Physical Graffiti – A Reappraisal

Back when gas was cheap and people – and by people I mean largely men – didn’t drive like a bunch of aggressive “I own the road” fuckheads, I used to go for drives just to listen to music. I still occasionally do that but if I do it’s usually on some backwoods bucolic road nowhere near the highway.

One of my favorite albums to listen to was Led Zep’s Physical Graffiti. I realized the other day that apart from a few songs, I hadn’t listened to the entire album for quite some time.

And I was surprised to find that while there is some great stuff on there, IMHO it is not a great album. Well, said better it would have made a great single album. Hell, there were songs on there that if I’d heard them on the radio I wouldn’t even have remembered as being on this album. “Sick Again?” “Down by the Seaside?”

Firstly, a little historical perspective. The album was released on 24 February 1975. At that point in time, Zep were one of the biggest, if not the biggest band in the world.

Wikipedia:: “Shortly after the release of Physical Graffiti, all previous Led Zeppelin albums simultaneously re-entered the top-200 album chart, and the band embarked on another North American tour. In May 1975, they played five sold-out nights at the Earls Court Arena in London, at the time the largest arena in Britain.”

Zep’s first couple of albums had been drenched in blues but by the time of this album, while they still had that feel, the only out-and-out blues song was “In My Time of Dying.” The rest is what I refer to as Zep’s patented crunch ‘n roll.

This is pretty well exemplified by the kickoff tune “Custard Pie.”

I did a whole post once on “In My Time of Dying.” You can read it here if you’re so inclined. 

The title Physical Graffiti was coined by Page to illustrate the whole “physical and written energy that had gone into producing the set.” The two five-story buildings photographed for the album cover are located at 96 and 98 St. Mark’s Place in the East Village in  New York City. The same building was used for the Stones’ video “Waiting on a Friend.”

I always dug the funky tune “Trampled Under Foot,” with John Paul Jones’ Stevie Wonder-inspired clavinet. It is 100% about a car and has nothing whatsoever to do with sex as proven by these lyrics. Clearly just a very helpful mechanic!

Ooh, trouble-free transmission
Helps your oils flow
Mama, let me pump your gas
Mama, let me do it all

So, “Kashmir.” Many people – including Zep – think this is their masterpiece and is better than “Stairway.” Disagree. It took me a long time to even like the song. I eventually warmed up to its hypnotic drone feel and I’d certainly include in that single album. But I don’t exalt it like others do. Bonzo got co-writer credit for this song for his contributions.

Another killer track is “The Wanton Song.” I love to play this riff on the gee-tar. This one appears to be totally about “marital relations.”

One more tune for ya. From an interview with Plant: “Let me tell you a little story behind the song “Ten Years Gone” on our new album. I was working my ass off before joining Zeppelin. A lady I really dearly loved said, “Right. It’s me or your fans.” Not that I had fans, but I said, “I can’t stop, I’ve got to keep going.”

She’s quite content these days, I imagine. She’s got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports car. We wouldn’t have anything to say anymore. I could probably relate to her, but she couldn’t relate to me. I’d be smiling too much. Ten years gone, I’m afraid. Anyway, there’s a gamble for you.”

Love the repetitive riff in this one. Is there any better riffmeister than Jimmy Page? And they couldn’t work the words “she’s got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports car” into a song?

So what would my version of Physical Graffiti look like? Well, you might have had to trim a song or two to get it to fit the vinyl. The longest Zep album was the first one at 44:45. Anyway, the ME list would be:

  • Custard Pie
  • The Rover
  • In My Time of Dying
  • Houses of the Holy
  • Trampled Under Foot
  • Kashmir
  • Ten Years Gone
  • The Wanton Song

The rest of the tunes could have gone onto an extended version of Coda. In fact, this became a double album as Zep had enough songs for three sides and decided to fill it with older, unreleased stuff. Let’s call it what it is – filler.

Interestingly, the album Second Winter by Johnny Winter was released (in 1969) as a three-sided vinyl album as the band didn’t think they had enough material for four sides. I know ‘coz I own it. Maybe Zep should have done that.

As is I give the album a solid B+. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Physical Graffiti was commercially and critically successful upon its release and debuted at number one on album charts in the UK  the UK and number three in the US.

The album has been reissued on CD several times, including an expansive 40th-anniversary edition in 2015. Physical Graffiti was later certified 16× platinum in the United States by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 2006, signifying shipments of over sixteen million copies. If you wait long enough, Page will re-re-master it.

 

 

 

20 thoughts on “Physical Graffiti – A Reappraisal

  1. I think your assessment is fair, Jim. Perhaps tellingly, the songs you picked for your single album versions are the tracks I recognized immediately based on just their titles.

    While nowadays I like “Kashmir”, it really was a taste that took a very long time to acquire. It kind of is a weird song. Still there’s something about it that eventually won me over.

    That said, while inexplicably from today’s perspective only the acoustic part of “Stairway to Heaven” was love at first sight, the remainder of the tune grew much faster on me than “Kashmir.” These days I have no doubt I clearly prefer it over “Kashmir.” In fact, if I could only pick one rock tune, I would probably go with Stairway – shockingly not a tune by my beloved Beatles!

    Last but not least, I also 100 percent agree with you that “Trampled Under Foot” is a really cool tune. Together with “Kashmir”, “Custard Pie” and “Houses of the Holy” it’s my favorite track on the album.

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    1. That’s ok in regards to “Stairway.” For my one rock song I would pick “Layla” so again, no Beatles!

      As mentioned in the piece. there are some songs on this album that I would not have recognized as having come FROM this album if i’d heard them on the radio. How can this be if I love it so much? I was thinking. I would instantly recognize anything from “Exile” or “The White Album” or “At Fillmore East.” But with the exception of “The Wanton Song,” side four was largely a forgotten mystery to me.

      I should mention that when the guys decided to do a double album, they went back and filled it up stuff that didn’t make it on other albums. Let’s call that what it is – filler. They likely knew they were a big enough band and had enough strong stuff that they could pull it off. And they did.

      And yeah, “Kashmir” is a good tune but wildly overrated. “Kashmir” is good, “Stairway” is perfect.

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      1. Once again, I have to agree with you. “Layla” would be a very strong contender as well for best rock tune. Frankly, depending on the day, I might pick it over “Stairway”.

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    2. PS. Based on this conversation, I went back into the piece – something I rarely do – and added something I meant to say that explains and, hopefully- enlightens something. I now say this after the bulletized list.

      “The rest of the tunes could have gone onto an extended version of Coda. In fact, this became a double album as Zep had enough songs for three sides and decided to fill it with older, unreleased stuff. Let’s call it what it is – filler.

      Interestingly, the album Second Winter by Johnny Winter was released (in 1969) as a three-sided vinyl album as the band didn’t think they had enough material for four sides. I know ‘coz I own it. Maybe Zep should have done that.”

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  2. I was sat here today staring at all my Zeppelin albums and wondering why I haven’t played an album in a long time, I think you got this right they do make a glamorous sound though at times.

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  3. I think the first four Led Zep albums are as all killer no filler as it gets. Houses of the Holy on there’s some fat that needs trimming and I’d take your version of Physical Graffiti over Page’s though I’d request the addition of Bron-Yr-Aur, please?

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    1. Yeah, I contemplated that as well. It would be a nice addition and give the hardcore stuff a break. However, since I’m reimagining it in its original vinyl configuration, that’s two more minutes we have to shave off of other songs. I’d say we can shave the blues tune, Kashmir (the longest ones) by a few minutes to get the whole thing within 44 minutes. BTW, Bron-Y-Aur sounds to me like Page was well aware of Leo Kottke.

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  4. I pull this out pretty regular when I feel like a good shot of Zeppelin. Lots of music to enjoy. In fact Im listening to the album right now because of your reminder. Thanks. I have a 3 sided Monty Python record.

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    1. Interesting. I thought Johnny had the lock on that. Be sure to give Second Winter a spin. He was cranking out great Texas blues-rock when SRV was skipping high school. Edgar’s on it as is Tommy Shannon, later to be Stevie’s bassist.

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      1. I had a buddy who was an absolute Winter freak. His dad sound proofed a room in the basement and he’d bash his drums along with this stuff. Plus Edgars Road Work album and lots of Humble Pie.

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      2. Still listening to PG. Leo Kottke just finished up. Now a song I really dig ‘Down By the Seaside’. This album all goes together for me. I anticipate the next cut.

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        1. Yes. They fit for me. Black Country Women is just finishing up. No complaints. Then the opening Who riff on ‘Sick Again’. Maybe Jimmy was letting out some more inspirations on this album.
          Yeah you would have dug those old listening sessions. My buddy thought he was Carl Palmer. He was pretty good. Doc could have done a few guitar runs. That opening to the Chicago song was a popular one with us. 25 Or 6 To 4.

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        2. Sure. 25 or 6 to 4 never gets old for me and Terry Kath’s solo is one of the greatest ever. He was a great singer too.

          As to Carl Palmer, he played here a few years back. But I realized I just wasn’t into prog as much anymore.

          And check out the link below. This just doesn’t do it for me.

          http://emersonlakepalmer.com/index.html

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        3. That screen has a tendency to disappear. What I wanted you to see is that Palmer is touring and playing along with videos of Lake and Emerson. Ghoulish if you ask me

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  5. Bron-Yr-Aur is one of my favorites here too.

    I get it needs a trim but I generally think it works as a double album. There’s enough great stuff that I don’t mind the lesser tracks. If anything I’d shorten some of the tracks rather than cut tracks.

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