It was the Led Zeppelin album that almost did not happen. When it did, it was too long for a single album. Surprisingly, many of its classic moments come from outtakes from Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin VI, and Houses of the Holy, including that album’s discarded title track.
Yet it is the quintessential Led Zeppelin album. Everything you want to know about Led Zep is on that album, from the opening tune, “Custard Pie,” through the epic “Kashmir” all the way to the quirky final three songs. While it’s essentially cobbled together from four previous albums, it sounds like a coherent whole, as though Zeppelin were simply trying to do something on each disk and each side.
The album’s signature piece is “Kashmir,” the epic 8 1/2 minute song that barges into progressive rock territory, reeks seven kinds of havoc, and leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. The chord progression was something Jimmy Page had been working on since the Zeppelin III sessions. When he finally got it down, he and John Bonham played around with the riff to find the right beats to put behind it. Robert Plant added lyrics he wrote after a visit to the Sahara Desert in 1973. When it came together, John Paul Jones put together the classic arrangement that later for the basis of the 1994 Page/Plant live version. Plant later said that, coupled with a phasing effect Bonham was experimenting with, what Bonham didn’t do on the drums had as much to do with making that song work as what he did do. This is the difference between Bonham and Keith Moon, who are often mentioned in the same breath. Moon was all style and showmanship, not much of a timekeeper, but, as Pete Townshend put it, The Who’s real keyboardist. Bonham was more integrated into Zeppelin, sharing the rhythm section with Jones, probably the most talented player in Zeppelin, but always planning and reworking with Page.
The other songs on the first disc are a mix of original material and outtakes, but somehow, they flow naturally, one into the other. “Custard Pie,” appropriately one of Plant’s hypersexed offerings, and “Trampled Under Foot” combined with “Kashmir” to make this album too long for a single disc. That was why the band took “The Rover,” “In My Time of Dying,” and “Houses of the Holy” off the shelf, reworked them, and made them part of a single first album.
On Disc 2, you can hear that Zeppelin is already moving on from their second phase, which including III, IV, and Houses of the Holy. “In the Light” is more experimental, but hardly psychedelic. “Down by the Seaside” sounds like something Plant might have done solo if he had left Zeppelin five years earlier. It was actually recorded in 1971. “Bron Y Aur” comes from the same sessions, but “Ten Years Gone” was one of those new songs for the Physical Graffiti sessions that sounds like an older, wiser band, particularly Plant. The last three songs are an odd combination of tunes, featuring two outtakes from III and IV and what was originally supposed to be the last song on side 2 when the album was going to be just one disc. “Boogie with Stu,” recorded with unofficial Rolling Stone Ian Stewart is considered a classic Zeppelin song that still gets airplay occasionally when a DJ wants to tell Clear Channel where to stick it. “Black Country Woman” might have been lifted off an old Robert Johnson album. Both of these are wooden, acoustic, though Plant’s vocals are heavily distorted on “Boogie.” Then there is “Sick Again,” a song that would not be out of place on their final effort, In Through the Out Door and might have made Presence something better than one of those albums that grows on people over time. With “Sick,” “The Wanton Song,” and “Night Flight,” you get hints of the Zeppelin to come. The rest of the album is Zeppelin at its peak showing what its learned.
Missing, though, is the bombast and sexual bravado of Led Zeppelin I & II. There’s no “Communication Breakdown,” “Dazed & Confused,” or “Whole Lotta Love.” Aside from “Custard Pie” and a few lines here and there, Plant is lyrically keeping it in his pants, though, it must be said, not hiding a damn thing in the process. Robert Plant in the 1970’s was the heterosexual yin to Freddie Mercury’s gay yang.
It’s surprising many people don’t cite this album more. It is probably the one album that crystallizes the band’s entire history more than any other. Dave Grohl did point to it as his model for the Foo Fighters’ In Your Honor, but the Foos have become more Zeppelin-like in their approach in the seven years since while Zeppelin itself was already drifting apart when they released Presence. Seven years after Physical Graffiti, Bonham was dead, Jones was producing, Page had a new band, and Plant was solo. Yet if Zeppelin had stopped at Physical Graffiti, their catalog would have been complete. As it is, you can consider the rest of what they’ve done as a bonus.