEASIDE
A great set-up for “Ten Years Gone,” it’s almost like you can see Robert walking on an English stone beach. Side three is the most mystical, most out there. It opens with “In The Light,” which bugged me at first but I came to realize is quintessential, and then “Bron-Yr-Aur” which sounded like the first album, then “Down By The Seaside” and then the triumph of “Ten Years Gone.” What confidence, to do it their own way, daring us to throw away our preconceptions and just go on the journey.
The opening cut, but I never heard it that way until I purchased the vinyl when I finally had access to a record player months later. Not as good as other Zeppelin album openers, but that does not mean it’s not quality.
Heavy! No wimps allowed. This was heavy metal before they sped it up and made it a niche. Headbanging music when that was not a pejorative.
IN MY TIME OF DYING
Ends side one. That was the amazing thing, the three unique, lengthy tracks that ended the first three sides, this, “Kashmir” on side two and “Ten Years Gone” on side three. “In My Time Of Dying” needed to be this long, Page was twisting and turning our head and Bonzo was pounding and the truth is Led Zeppelin was truly a band, and without every element it didn’t stand, never underestimate John Paul Jones.
HOUSES OF THE HOLY
Smacked of Little Feat, which was famous for leaving listed tracks off albums. Wasn’t this supposed to be on the prior LP?
TRAMPLED UNDER FOOT
It’s the aforementioned John Paul Jones on clavinet that puts this over the top. “Trampled Under Foot” takes no prisoners. Either you’re on the ride or you’re not. And if you are, it feels so good!
BLACK COUNTRY WOMAN
That’s right, acoustic blues were still part of the act.
I don’t know if an album like “Physical Graffiti” could be successful today. A double album, but in reality not much longer than your average CD, it had no hits as hooks, you just had to spin it until you got it, and people don’t have that time today.
But “Physical Graffiti” exists. An icon spiraling in the past. And either you know what I’m talking about or…you’re gonna have to lock yourself in your room for a week playing only it whereupon you’ll emerge bleary-eyed at the end exclaiming…EUREKA!