Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Experimental Worked for 'Physical Graffiti'

On this day in 1975, Led Zeppelin's only double album — if one doesn't count recordings of concerts — hit the music stores.

The album was "Physical Graffiti," and it was Zeppelin's first album in a couple of years — since the release of "Houses of the Holy" almost exactly two years before.

The music covered the range of Zeppelin's repertoire and displayed their mastery of styles. By the time "Physical Graffiti" was released, everyone knew Zeppelin could play hard rock, and there were plenty of examples of that on the album — but Zeppelin showed they could also play funk ("Trampled Under Foot"), acoustic ("Boogie With Stu"), blues ("In My Time of Dying"), country/rock ("Night Flight"), even ballads ("Ten Years Gone").

Probably the best known song on the album is "Kashmir," an Eastern music–influenced track — and a good one, too, although it isn't my favorite.

"Where Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy integrated influences on each song," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine for Allmusic.com, "the majority of the tracks on Physical Graffiti are individual stylistic workouts."

It always struck me as a very experimental album. Zeppelin explored territory that was unfamiliar to their fans, but they always retained just enough of what drew people to them initially to make it palatable for that fan base. In modern lingo, I guess you would call it putting their own spin on a style. No one spoke of spin in 1975, but it seems to me that is what Zeppelin did with the variety of styles in the songs. The double–album format obviously gave them more artistic freedom than they had in their previous five records, all of which were single albums.

Zeppelin fans who sought some lengthy masterpiece comparable to the utterly incomparable "Stairway to Heaven" might have found it in the 11–minute "In My Time of Dying." Frankly, though, I always thought it was futile to look for such similarities in group output. "Stairway" was unique, and I always appreciated the fact that Zeppelin was one of those groups that didn't keep trying to duplicate past successes but instead looked for new worlds to conquer.

I remember getting the album on a double cassette when I was a teenager, and I always had a fondness for the very first track, "Custard Pie." I'm not sure why. I guess it was more hard rock than many of the tracks, more of what I expected from Zeppelin.

The rest of it needed time to grow on me, I guess.

And it did.

Erlewine complained that there was an unevenness to the second half of the album; it was, he wrote, "filled with songs that aren't quite filler, but don't quite match the peaks of the album, either."

And I know what he meant by that.

"[E]ven these songs have their merits — 'Sick Again' is the meanest, most decadent rocker they ever recorded," Erlewine wrote, "and the folky acoustic rock & roll of 'Boogie with Stu' and 'Black Country Woman' may be tossed off, but they have a relaxed, off-–and charm that Zeppelin never matched."

That very unevenness was a part of the album's appeal, I think. If you didn't like the mood one song was promoting, relax. In a few minutes, another song would be playing, and it was almost certain to create an entirely different mood.

Most of the time, I would be inclined to think that was a bad thing, that it didn't establish a theme of some kind. But it was almost an advantage for "Physical Graffiti."

I don't know what that says about the album — maybe that it had the widest appeal the band ever had. After all, its best–selling single was the funky track, "Trampled Under Foot," which made it to #38 on Billboard's Hot 100.