Thursday, February 25, 2010

35 Years Gone

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin’s most comprehensive studio album, the double-disc Physical Graffiti.

For those of us who are serious fans of rock music, and more specifically fans of the music of Led Zeppelin, there is not much debate about which studio album stands above all others in the band's catalog. While Led Zeppelin I provides the template for the group in one succinct, yet impressively varied statement, and Led Zeppelin IV represents an enduring pinnacle of several aspects of the band’s work (straight out rock, Celtic folk, suped-up blues and the amalgamation of all that and more), it is the band’s 1975 release, Physical Graffiti that supercedes all others – if only for that fact that, as their only double studio album, it contains twice the original music of any of the other seven studio releases. And, in so doing, it most fully captures the breadth of the band’s stylistic undertakings. Not only does it contain one of the mighty Zep’s preeminent epics (No. 1 if you ask Robert Plant) in the exotic Arabian tones of “Kashmir,” it also features the whole swath of the band’s oeuvre: hard rock, melodic rock, blues, funk, pop, country, folk and even barrelhouse boogie.

Comprising an album and a half of new tracks (written and recorded in 1974), coupled with a few leftover gems from the previous three albums, Physical Graffiti was the first release on the band’s own label, Swan Song Records. Such was their sway over the record industry – and parent company Atlantic Records, in particular – that they could present their latest collection of songs in an extravagant package featuring the now-familiar St. Mark’s Place, N.Y.C., facade with its remarkable die-cut cover revealing interchangeable sleeve images.

The production of the music itself remains a sonic standard many artists still strive to capture to this day. Its crisp freshness is remarkable. And it’s all the more amazing considering that much of it was recorded organically with mobile recording trucks camped out at various English country locales (Mick Jagger’s Stargroves estate and the former country workhouse Headley Grange).

As a guitar hobbyist myself, I’ve discovered over the years another telling aspect of the quality of the compositions on Physical Graffiti: even many of the multi-layered electric songs translate well to acoustic interpretations (e.g., “Houses of the Holy,” “Custard Pie” and “The Rover”). The songs hold up no matter how they’re rendered.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say that after 30+ years of listening to this record, I appreciate its nuances, craftsmanship, variety and overall “feel” more than ever. Long-time Zeppelin chronicler Dave Lewis waxes far more eloquently about it than I ever could in his lengthy “Tight But Loose” blog post on the topic. He delves deep into the backstory of the recording sessions for the album evidenced by some of the bootlegs that have emerged over the years. (I’ve heard many of these and they are both fascinating and revealing – especially if you’re a musical obsessive like me!) It’s very clear that Zeppelin were ahead of their time in so many ways – in the moment, yet always looking back, sideways and forward. That is part of what has made them a band with a legacy matched only by The Beatles.

In early 1975, Led Zeppelin was at the top of their game. Supremely capable and confident, in full control of their fortunes and facilities. Yet, unbeknownst at the time, they were also mere months away from the beginning of a string of misfortunes, drug-induced debilitation and ensuing decline that would mar their later years, before finally finishing off the band with Bonham’s death some five years later. But, in February 1975 there was joy in the tracks, and it’s still to be found there:

Custard Pie – This jaunty kickoff to the album features a funky bass line, bubbly clavinet and cutting wah-wahed lead guitar while referencing a number of early blues songs. Quintessential mid-seventies rock decadence. Save me a slice.

The Rover – One the band’s best and most-underrated songs proves that hard rock can have subtlety, nuance and a beautiful melody. This richly textured masterpiece was developed from an idea conceived during the sessions for the previous album (Houses of the Holy). It features some of Plant’s better lyrics and some of Jimmy Page’s most lyrical lead guitar work.

In My Time of Dying – A brutal slide guitar-and-drum-driven assault on an old blues standard (Blind Willie Johnson, 1927). Listen to Dylan’s nascent version of this tune on his eponymous 1961 debut L.P. and then listen to this. John Bonham is monstrous and the band plays with the precision of a fine-tuned machine careening around on its own accord!

Houses of the Holy – The title track from the previous release that didn’t make the album! Pure joyous pop rock in Zeppelin’s oft-imitated but never matched style.

Trampled Under Foot – The band’s first serious foray into funk (some more of that to be heard on their next studio LP, Presence). This must’ve given the Red Hot Chili Peppers something to think about. In addition to Page’s searing wah-wah guitar, John Paul Jones absolutely rules in providing the funk on clavinet. With none-too-shrouded lyrical analogies between automotive engines and carnal endeavors (a la Robert Johnson’s 1936 chestnut “Terraplane Blues”), it’s easy to see why this became a concert favorite for the band.

Kashmir – The sands of the Sahara seep out of the speakers on this epic. Inspired by Page and Plant’s Moroccan adventures (even though Kashmir is in Southeast Asia). Features Page’s self-proclaimed C.I.A. (Celtic, Indian, Arabic) tuned guitars provide the Moorish flavoring complemented by Bonzo’s steady percussive power. As majestic a rock track as there ever was.

In the Light – Another epic, building track, this time highlighting Jones’ spacey synthesizer drones. Despite being pigeon-holed as the forbearers of heavy metal (or in another couple of years “dinosaur rock”), here’s evidence of their modernity – not prog, but future-looking and sounding. It still sounds modern.

Bron-Yr-Aur – This beautiful, short acoustic guitar interlude harkens back to the feel and geographic inspirations of Led Zeppelin III.

Down By the Seaside – Originally written during the LZ III composing period in the Welsh mountains, this countryfied tune starts out with languid pedal steel guitar and a hippie-ish pro-environmental message, and then cranks up to a full-tilt boogie bridge before relaxing back into a country lilt for the conclusion.

Ten Years Gone – A musically and lyrically sophisticated and slow-building composition featuring layer upon layer of cascading guitars. This is one of the prime examples of Page’s mastery of orchestrating guitar parts.

Night Flight – The closest thing to a throwaway song on this impeccable L.P., this track was leftover from the LZ IV sessions. Nevertheless, this tale of Vietnam-era draft-dodging trips across the border to Canada is still a highly listenable pop workout.

The Wanton Song – A very modernistic (sonically well ahead of its time) funky, riff-heavy, hard rocker that leaps out of the speakers and belts you in the chest ... and you love it! Deceptively sophisticated drum work by Bonzo, while Jones shines on both bass and organ and Page’s guitar zooms in like a meteorite.

Boogie with Stu – This light-hearted jam leftover from the LZ IV sessions features the late, much-beloved, Rolling Stones’ keyboardist Ian Stewart joining the band for a barrelhouse piano-driven romp that references Richie Valens’ 1950s’ era pop rock. A great slapping snare drum sound from Bonham and Plant shines on this one, too.

Black Country Woman – Straight British country-folk fun. With bluesy harmonica, acoustic guitars and mandolins front and center, it’s reminiscent of the band’s third album but actually hales from the Houses of the Holy sessions.

Sick Again – The band wraps it up with a return to pure rock decadence in a debaucherous tale of groupiedom and life on the road. The guitars appropriately drip with sex on this one.

And that’s it: 83 minutes of musical journey and the starting point looks a thousand miles behind.

The famed facade: 96 St. Marks Place, Greenwich Village, N.Y.
Interestingly, this same locale was also later used by The Rolling Stones for their “Waiting on a Friend” video.

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