True 5-Star Albums: Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’

By Martin Popoff

Over-rated Zeppelin is, for how can a band not be — a mere band — when rated so stratospherically? Who cares what I think, but still, as much as I gripe about the slack work ethic to almost all their records, they are ginormously one of my favorite bands, and more often than not, I cite “Physical Graffiti” as the greatest album of all time, by anybody. No seriously, it’s the first to come to mind, and I’ve scribed this as well, that the album is the aircraft carrier of rock, a massive, proud, nationalistic, jingoistic construct worth billions and going to war. In fact, it’s probably 50 percent of the reason Zep, to me, are gods, ‘cos much of the rest is pretty mortal, frankly, a couple of “classics” that are just a little bit lucky to be deemed so.

So yeah, “Physical Graffiti” is the bechested military complex of unassailable that stopped all snide critics in their paths, or at least made them look absurd if they complained. Sure, Zep III and IV were way more than sweet nectar of the gods, but after the first long wait, “Houses Of The Holy” was a little lazy.

There’s a whole debate whether double albums are spotted an unfair advantage, but Jimmy, Robert, John Paul and Bonzo write so deliciously, so touched by an army of muses, that you would have to say they aggressively disqualify any attempt at disqualification, by knocking it out of the park, by menacingly jerking the album from, even for a moment, being considered to lean on the crutch of being a double.

Nay, “Physical Graffiti” is all killer, no filler.

Side one is, of course, the greatest half slab of Zep ever (oh, allow me to indulge), “Custard Pie” being a shove and a push of sexual funkiness, and moderately heavy. And if you want heavy Zep, both “The Rover” and “In My Time of Dying” comply, two-fisting the idea that despite being a double, “Physical Graffiti” is heavy enough for the angry metalheads patronizing the franchise. “The Rover” is huge, riffy and dangerous of vocal, but “In My Time of Dying,” well, it’s the most amazing and epic song of the catalog, making “Stairway To Heaven’s” succession of boring parts look like Grand Funk or BTO trying to look profound. Sure, there’s stealing from blues artists, but it’s like the collective IQ applied to the rocket fuel transformation has jumped a few dozen Mensas since the debut and II. And at 11 minutes, it’s immediately thrust into comparison to Sabbath’s “Megalomania.”

Collapsing into side two, “Houses Of The Holy” was joyous and quite heavy, “Trampled Under Foot,” a tough-as-nails early version of the (under-appreciated) Jones’ mindset as demonstrated on the band’s swan song. And then there’s “Kashmir,” a song ­— a stairway to heaven in song, if you will — cited by many as the band’s pièce de résistance and who could argue? Sabbath’s Bill Ward talks of the challenges of playing slow, and Bonham shows us how, as Page constructs the perfect crypto-Egypto melody from afar that would invent Rainbow and today’s power metal.

Photo by Richard Kwasniewski/Frank White Agency

Proceed to side three and it’s the valley of the unknown, a trip sorta like the vibe of the “Houses Of The Holy” album or the dark, unvisited side of Nazareth’s “Hair Of The Dog” album of the same geometric and pivotal year. Side three (especially “In the Light” and “Down by the Seaside”) feels like a languid Jones’ trip, but the band’s secret weapon doesn’t figure prominently in the credits. In any event, side three is the joint-smoker, atmospheric, cavernous.

Swing ‘round to the close, and Led Zeppelin mischievously set up the fireworks unsafely, irreverently offering five short and snappy songs. First is the feel-good “Night Flight,” followed by one of the band’s heaviest, most explosive rockers, “The Wanton Song,” relived by Rainbow come their “Lady Of The Lake.” I must add that by this point, four-fifths the way through the fantasia, Robert Plant has turned in a performance of bravado, dimension, grit, pathos. Proceed we must, and “Boogie with Stu” is a bit of a toss-off, as is “Black Country Woman,” basically efficient versions of things we’ve heard on Zep IV (you match them up), the word efficient including a silver lining within the more overt and implied denigration. And finally there’s “Sick Again,” where Zep rock (like a Viking ship), heavy, heavy metal even, turning in a grinding, combative double-helix of a song, again, appeasing of the metalhead, much to Percy’s chagrin at encouraging the downers and wine set, as Sabbath’s crowd was dismissively labeled.

And there it was, like I say, an aircraft carrier stormtrooping through the surf of all rock that was mere disappearing foam beneath it, “Physical Graffiti” silencing, converting, shutting th’ hell up those who would have — actually previously and rationally — doubted the divine placement of the mighty Zep upon the simpering, flagging rock landscape of the mid-’70s.

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