The recording sessions for Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album “Physical Graffiti” initially began at Headley Grange in Hampshire, England as early as November 1973. However these sessions were quickly aborted when John Paul Jones expressed his desire to leave the band and become choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral. The session time was not wasted though as new label mates Bad Company used the facilities to record their hugely successful debut album.
With Jones back on board, and committed to staying, the band re-assembled early in 1974 and began work on the new album in earnest. Initially there was no intention to make “Physical Graffiti” a double album but the eight new songs which were written and recorded were too long for a single album release. Unable to decide on which tracks to omit, and reluctant to edit, the band elected to use previously recorded but unreleased material to extend the album to the length of a double. The original ‘graffiti eight’ being ‘Custard Pie’, ‘In My Time of Dying’, ‘Trampled Underfoot’, ‘Kashmir’, ‘In The Light’, ‘Ten Years Gone’, ‘The Wanton Song’ and ‘Sick Again’. ‘Bron-Y-Aur’ was a leftover from III. ‘Down By the Seaside’, ‘Night Flight’ and ‘Boogie With Stu’ were recorded at the sessions for the fourth album whilst ‘The Rover’, ‘Black Country Woman’ and more obviously ‘Houses of the Holy’ were recorded at the ‘Houses of the Holy’ sessions.
The album kicks off with the thundering ‘Custard Pie’, a classic heavy opener that is packed with more sexual innuendo than a David Coverdale/Frankie Howerd double act. Pages’s wah-wah solo, which was played through an ARP synthesizer, is as good as any heavy solo he’s ever played and Jones uses an electric clavinet to good effect. Plant even contributes a harmonica solo inbetween urging the object of his desire to allow him to ‘chew on a piece of her custard pie’. ‘The Rover’ is the first of the older tracks and was originally written as an acoustic track as early as 1970. It works perfectly as a heavier track and it is a credit to the production team that it is not obviously from a different session. ‘In My Time of Dying’ is a long blues workout and sadly is yet another of those traditional old blues songs that Zeppelin tried to take complete writing credit for at the time although I believe this has been rectified in recent years. It is also their longest studio recording at over eleven minutes.
As good as the first side of the original vinyl album is it is side two where things really begin to take off though with three straight 10/10 tracks. ‘Houses of the Holy’ may have been left off the album it is named after but it remains for me one of Zeppelins best tunes. Funky and jazzy with a very distinctive guitar riff it never fails to bring a smile and a tapping toe with it. The funky feeling remains for ‘Trampled Underfoot’. A song which John Paul Jones openly admits was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’. The clavinet gives the song a really bouncy funky feel and once again Page plays a nice wah-wah guitar. With a very infectious and commercial melody the song garnered lots of radio airplay especially in America and came as close as any Zeppelin track to being released as a single in the UK. Copies were actually pressed in time for the famous Earl’s Court gigs of 1975 but were pulled at the last minute. One of the most recognisable riffs in rock history is up next with the epic and truly wonderful ‘Kashmir’. Full of eastern promise that never fails to deliver it is as enjoyable to listen to now as it was when I first heard it. Brass, strings and mellotron all adding to a song that is one of those songs that really should be referred to as a peice of music rather than just a song. Band members and critics alike have suggested it is Zeppelin’s finest track and I for one am not going to argue.
The second half of the album is not quite a good as the first half but it still has more than its fair share of highlights. One of those is ‘In the Light’ which despite starting with Page’s violin bow technique is all about John Paul Jones. Jones takes the lead on the song, wrote most of it and plays some tremendous keyboards and synthesizer throughout. His influence on the song was so great that he had the final say on whether it was played live or not. Plant wanted it in but Jones was adamant that he couldn’t recreate the synth effects outside a studio environment so the song was never included in a proper gig. Curiously Page has also stated that it is his favourite song from the album. The second longest track on the album it is certainly a grower and deserves more recognition. The short instrumental ‘Bron-Y-Aur’ follows and is a pretty standard acoustic workout for Page. Pleasant enough it is hardly essential and is one of the three lesser tracks on the album for me. Things pick up again though with the truly wonderful ‘Down By the Seaside’. How many bands could get away with a lyric like “can the people hear what the little fish are saying” especially considering the lyrical content of the opening track. Something of a contrast to say the least. It was originally an acoustic track and was recorded for the fourth album but left off. It may have been considered too similar to ‘Going To California’ and would surely have recieved more recognition had it been included on that album. The underwater wobbly effect was achieved by using a tremelo on Page’s guitar and running it through a Leslie speaker cabinet. The song remains another of my personal favourites and has the obvious feel of the fourth album. The highlight of the second half of the album for me though is the beautiful ‘Ten Years Gone’. Another 10/10 track it features a truly fantastic vocal from Plant and no less than fourteen different guitar tracks from Page. It also features John Bonham’s squeaking drum pedal which is clearly audible especially through headphones. It takes nothing away from the song though and for me it is only marginally bettered by ‘Kashmir’ in the race to be the albums highlight.
‘Night Flight’ was recorded at the sessions for the fourth album and also has the feel of that album. Once again Jones takes the majority of the writing credit, so much so that he was actually listed first in the composer credits. It has a similar feel to ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ for me and that could be the resason why it was left off the fourth album. The albums two weakest tracks follow ‘The Wanton Song’ is easily the weakest of the new tracks despite its nice jazzy solo early on but ‘Boogie With Stu’ is pure filler for me and is not worthy of the company it is keeping on such a fine album. ‘Black Country Woman’ was recorded outside in Mick Jagger’s garden, hence the talk of aeroplanes at the beginning and was initially recorded for inclusion on the Houses of the Holy album. Quite why it was deemed inferior to a couple of the tracks that did make it to that album is quite frankly beyond me. I could say the same for the title track thinking about it. The original title for the song was ‘Black Country Woman (Never Ending Doubting Woman Blues)’ and as someone who lived in the Black Country for some time and had many a dalliance with a Black Country woman I can very much identify with the lyric and the title. Maybe thats why I like it so much ! The album closes with ‘Sick Again’ which is like the album opener a thundering stomp of a rock song. It is let down a little for me though because Plant is far too low in the mix and the lyrics are pretty much undecipherable.
“Physical Graffiti” is often referred to as Led Zeppelin’s best album and one of the finest rock album releases of all time. I won’t argue with the second part of that statement but for me it just lacks the magic and excitment of Led Zeppelin II. However it is certainly a rock classic and along with II and IV it is up there in my very select band of five star albums that are an absolutely essential part of any music lovers library.