Physical Graffiti, Revisited.

There are some rock critics who slag off Physical Graffiti as not being Led Zeppelin's best work.  It's not as authentically blues-rocky as the first two records, they say, nor does it gesture toward the surprisingly pop impulses of the final record.  It's a double-album, thus opening the door for the easy critical bromide of "excess" (as if "excess" in Zeppelin was anything other than a virtue).  Some will even claim the freak-folk weirdness of Zeppelin 3 is the band's greatest achievement.

These critics are all wrong.

As any cisgendered teenage boy of 1975 could tell you, Physical Graffiti is the Alpha and Omega of Zeppelin-ness, the most loosely of the tight, the tightest of the loose.  It is the juggernaut of HARD ROCK against which all subsequent posers have breached their balsa-wood multi-layered guitar preciousness for the past forty (gulp!) years.

You are free to disagree with me.  In fact I hope you do.  One of the most ridiculous tasks of "rock criticism" is to rank best and worst in an art form that is so thoroughly imbricated in the neurological development of adolescence.  What music was most important to you when you first realized you might one day actually touch a girl?  Drive a car?  Get out of school and live on your own?  Congratulations, that music still probably ranks among your "greatest hits," that secret Spotify playlist of regressive shame that you go to when the more tasteful stuff reviewed on All Things Considered doesn't float your boat.

With Physical Graffiti recently remastered for a 40th anniversary edition, I decided to do something I probably haven't done since 1978--put on a pair of headphones and listen to this monster straight-thru from A to Z.  Here is my report.  (Note: If you don't already really, really love Physical Graffiti, the below will probably bore you.  Also, if you have a low tolerance for men singing about their cocks and where they would like to put them, the below may also be somewhat off-putting).

Custard Pie
I'm pretty sure most 13-year-old boys in 1975 figured out fairly quickly this was a song about vaginas, but given that the vagina itself was so unlikely and terrifying a reality to contemplate, most concentrated on the song's elemental presentation of all that was to follow: a bass, clavichord, guitar (with minimal overdubbing) and yowl beating you over the head until a more primitive, lizard-brain response took over.  Not the best song on the record, by far, but in some ways the most emblematic of the record's relentlessly monochromatic texture.

The Rover
A hard rocker that throws in just enough minor chord changes to make you think something thematically important might be afoot.  Still obsessed with that galloping bass transition John Paul Jones makes in the wake of Jimmy Page's decaying chords.

In My Time of Dying
"In my Time of Dying" as T-Shirt
Adult me can't really remember if teenage me had the necessary musical background to recognize this as a straight-out blues rip-off turned up to eleven (both in volume and minutes).  All I do remember is thinking how easy it would be to blow-out your speakers and ear-drums turning up the middle 6 minutes beyond the safe parameters of sonic legibility.  Hearing it now, the song has completely lost any pseudo-mystical sheen it had in 1975.  It is what it is: 3 or 4 basic parts repeated over and over again until everyone is too tired to go on.  Mostly, it's an opportunity for John Bonham fetishists to hear a perfectly-miked snare drum beaten to a pulp atop his still uncanny kick-drum shuffling.  No offense to Page or Plant, but a great feature on the Deluxe edition would be a bass and drums only mix of this track.

This track is also important, I think, in giving precise definition to the loose terminology of "rockin' out."  This term is applied liberally to all kinds of music that really hasn't earned this designation.  "In My Time of Dying," however, is perhaps the locus classicus of "rockin' out."  Four musicians who have an almost telepathic feel for chord and tempo transitions, just grinding it out for as long as they are having fun doing so.  What many a garage band has imagined they sound like, even as they do not.

House of the Holy
It's that song that should be on the other record, but it's on this one.  Did they release a single from this record?  I bet it was this one.  Still raw, but with a hook that might have gotten it somewhere on the charts.  Who knows?  The Top 40 is for wusses, man.

Trampled Under Foot
Want to have some fun?  Play this song during the big ape fight in Stanley Kubrick's 2001.  On an album that has already pledged itself to propulsive bashing in the key of Z, this track takes that already minimal formula and somehow makes it even more minimal.  If you could transport a guitar and amp back in time to the caves of Cro-magnon, France (with attending amplification), this is probably what you would get.

Zeppelin was a great rock band, but they were also saavvy marketers.  After the success of "Stairway to Heaven," each album required another "serious" piece of music to appease those who wanted to forge a link between Zeppelin and the era's prog rock scene.  It's the one song on the album that has been played to death, to the point that it's tempting to skip it (calculate, if you will, how many minutes of your life you have already spent listening to that thudding ascending riff that opens the track).  But that's not Kashmir's fault.  It's still a great track, as this recent viral video of xylophone kids rediscovering its vague menace demonstrates.

In the Light
For me, this was always the one blemish on an otherwise perfect elpee.  The swirling "dreamweaver" synths have not aged well, and the riff is basically Sabbath 101.  If you need a stronger structural place holder for this track, insert "No Quarter" from Houses of the Holy instead.

The folky throwback to Zeps 3 and 4.  I guess even he who wields the "Hammer of the Gods" still feels the need for acoustic cred.

Down by the Seaside
A pop song!  By Led Zeppelin!  In 1975, I'm pretty sure I thought this was just a momentary change of pace to prepare for the aneurysms of side four.   But now I get the joke (and it's a much better musical joke than the rather embarrassing "Hot Dog" from In Through the Out Door).

Ten Years Gone
Suddenly I'm sad.  Thirteen years old and full of feelings I don't understand.  Like most Zeppelin songs that weren't about fucking, I'm not entirely sure what this song is about.  Except that it's sad.

Night Flight
Another contender for a single--It's nice and all that, but really just a warm-up for the spike-to-the-brain that is....

The Wanton Song
Has any other song introduced more teenagers to the absolutely brutal power of the amplified riff?  You could make a case for "Smoke on the Water," I guess, but that Deep Purple sludgefest is simply no match for the staccato economy of Wanton.  The famous breaks on the 4 showcasing Bonham's snare are perhaps the apotheosis of concussive rock.  Just relentless.  Listening to it forty years later, it still makes me want to kick over trash cans as I walk down the street.  Why?  I don't know.  Sound waves converted into pure amygdala secretions, I guess.

Boogie with Stu
Yeah, it's probably filler.  But so what?  The album could have ended with The Wanton Song and still have ranked among the all time greats.  Anything else the Zepp deigns to give you at this point is just icing on the cake, so quit complaining.

Black Country Woman
Another song I didn't really understand as a teenager.  Hearing it now, I'm wondering if Jimmy Page was thinking of Physical Graffiti as the band's Exile on Main Street.  A short visit by the acoustic blues that references the Stones just long enough to make the listener realize that, at this particular juncture, he does not want to be listening to the Stones.

Sick Again
Kashmir became the fetish object.  The Wanton Song is probably the fan favorite.  But if I had to pick one song that captured the essence of Led Zeppelin, it would be the side four closer Sick Again.  It's sexual politics are horrible (from what I can tell, the song is an ode to groupie jailbait), and yet crucial to  the track's sloppy sleaze. No song better captures the feel of the "loosely tight" sound so often attributed to the band.  Utterly shambolic, and yet somehow perfectly precise in staging its thunderous racket. Listening to this track (and the whole album), the Zeppelin sound seems like it would be easy to replicate--and yet "Sick Again" also underscores why such imitation is impossible.  It's like trying to reproduce the sound of drunken train grinding to a halt in the middle of a swamp, on the verge of crashing, and yet somehow ending up in the station still upright and on the tracks.

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