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Tangible Vandalism: Physical Graffiti at 40 (w/audio and video)

It was 40 years ago today that Led Zeppelin released what many considered to be their last true classic album, Physical Graffiti. For those counting, it was their sixth straight top 10 album, and their fourth #1 LP.

You have to remember that at the time of its release, Led Zeppelin were quite simply the biggest act on the planet, only rivalled in terms of ticket and album sales by the Rolling Stones, KISS and Elton John. And mind you, just like KISS, much of their reputation was built as a live attraction, having toured the United States no less than 9 times in the years 1969-1975.

Physical Graffiti album re-issue, vinyl format. Click on image to enlarge.

They were the undisputed kings of album-oriented rock and roll, with album tracks not even being released as singles but played to death regardless on FM stations from coast-to-coast. When this double LP was released, so popular was the band that their fans sent their previous FIVE albums into the top 200 LP charts simultaneously, a feat they would top four years later, with 9 albums in the top 200.

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From left to right: John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, John Bonham and Jimmy Page. Click on image to enlarge.

However, unlike their previous releases, this one still remains a mystery to many. Part of that is due to it’s sprawl. It is about a varied collection as one could hope for, alternating between steam-shovel rockers (“Custard Pie”, “The Wanton Song”), electric blues (“In My Time of Dying”), trips to far-away lands (“Kashmir”, “The Rover”), pop influences (“Houses of the Holy”, “Night Flight”), acoustic numbers (“Black Country Woman”), a little nostalgia (“Boogie With Stu”), melancholy (“Ten Years Gone”, “Down By The Seaside”), a trippy WTF moment (“In the Light”) and of course, Led Zeppelin’s infamous groupie escapades (“Sick Again”).

Many would argue that their untitled fourth album is the best example of the band absorbing their influences. But it is with just one track, the surprise top-40 chart single “Trampled Under Foot” that the band reveals just how effortlessly they could incorporate funky R&B into a hard rock format without coming across as cheesy or a pale imitation of something better.

“Trampled” shows the band  as it was best described: tight, but loose. Drenched in effects and reverb, it is a tale of lust in classic rock and roll form, car parts as sexual metaphor. Here is the unreleased “Brandy and Coke” version, contained on the bonus disc, the standard album track version and a live version from their 1975 tour to contrast and compare.

The album comes across as a heavy-rock version of the Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street: considered by die-hards to be indispensable, yet esoteric enough not to have been played to death on radio, save for a couple of key tracks (both of which are included in this review). Both Exile and Graffiti sound like they were recorded in filth, which gives the tracks an extra layer of grime and attitude.

Sadly, much like Exile, Graffiti signalled a pinnacle for Led Zeppelin, as heroin, alcohol and death would forever alter the band and their destiny shortly after this release.

My only real complaint about the re-issue is that it didn’t go far enough. It was rumoured that the full Earl’s Court shows from this tour would surface (considered by many to be the band at the peak of their considerable live prowess) but were not included at all. The outtakes are interesting, but not essential. The sound still retains it dirty feel, and it sounds amazing when cranked at high volume. (This is rock and roll we are talking about here. Don’t pretend you don’t don’t do this…) Here is the re-mastered track “Kashmir”, where you hear the sludge just fine, especially in the guitar parts.

For the curious, you would be best suited to finding the original double release in any format, remastered or not. It is a trip from start to finish, and a glimpse of what it looks like from the top of the world, circa February, 1975.

Love to you all.

Ben Bear

Audio, album art and video courtesy of Swan Song/Atlantic. Album cover art designed by Hipgnosis. Photo of Led Zeppelin by Neil Preston.

File under Blog ‘N’ Sods #30.

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