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The Led Zeppelin Papers - Physical Graffiti, Deluxe Edition

C. Michael Bailey By

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It may just be coincidence, but there seems to have existed a phenomenon in classic rock recording where prominent artists begin a creative evolution on a single LP release, chronologically following it up with a definitive artistic statement as a double album set, creating a sort of lopsided diptych of certain brilliance. Notable examples include:

  • Bob DylanHighway 61 Revisited (Columbia, 1965) and Blonde on Blonde (Columbia, 1966)
  • The BeatlesMagical Mystery Tour (Capitol, 1967) and The Beatles (Capitol, 1968)
  • Eric ClaptonEric Clapton (Polydor, 1970) and Derek and the Dominos' Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor, 1970)
  • The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers (Rolling Stones, 1971) and Exile on Main St. (Rolling Stones, 1972)
  • Elton JohnDon't Shoot Me I'm Only The Piano Player (MCA, 1973) and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (MCA, 1973)
  • The ClashGiven 'Em Enough Rope (Epic, 1978) and London Calling (Epic, 1979)
This list would be deficient without acknowledging the elephant in the room: Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy (HOTH -Atlantic Records, 1973) and Physical Graffiti (PG—Swan Song, 1975). HOTH was the warm up to PG in the same way Sticky Fingers (SF) paved the way for Exile on Main St. (EOMS). What PG represents for Led Zeppelin is the complete realization of themselves as a band. This is where Led Zeppelin became Led Zeppelin. It is also where Led Zeppelin, a blues band by any other name, took the stated genre to its ultimate rock pinnacle in "In My Time of Dying." Like Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was for Eric Clapton, if Physical Graffiti was the only thing Jimmy Page had ever recorded, his place, and the place of Led Zeppelin, in rock history would have been secured.

Physical Graffiti (Swan Song, 1975) was Led Zeppelin's sixth studio album, released February 24, 1975. It was preceded by the transformative HOTH, released almost two years earlier to the month. Like the Rolling Stones had done with the release of SF, Led Zeppelin elected to found their own record label, Swan Song, after their 5-LP contract with Atlantic records concluded in 1973, while still cooperating with the label for distribution.

In November 1973, the band repaired to Headley Grange in Hampshire, England, where they had previously recorded Led Zeppelin IV (LZIV -Atlantic, 1971) as well as parts of Led Zeppelin III (LZIII -Atlantic, 1970), and HOTH. Due to health reasons (chiefly, those of bassist John Paul Jones) this would prove a false start with the band returning in January 1974 to record eight new songs to the catalog.

The eight songs recorded during this period included, "Custard Pie," "In My Time of Dying," "Trampled Under Foot," "Kashmir," "In the Light," "Ten Years Gone," "The Wanton Song," and "Sick Again." This was too much material to include on a single long-playing record (taking up approximately three LP sides). The remaining music derived from the three previous recording sessions: "Houses of the Holy" and "Black Country Woman" from HOTH; "Bron-Yr-Aur" from LZIII and "Down by the Seaside," "Night Flight," and "Boogie with Stu" from LZIV.

The blending of new and older material gives PG a tactile looseness similar to that of EOMS, highlighting where musical experimentation in the two collections is most obvious. However, PG wins out sounding the more integrated of the two due to Jimmy Page's well-known prowess in the studio, or, more pointedly, PG contained nothing like "Turd on the Run" even at its worst. This may be where any comparison breaks down as the two recordings were historically doing two different things. EOMS was the Rolling Stones' Das Wohltemperirte Clavier of American Music, where the band perfected their concept of rock & roll, country, blues, and gospel music: giving these genres a definitive reading, albeit a British one.. PG was Led Zeppelin's descending a musical Mt. Sinai with tablets telling the future of rock music for the next 20 years and with that, a full realization of the power and reach of the blues.

Referring to the original 2-LP release, side one of the first album is the band's blues statement. "Custard Pie" is a cheeky vamp propelled by Page's chunky guitar riff executed within a modified 12-bar format. Plant, for his part, strung together lyrics from several pre-war blues recordings, including: Sleepy John Estes' "Drop Down Mama," Bukka White's "Shake 'em on Down," Blind Boy Fuller's "I Want Some of Your Pie," and Sonny Boy Williamson's (Aleck Miller) "Help Me." "The Rover," a HOTH outtake, began its life as an acoustic number to which Page added a filthy single-note guitar line that was used as accompaniment to Plant's vocals (in place of chordal accompaniment) grinding the blues pentatonic scale to a diamond point.

"In My Time of Dying" is the band's blues masterpiece, the farthest evolution of the genre realized by the band. The earliest evidence of this song is from Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 recording "Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed." Bob Dylan's treatment of the song with its new title "In My Time of Dying," more closely approximates Page's translation of it. Eleven-plus minutes of cutting slide guitar and plaintive, begging vocals. A concert staple of the band thereafter, the song was included on 2007's Celebration Day (Three P Films, 2012). A blues-rock triumph.

Side two of the first LP begins where HOTH left off: with the band extending and hardening their signature sound—Led Zeppelin becoming Led Zeppelin. It is easy to hear "Houses of the Holy" properly following "Dancing Days" or "The Ocean." Page builds his songs simply, then layering them with complex filigree. Introduced with a dirty, dissonant riff, the HOTH outtake shoots out hot and bright, Plant obviously enjoying his contribution, singing ..."can I make your garden grow" with salacious enthusiasm. "Trampled Under Foot" pushes further the band's creative boundaries, heavily accented by Jones' solidly percussive keyboard accompaniment. Swaggering and confident, "Trampled Under Foot" became a fixed part of the 1975 North American Tour set.

The pinnacle of Led Zeppelin becoming Led Zeppelin lay in "Kashmir." Sprawling and densely orchestrated, "Kashmir" joins "Dazed and Confused," "A Whole Lotta Love," "Stairway to Heaven," and "No Quarter" as conceptual suites in which the band came to specialize. Chunky and monolithic, the song is considered by many as the band's greatest accomplishment. The song also deeply illustrated the importance of John Bonham to the group. Bonham, who was included as a composer, had a keen ear for what Page was wanting to do and helped him do it. And that brings us to LP 2.

Memphis producer Jim Dickinson said of EOMS, that the Rolling Stones could have made one fabulous LP out of the two released. Paraphrased, "If it were me, I would have kept the slop and chunked the rest." Cryptically, Dickinson never revealed what the "slop" was. If we were to stop considering PG at the end of side two, we would have an exceptional single LP release. But doing so would exclude the remaining 1974 Headley Grange recordings: the churchy "In The Light," Plant's failed love story "Ten Years Gone," and the rocking concerts staple "The Wanton Song" and "Sick Again," the latter two based on Jimmy Page guitar riffs that would become permanently part of the rock and roll genome.

The remaining filler material is better than the same on EOMS, as well as 95-percent of the music released in the pre-disco dawn of the mid-1970s. "Night Flight," from the LXIV sessions, is a throwback boogie reminiscent of early Faces. ""Bron-Yr-Aur," named for the estate where Page and Plant conceived most of LZIII is an acoustic piece that would find life in the future concert film The Song Remains The Same (Warner Bros., 1976). It smacks of a smarter Leo Kottke on a Celtic jig. "Down By The Seaside" was based on an acoustic track recorded in 1970. Allegedly influenced by Neil Young, the song was further developed in preparation of LZIV. It is a stylistic extension of what the Rolling Stones were doing with country music on EOMS, highlighting, again, the major differences between the two biggest bands of the period.

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