Swaggering Giants


Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin

Was it really forty years ago that I bought my copy of Zep’s Physical Graffiti from Andy’s record stall on Cambridge market? I can still remember the excitement of getting it back to my college rooms, assembling some mates for the grand inaugural hearing, cranking up the volume and sitting back to enjoy the full range of sonic mayhem that the album delivered.

Physical Graffiti was almost a victim of the physical constraints of the recording formats available at the time – vinyl. For those of you too young to remember the joys of vinyl, seemingly regaining popularity as a medium I hear, a side lasted around twenty minutes – just enough time to feel nicely relaxed and then you would have to get up again to change the record over, a dangerous exercise late in the night as many scratches will testify.

Anyway, Zep recorded 55 minutes of material originally, enough for a CD these days, but only about three sides of vinyl. So they hit upon the bright idea of expanding the record to a double album by using some of their material which missed the cut for earlier albums to pad it out to the requisite length. And of course the 40th anniversary triple CD set has padded out the monster even further by including the obligatory outtakes and early versions of the songs.

The opening track of the first side, Custard Pie, sets the scene showing that the band means to take no prisoners. All the trademark Zep features are there – John Paul Jones’ pounding bass and John Bonham’s brutal drumming setting up the platform for Jimmy Page’s mesmerising guitar and Robert Plant’s vocal pyrotechnics.

Kashmir shows the band at their most bombastic, mixing orchestral backing with pseudo-eastern effects and no other band but them could carry it off. My favourite track always was In My Time Of Dying which is a heavy metal blues number in which the opening few minutes give the impression of a band cranking up for the final aural assault.

Trampled Under Foot, another favourite, shows off Jones’ bass virtuosity well giving what is a heavy metal tune a very funky feel. Black Country Woman has some brilliant harmonica work from Page and  stomping, quasi-military, drumwork from Bonham. There are a couple of tracks that seem somewhat out of place – the beautiful folky Bron-Yr-Aur with Page on acoustic guitar, an off cut from the sessions for their third album, the country rock number, Down By The Seaside, and one weak track, Boogie with Stu.

Inevitably, the original album has been remixed and remastered by Page and it does sound sharper and fuller, but that may be because I am playing it on far superior reproduction equipment. And I’m blowed if I can find much difference between the final versions and the outtakes but that may just be me.

One of the glories of the original album was the record sleeve and artwork which loses its impact, inevitably, in the more condensed format of the CD. Still you still have the pictures of people and letters which you can align with the cut out windows of the rather grim building, if you feel the need.

Many claim this to be the greatest double album ever. That may be so but what is very clear is that this is a powerful group at their height. Hearing it again after so many years reminds me how vapid and ephemeral so much of the music that has been produced since really is. This is a monster album from a monster of a group at their swaggering best.