Led Zeppelin issued one double album during their 12-year career, which demonstrated the depth, diversity and density of their material. Unsurprisingly, some of the compositions were recorded long before they made it onto the double album, but the band felt confident enough in their collective abilities to release the work out into the public.
And in many ways, Physical Graffiti signalled the end for the band, as by the time they came to record Presence, they returned to the dizzying hard-core blues of their early repertoire. They made one last effort to reinvent themselves on In Through The Outdoor, which was patchy to say the least.
But for one final moment, fans could luxuriate in the diversity and versatility of their favourite band, knowing that there wasn’t a single genre they couldn’t give a good crack at. Some of the results were splendid, and at worst, they were noble failures.
The 15 track album is rife with energy, gusto and brilliance, from the taut production style to the airy vocal performances. But if anyone comes across best on the record, it is bassist John Paul Jones, who punctuates the work with his own talent and musical acumen.
Ranking the tracks on ‘Physical Graffiti’ from worst to best
15.’Boogie With Stu’
When the song finally hits its stride, an inexplicable two minutes into the song, the tune luxuriates in well-earned confidence, but there’s too much piano noodling to sit through before hitting this point in time.
And then there’s the case of the lyrics, perhaps Led Zeppelin’s most inexcusably lazy nick if ever there was one. Recognising how much Robert Plant borrowed from Ritchie Valens ‘Ooh My Head’, Jimmy Page decided to add “Mrs.Valens” to the writing credits in the hope that the composer’s mother would receive some of the royalties. That anecdote is more engaging than the majority of the track, sadly.
14. ‘Black Country Woman’
In between the herculean efforts and blues standards came Led Zeppelin’s predilection for acoustic guitar. Initially pencilled for Houses of the Holy, this barrelling tune was left on the growing pile of rejects and outtakes before it fleshed out the band’s first and only double album.
It quickly emerges why the band were loath to release it, not least because of the crummy production design. It lacks character, contrast or creativity, but rather opens a portal into the band at work. It’s nice to hear the famously dour Plant giggling at the beginning, though.
Written and performed by Page entirely alone, the tune is less of an instrumental than a dream-like vignette that connects two disconnected strands of the album. The tune isn’t long enough to speculate about, but it’s certainly a pleasant listen.
Named after an 18th-century cottage in Wales, the composition is fittingly pastoral in timbre and tone. The chiming chords are pleasantly reminiscent of the band’s third album, which was predominantly written in the Welsh countryside.
12. ‘Down by the Seaside’
Now, this one is interesting. This is a strangely jaunty piece from the heavy-metal progenitors, providing a whimsy that was more commonly heard on Paul McCartney’s work with Wings. But the bouncy texture fits the diverse nature of the album, the band’s most far-reaching at that, and shows how easily they could bend any genre to their will.
Drummer John Bonham gleefully resists the urge to kick into the bass drum for the majority of the song, padding the beat with a feathery form of drum precision. And then Page’s guitars fire up, and the drummer lets out his inner rock-demon, to let the cymbals come crashing down.
11. ‘Houses of the Holy’
This is ‘Houses of the Holy’, but it didn’t appear on Houses of The Holy. Well, considering that the album was low on killer material, the band probably should have saved ‘Houses of the Holy’ for the album of the same name, but no matter, the tune still packs a mighty punchy, especially from John Paul Jones’ urgent bass.
In many ways, this song seems to be the template Jones’ band Them Crooked Vultures used in 2010, curating a rock number that is high on sparky energy, bolstered by the frenzied rhythm section.
Yes, we hear you now. Yes, it represents the grandeur of the band, culminating in a soundscape that is high on ambition and boiling with potential. But it is overlong, overcooked and overstuffed. Frankly, Queen’s ‘Innuendo’, which was modelled on ‘Kashmir’, is the better track.
But there is a lot to recommend about ‘Kashmir’, not least Plant’s soaring vocal performance, singing to the masses who would parade the band’s stadium gigs like disciples aching to hear the words of their teacher and spiritual mentor.
9.’The Wanton Song’
It’s possible to discern from this track the flavours that emanated from the band when they were playing live. Indeed, this is a stormily produced track, the four men facing each other, chasing Plant’s searing falsetto to its ultimate apex. Page is peeling from the sides, chiming in and out of the track with swagger, every note pressed with good measure.
It’s a vibey track, centring on the overall groove, bringing authenticity to the proceedings. Behind Page comes Bonham’s rumbling drum exhibition, playing all over the kit in a style that is frenetic and fashionable.
8. ‘The Rover’
Led Zeppelin could be forgiven for some of the groan-inducing trappings of the 1980s hair metal movement, particularly since the band were determined to follow the central melody. ‘The Rover’ boasts one of the band’s more hummable tunes, offering listeners the chance to continue singing the song long after the band have finished playing.
Bonham takes a step back to focus on the groove, counting the guitarists in on every beat and backbeat. Jones acquits himself nicely to the track, filling the blank spaces with a collection of punchy notes.
7. ‘Sick Again’
Led Zeppelin were famous for their testosterone-fuelled material, which is what makes ‘Sick Again’ so interesting to listen to, precisely because it shows the band in such a vulnerable light. The album boasted another lovelorn standard that was arguably even better, but we’ll get to that later in the list.
What the band had was character, and the song finds Plant in a strangely forlorn mood as he opens up to the hordes of lovers who will one day forget his face and name. The song is also notable for holding one of Page’s more magnetic guitar hooks, punching into the mix.
6. ‘Custard Pie’
Now, this one sees the band get down and get funky. The multi-faceted Jones anchors the track with his galloping bass and a billowing clavinet line that seeps into the arrangement. The guitars roar, the drums clatter, but the emphasis is on the groove, which is tight and lean, clipping into the centre of the audio.
Plant purrs accordingly, offering one of his sultriest vocal deliveries. He sounds like a man caught in the middle of a crime, grunting accordingly, gifting the piece the passion that provides the backbone of the piece. He sounds like a man searching for the ultimate pleasure, finding it in the rhythm of the bedroom.
5. ‘Night Flight’
For a band that borrowed so much from American music, the band rarely sounded authentically American, as if sheltering from the continent to return to the country plains of their British homeland. ‘Night Flight’ is a noteworthy exception to the rule, culminating in a rocker that sounds distinctly American, particularly in its scintillating production design.
The guitars are splashy and juicy; the drums slap onto the recording with a shimmering whack, like the sound of a man laying cement onto the ground. And then there’s Plant, singing with newfound confidence as if auditioning to sing harmony vocals on a forthcoming Crosby, Stills & Nash album.
4. ‘In The Light’
If the album can claim an Eastern flavoured masterpiece, it’s not the overblown ‘Kashmir’, but the gently understated ‘In The Light’. Page receives a co-write, but the work is almost certainly the byproduct of Plant on lyrics, and Jones on chords and melody. The bassist plays a synthesiser that seeps into the track, emulating the tuning of a sitar in full suite.
To put it crudely, this is a contemporary update of The Beatles jaw-dropping ‘Within You Without You’, punctuating the leisurely passages with a collection of thunderous riffs, and yearning vocals. The lyrics boast one of the band’s more aphoristic messages, as it encourages listeners to believe in themselves in the wake of great danger.
3. ‘In My Time of Dying’
This tune is proof that the English quartet were the masters of delta blues, and this song holds some nifty demonstrations of slide guitar from the band’s musical director and lead guitarist. The longest song in the band’s studio canon, the recording is notable for Bonham’s furious drumming and Plant’s rollicking vocal delivery.
And yet in the eyes of producer Rick Rubin, it’s the bass playing that makes the song worth listening to.”The bass line in the fast grooves is so interesting and unexpected,” Rubin said. “It keeps shifting gears, over and over.” Jones was always the most underestimated member by the public, but he was actually the most accomplished musician of the group, and frequently added to their arrangements.
2. ‘Trampled Under Foot’
Jones was certainly responsible for this arrangement, as the bassist plays the central keyboard hook that drives the tune along. Page responds to the line with a bellowing hook of his own, and the two spend the rest of the tune squaring off against one another.
Between the hooks and tempo changes comes the sound of Plant charging into the microphone, his spirit bolstered by sex and his vocal ready for action. It’s his acme as a funk singer, as he expertly invokes the vocal interpolations of James Brown. Bonham keeps the music rocking, which is why the tune chugged along so nicely onstage.
1. ‘Ten Years Gone’
As is clear from this list, the album’s first disc was stronger than the latter. A case could be made that the band could have just released the first disc with a couple of offerings from the latter. But there’s no way the band could have released Physical Graffiti without including ‘Ten Years Gone’, which ranks alongside ‘The Rain Song’ as the band’s most accomplished ballad.
And unlike the more spurious ‘The Rain Song’, which came to being after George Harrison criticised the band for their lack of ballads, this tune came directly from Plant’s heart, as he ponders to himself the directions his life might have taken if rock had not brought him to this point of enlightenment.
Recognising the importance of the sentiment, Page produces a collection of shimmering guitar patterns, breathing context and life into the work. It was impossible to play live, but that didn’t matter when the end product was so vital in itself.