Thursday, June 04, 2015

Down by the old mainstream 5: Led Zep's "Physical Graffiti"

My friend John Bargas -- whom I call "The Mailman" because he always delivers -- has influenced the way I think about music more than anybody else I'm older than. When I hit the street back in '92, after missing most of the '80s Guarding Freedom's Frontier, Uncle Johnny was the man I went to see to find out what I'd missed. (His reply: "Husker Du, the Minutemen, and the Replacements.") His mixtapes gave me a new appreciation of Dylan and the Fab Four, and his nightly commentaries on the shortcomings of Ken Burns' Jazz made it unnecessary for me to view said doco. So, when John commented on Facebook that "Physical Graffiti sounds like a bag of weed," it got me thankin'.

I was no fan of Led Zeppelin when they were a going concern, at a time when Zep, Grand Funk Railroad, and Black Sabbath were the fave bands of my middle school age cohort. Being an obscurantist weirdo even then, the 'orrible 'oo were my Beatles and Stones (although in the fullness of time, I've come to realize that the Stones have more records I like, if only by virtue of having made twice as many records as the Who in the same time period), and I'd gotten hip to blues roots via researching the songwriting credits on my Stones-Animals-Yardbirds records.

The most trailblazing Yardbirds in particular I idolized, and I revered Jeff Beck's Truth above the first two Zeppelin albums -- the first one of which could be seen as the final album the Yardbirds never got to make, a perception Jimmy Page reinforced by having the board recording of the Yardbirds' '68 Anderson Theater stand in NYC withdrawn within weeks of its '71 release. Of course, this didn't stop me from attempting to emulate Page's wah-saturated tone and violin-bow-on-the-guitar shtick in my first couple of bands. In later daze, I've come to realize that the hidden influence on Led Zep was Lawn Guyland's own masters of bombast, the Vanilla Fudge, who took the London scene by storm when they played there ca. '67, and who were bigger than the Beatles in the 'hood I grew up in, like the Four Seasons and Young Rascals before them, because they were Italian.

Hindsight being 20/20, I can now see that Robert Plant was a new kind of rock frontman -- not superior to, but different from the R&B-aping English guys (Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott, Paul Rodgers) I preferred at the time, and if he paved the way for the histrionics of cats like Ian Gillan, Bon Scott, Rob Halford, and Bruce Dickinson -- a style which achieved apotheosis with upstate New York doo-wop veteran Ronnie James Dio -- his eclectic post-Zep solo career has often caused me to wonder whether he wasn't the real brains behind the operation all along.

If Plant's resistance to a profit-taking reunion tour could be seen as the result of an unwillingness to be compared with his 20something self (tell it to Pete Townshend, who at this point has ceded leadership of the 'orrible 'oo to Roger Daltrey; can cruise ships and fantasy camps be far off?), I choose to believe it's more about enjoying what he's doing in the now, in contrast with studio mastermind Page, who's produced nada of interest since Zep wisely folded the tent upon John Bonham's demise (the Firm, anyone?), and has curated the super-deluxe reissues of Zep's catalog in the knowledge that those artifacts (and not the legend of their excess-ridden touring behavior) constitute his and their true legacy. (From where I sit now, in the iconic photo of a 30-year-old Page swilling Jack Daniels from the bottle in a dressing room, he looks like a child wearing rockaroll clothes.)

Just as surely as (popular Whofan opinion to the contrary) there'll always be an 'oo as long as PT is writing the songs and Daltrey's singing 'em, Led Zep were a true gestalt in the same way the Beatles were, and there could never be a Zeppelin without Bonzo's distinctive crash 'n' thump (although his son has done a credible job of carrying the torch, when given the opportunity, in the same way as Ringo's kid has been the best drummer the Who had since Keith Moon shuffled off this mortal coil). Not only did Bonham hit harder than the rest of his generation of crazy Brit drummers (Moon, Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell), he was steadier 'n' sturdier than all of 'em; you could actually dance to some of Zep's music, which is more than you could say for any of the Who/Cream/Hendrix Experience's.

Beyond that, Bonzo's section mate John Paul Jones understood his instrument's supporting role better than the virtuosi who were his counterparts in the Who and Cream, or the terrible tyro who held the same post in the Experience. And session vet Page used his studio knowledge (and ambient mic'ing) to make them sound HUGE in a way no previous rock rhythm section had. Jones' keyboard dexterity was the icing on the cake, and a lot more functional in a rock context, than, say Entwistle's French horn.

Following the trajectory, Zep I was more about jams than songs, and with its all borrowings from Yardbirds/Willie Dixon/Jake Holmes, it still bore a couple of classic toons ("Good Times Bad Times" and "Communication Breakdown"). Zep II's "Whole Lotta Love" remains a masterpiece of psychedelic production, and only a fool could deny the craft behind a track like "Ramble On." Zep III was notable for a new emphasis on acoustic textures (which had been part of the sonic stew since I's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"), and Page and Plant's jumping the gun on the big beard fad by 40 years.

Their consensus masterpiece, Zep IV has been as inescapable as Are You Experienced?, Who's Next, or Dark Side of the Moon if you've listened to "classic rock" radio in America anytime in the past few decades, and contributed "Stairway To Heaven" to the high school prom canon, at least until it was supplanted by "We May Never Pass This Way Again" a couple of years later. As a result, it's probably going to be more years than I've got left before I need to hear it again. For a long time, I thought Houses of the Holy was Zep's zenith, but the James Brown and reggae piss-takes knock it down a notch. Which brings us to Physical Graffiti, which I traded a stack of unwanted duplicates and records-I-liked-when-I-was-15 for a used copy of the other day.

The first two sides are organized similarly, with relatively succinct rockers giving way to more extended workouts. Besides production, Page's forte is his mastery of riffs, and in the opening combination of "Custard Pie"'s brontosaurus stomp into the off-kilter strut of "The Rover," you can hear him reaching farther from the blues than he generally had earlier on. Live, Page might have worn his Les Paul at knee level, but in the studio, he strapped his Telecaster up high, and tended to submerge his solos in the mix -- a rare example of a guitarist subsuming his player's ego in the overall band dynamic.

Page and Plant excelled at transmogrifying Delta-derived blues into the sound of things falling apart, and "In My Time of Dying" at the end of side one (with Page's slide displaying more melodic imagination than Ron Wood's, if less than Johnny Winter's) serves as a link in the chain between IV's "When the Levee Breaks" (my pick for their greatest recorded moment) and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" on Presence.

"Houses of the Holy" fits better at the top of side two than it would have on the album that bore its name (where it would have been redundant with the similarly groovalicious "Dancing Days"). The appropriately-titled "Trampled Underfoot" integrates funk influences into classic Zep style more effectively than the aforementioned JB pastiche "The Crunge" had. And "Kashmir," as DJ-overplayed through the years as "Stairway," somehow holds up better, even though its form has less variety, marching onward as inexorably as Ravel's "Bolero," its Arabesque atmosphere replete with muezzin-call mellotron.

Side three is probably my favorite, showcasing Zep at their most toonful. The keyboard-dominated "In the Light" starts out all minor key, dark mysterioso, yielding to an ascending guitar line that might be the most uplifting moment in the Zep canon. "Bron-Yr-Aur" is a pastoral, fingerpicked acoustic interlude -- the side of Page I've always found most appealing. "Down By the Seaside" is a gentle evocation of its subject worthy of Them-era Van Morrison, with Jones providing a lush bed of electric piano for Page to extemporize over during the jam sections. "Ten Years Gone" boasts Zep's most gorgeous chord progression since "The Rain Song," with Plant at his most Marriott-esque.

Side four's the cats 'n' dogs, opening with the soulful "Night Flight," continuing with the hard-hitting and (again) appropriately-titled "The Wanton Song," which just might be the most archetypal Zep track of all. "Boogie with Stu" is a jam with the Stones' offstage boogie woogie piano master -- a reminder of Page's roots in the early '60s Brit R&B scene -- while "Black Country Woman" is merely an acoustic throwaway, the kind you find on the fourth side of a double album. Page, Plant and Co. take it on the run with "Sick Again," a nice but undistinguished compendium of signature moves.

Like all the great rock double albums (Blonde On Blonde, the White Album, Electric Ladyland, and Exile On Main St. before, London Calling, Zen Arcade, and Double Nickels On the Dime after) manages to deliver everything you dig about its creators, and lots of it. (In the CD era, only Uncle Lou's Ecstasy comes close.) The arty sensibility that first emerged on Houses of the Holy and reached full fruition with the band's, uh, swan song In Through the Out Door gets ample space here, balanced by the muscular rock, blues grit, and folky pastoralism that were their trademarks.

Four decades on, when Black Sabbath has become the most musically influential band of its day in the same way the Band has become the most sartorially influential, it's hard to believe that a band with as varied a palette as Zeppelin's was could once have been the most popular in the world. But it was. And today, the bag of weed, the ride in a Chevy van, the six-pack of Budweiser, the red pack of Marlboros, all the signifiers of our misspent yoof, are conjured whenever this music is played.


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