This review is part of my unofficial “Honeymoon Series,” consisting of music I heard in clubs and cafés while on my honeymoon, a combination of the unfamiliar and music I thought I’d never review in a billion years.
Here’s how it went down: Alicia wanted to hang out at a metal/hard rock club in San Sebastian one night. I don’t care all that much for metal but in the spirit of newlywedness, I agreed to her proposal. We were there for about an hour or so and I was at least three or four sheets to the wind when a song blasted over the loudspeakers that put my ass into motion. I took Alicia by the arm and said, “Let’s fuck-dance.” We got super close, put our arms around each other, grabbed each other’s buns and started grinding away while moving in a tight circle. The song lasted long enough for three orgasms each.
At breakfast the next morning, we honored our tradition of never speaking to one another until we’d had our first cup of coffee. Once we downed our last gulps, Alicia broke the silence:
Alicia: You never fail to surprise me.
Moi: Happy to oblige but I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.
Alicia: What do you remember about last night?
Moi: (after a long silence) Uh, there were people around . . . lights . . . and loud music . . . we were drinking . . . shots.
Alicia: You had five Thrash shots. And a half-bottle of Rioja at dinner.
Moi: If you say so. Wait . . . how is that a surprise?
Alicia: It isn’t. You don’t remember dancing with me?
Moi: (furrowing brows) Oh yeah! Hmm. That felt good.
Alicia: Yes it did. Do you remember who we were dancing to?
Moi: (thinking) Wait . . . you took me to a metal club . . . I dunno . . . Iron Maiden? Alice in Chains? I give.
Alicia: We were dancing to Led Zeppelin!
Moi: No fucking way!
Alicia: And you came three times!
Moi: To Robert Plant? Impossible!
Alicia: Well, you did!
I was kind of in the “My Sunday Feeling” space of the young Ian Anderson: “I really don’t remember . . . but with one more cigarette I think I might.” After another cup of coffee and a couple of cigarettes, I was able to piece together most of the previous night’s events, but I had no recollection of Led Zeppelin. I concluded that since Alicia had consumed the other half of the wine and followed that with five Death shots of her own, her memory was playing tricks with her.
When we arrived home, Alicia jumped out of the taxi, unlocked the front door and dashed into the house. After settling things with the driver, I entered the house to the unmistakable sound of Led Zeppelin and the song we had fuck-danced to.
“Now do you believe me?”
“I’ll be fucked.”
“Yes, you will. By the way, the song is on Physical Graffiti, in case you’re interested.”
The only reason I haven’t done Led Zeppelin is my strong aversion to Robert Plant’s vocals. I loathe his high falsetto screech. I think his phrasing is weak. He overuses three words: “whoa,” “mama” and “baby.” He has an irresistible tendency to jabber and scat during the instrumental sections as if he can’t stand being out of the spotlight. I’ve always felt that the more interesting stuff on Led Zeppelin records came from Page, Bonham and Jones, and whenever my dad placed a Led Zep record on the turntable, I found myself wishing that Plant would just shut the fuck up for a while so I could hear the other guys.
I knew from those occasional encounters with the band at my parents’ place that reviewing any of the Roman numeral albums was out of the question. I didn’t form a strong opinion of Houses of the Holy but the music didn’t grab me all that much. I’d heard snatches of Physical Graffiti, but nowhere near the entire content. The fuck-dance experience made me curious enough to follow up on Alicia’s scarcely disguised suggestion and listen to the album straight through.
Though I still found some of Plant’s performances a bit hard to take, the falsetto screech was pretty much absent due to recent vocal cord surgery. I found most of his vocal work tolerable, sometimes even crossing the line into “pretty good.” Better still, I learned through my initial research that he’s as sick of “Stairway to Heaven” as I am, thereby earning himself additional brownie points. Given some positive reactions to the album’s music, I took a deep breath, deleted Led Zeppelin from my no-fly list, borrowed my dad’s copy of the Bob Spitz band bio and added Physical Graffiti to the schedule.
The band hadn’t gone into the studio with the intention of making a double album, but after creating more music than a single disc could handle due to a couple of very lengthy pieces, they went to the vault and pulled out a few tunes that had competed for spots on earlier albums but didn’t make the cut. Eight of the tracks are new; the other seven are “refurbished.” On balance, I think the newer tracks are stronger, but some of the refurbs are decent (and some are album filler).
If you guessed that “Custard Pie” was the song that triggered six orgasms in two women based on its numerous and scarcely veiled references to eating pussy, I would politely remind you that Alicia and I are sexually sophisticated adults who prefer frank and open discourse on the subject of fucking and have no interest in nudge-nudge-wink-wink communication targeting the male adolescents in the fanbase.
Writing credit for “Custard Pie” is divvied up between Page and Plant, which is pure bullshit. Most of the lyrics were lifted from two old blues tunes: Blind Boy Fuller’s “I Want Some of Your Pie” and Bukka White’s “Shake ‘Em on Down”. Biographer Spitz claimed that “Robert’s lyrics were a near steal of ‘Drop Down Mama,’ the Sleepy John Estes classic,” which tells me he needs to up his research game. “But the arrangement was all Led Zeppelin,” Spitz argues, and all I can say to that is “Well, duh!” The deconstructive arrangement is indeed a different take on traditional blues, but I really think Plant should have insisted on crediting his lyrical sources.
I can understand why the pre-sexual-revolution blues artists resorted to euphemisms—there was no way their white recording masters would have released a song entitled, “I Wanna Lick Your Pussy, Baby.” As sex was a major concern of many blues songwriters, they had to speak in code (a method of communication passed down from their slave ancestors) while drenching the vocal in hormonal heat. While it was still too early in the revolution for Led Zeppelin to dispense with euphemisms, Plant’s vocal fails to convey the ready-to-burst passion you hear in a Muddy Waters sex song. When Muddy sings “I’m Ready,” you can hear the hard-on; what I hear in Plant’s take is “Look at me—I’m such a naughty boy!”
“Custard Pie” is far from a total loss, however, thanks to an extremely well-designed and executed rhythmic arrangement coupled with several interesting enhancements to the basic blues structure. You can tell that Jimmy Page means business from the get-go with sharp bursts of distortion on the opening riff. I’m a little thrown off when Jones enters on a distorted clavinet but as the pair plays a few measures, I begin to appreciate the additional texture. And when Bonzo enters to seal the deal with his typically strong and steady attack, I began to appreciate why he was so insistent on limiting the use of microphones:
“When I got there, I put mics all around the drums,” Ron Nevison reported, “but Bonham told me not to use them, to take them down.” He assured Bonzo they were there “just in case,” but Bonzo was adamant. “No, not just in case—take them down!” He remembered how Andy Johns had managed to capture the snap and whomp with just two solitary mics and that overmicing muddied the sound.
Spitz, Bob. Led Zeppelin (p. 358). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
It’s not just the snap-and-womp that benefited from Bonzo’s stubbornness. The cymbal crashes are strong and clean, with little in the way of bleed.
The part of the piece that really knocks me out appears on the third line of each verse when the standard blues pattern moves from I to IV (A to D) in this case. The syncopation on that line is amazing, creating a moment where time hangs in the balance. After trying to reproduce it on my guitar and failing more than a few times, I finally managed to force my fingers to obey the additional rest thrown in right before they made the initial half-step descent to the root chord. Page, Jones and Bonham nailed it every time, a remarkable display of disciplined collaboration.
I hereby demand an instrumental version of “Custard Pie,” and though I don’t think it adds all that much to the piece, I’ll allow Plant to keep his harmonica solo.
“The Rover” dates back to 1970; it was originally an acoustic guitar number. In the early sessions for Houses of the Holy it was transformed into a hard rock piece but failed to make the cut. A couple of years later, Page added some overdubs and they gave it a spot on Physical Graffiti.
Alas, the third time wasn’t the charm, but it had nothing to do with Jimmy Page, whose guitar is hands down the best part of the song. Problem #1: The lyrics are fucking stupid. Problem #2: If there’s one song on Physical Graffiti that displays the negative effects of Plant’s vocal cord surgery, it’s this one. Jim Miller of Rolling Stone praised the song but noted that it “suffers from Plant’s indefinite pitch.” The chord pattern is intriguing, Jones and Bonham are spot-on and Jimmy Page delivers what Jon Hadusek of Consequence of Sound described as “some of his most underrated guitar lines he’s ever recorded.” Instrumental version only, please.
“In My Time of Dying”
How does “eleven minutes and eight seconds of unrelenting boredom” suit your fancy? Basically, it’s the wrong arrangement for the wrong song and definitely the wrong singer. In its original form, the song is a gospel blues number written and performed with gravelly passion by a real-life evangelist by the name of Blind Willie Johnson. Plant doesn’t come close to capturing the preacher’s spirit; his slurry vocal is reminiscent of someone who indulges heavily in the liquid form of spirit. In contrast to the tightness displayed in “Custard Pie,” the band is just plain sloppy; the only guy who acquits himself with aplomb is John-Paul Jones on fretless bass (and only during the hard rock segment). Though Spitz called the album track “epic,” he admits that the piece flopped when performed live: “’In My Time of Dying’” and ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’ put a drag on what should have been a high-spirited set.” (Spitz, p. 407). In the end, the Led Zeppelin version is as boring as Bob Dylan’s take on his first album, falling far short of the heartfelt intensity in the renditions from Blind Willie and Josh White (the latter rendition under the title “Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dyin’ Bed”).
“Houses of the Holy”
This one turned out to be quite a revelation. When he’s not trying to convince the underage chicks in the crowd (or himself) that he’s the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll sex symbol by screaming at the top of his lungs, Robert Plant has a rather pleasant voice. He generally manages to tame his flights into the ether during the first four verses, and while I can handle the leap upwards in verse five, he gets downright silly in the closing stanza.
Musically, the song is a hot funk-rock number with Jones supplying a strong bass line and Bonham completely focused on delivering a tough, steady beat. Several critics went gaga over Bonzo’s only use of a cowbell in Led Zep history, to which I respond, “BFD.” What’s impressive is that he muted the tone of the cowbell so that it doesn’t ring with that annoying clang but blends nicely with the other textures.
Even more impressive is Jimmy Page’s contribution, a multi-tracked rhythm-and-lead performance full of sweet syncopation and nasty kick. The online chord diagrams limit themselves to the basic A-D-E progression, but Page’s chording is much more complex, varying his attack with sixths, sevenths and ninths to add extra spice to the mix.
According to Songfacts, “‘The Houses of the Holy’ are the venues Zeppelin played. The song refers to the spiritual feel of their concerts.” That hypothesis certainly explains the most memorable line in the song, “Let the music be your master.” As for the other twenty-plus lines, they’re pretty much gibberish with Satan’s daughter dropping by while Plant pictures himself as having “an angel on my shoulder/In my hand a sword of gold.” He follows that disturbing image with the worst pickup line in history: “Let me wander in your garden/And the seeds of love I’ll sow.” I wouldn’t let that sword-wielding prick within fifty feet of my garden.
“Trampled Under Foot”
Once again, Led Zep “borrows” a song by another blues great, this time Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.” There’s no question that the instrumentalists mastered the tricky funk rhythm and that Plant’s “Rod Stewart” vocal is fairly well executed, but nine verses loaded with automobile sex metaphors is about six verses too many for me. And while Plant claims “I’m talkin’ about love,” he’s really talking about getting his rocks off in yet another rock star conquest. If your second guess as to the identity of the orgasm song was “Trampled Under Foot,” you’re shit out of luck.
The band knew with “Kashmir” they’d created something haunting, special. “I knew what ‘Kashmir’ was before we’d even recorded it,” Jimmy gloated. Robert eventually considered it “the definitive Led Zeppelin song.” To him, “Stairway to Heaven” was a trifle, whereas “Kashmir” evoked a time and place that had left its imprint, and he could convey it with conviction . . . And John Bonham was so excited about the song’s outcome, he called Peter Grant, breathlessly imploring him, “ ‘Kashmir’—Come down! Come down! Get in the Porsche and get down here!”
Spitz, Bob. Led Zeppelin (p. 357). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
This was the orgasm song, completely free of sexual references, direct or metaphoric. If you’re thinking we must be pretty weird to achieve climax during an apparently sexless piece of music, allow me to refer you to Maureen Dowd’s column “Classical Crescendo” in the New York Times, in which she writes about the recent news flash concerning a woman “who had a ‘loud and full body orgasm’ during the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth” during a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert. “Let’s not forget that the word ‘climax’ is a common musical term,” the soprano Renée Fleming told me (Dowd). “It has to do with musical tension and its release.”
“Kashmir” is loaded with musical tension and release. Like many classical compositions, it is also filled with memorable motifs that strengthen its compositional unity. As revealed in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, classical music was certainly on Jimmy Page’s mind during the song’s development: “All of the guitar parts would be on there. But the orchestra needed to sit there, reflecting those other parts, doing what the guitars were but with the colors of a symphony.” (Songfacts) Page and the classically-trained Jones made the inspired decision to use a Pakistani orchestra with knowledge of non-Western modes to supply those rich colors. Jones also introduced a mellotron to the mix, adding a touch of contemporary color.
The origins of the piece trace back to one of several riffs Page came up with during a holiday break in preparation for the upcoming recording sessions, a series of musical ideas for his colleagues to explore while considering options for the new album. “There were bits and pieces of what would eventually become ‘In the Light,’ ‘Ten Years Gone,’ and ‘The Wanton Song.'”
He also had a demo that he’d recorded with Bonzo. “He started the drums, and I did the riff and overdubs,” Jimmy recalled. It was just that, a shuffle and riff, but it was seductive, moody—Robert described it as a shoom shoom tempo—a sturdy foundation to build on.
Spitz, Bob. Led Zeppelin (p. 355). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The cement for that sturdy foundation comes from John Bonham’s drumming. Robert Plant was spot-on when he observed, “It was what he didn’t do that made it work.” What Bonzo didn’t do is take the bait offered by Jimmy Page’s triple-meter guitar riff but instead opted for a basic heavy-on-the-backbeat contrasting rhythm in quadruple meter (that eventually syncs with Plant’s vocal). As noted by Spitz, the song’s core drone, metrical qualities and “Moorish” scale (close to Phrygian but not quite) create a processional pastiche demanding a stately steadiness. Though I shudder to even consider the possibility, the best way to understand why Bonzo’s conservative approach was exactly what “Kashmir” needed is to try to imagine what Keith Moon might have come up with in his place. Freeform drumming would have killed the song’s relentless tension and caused lasting damage to the steady determination depicted in the lyrical narrative. The upward movement of the main riff calls up images of climbing a mountain while Bonzo’s drums underscore the notion of a challenging but continuous uphill climb; a manic drum part would have contradicted the narrative by sonically depicting Plant under attack from tumbleweeds and rockslides.
Plant acquits himself fairly well on this piece, focusing on the root note of the A-A#-B-C-D riff and delivering most of his vocal in A major with a blue note here and there. A brief change to a G-A pattern in the middle of the song not only staves off monotony but features the strongest lyrical passage in the song, highlighted by dissonant vocal harmony on the closing notes:
All I see turns to brown
As the sun burns the ground
And my eyes fill with sand
As I scan this wasted land
Try to find, try to find the way I feel
While I think Spitz is over the top when he describes the lyrics as “timeless,” they do contain a relatively coherent narrative and some of Plant’s best imagery. “Kashmir” has been lauded as Led Zeppelin’s greatest achievement, and though I can’t confirm or deny that claim because I haven’t listened to everything they ever did, it’s certainly the best Led Zeppelin song I’ve ever heard, with or without the orgasms.
“In the Light”
The introduction is outstanding, a compelling passage combining Jones’ synth with sweet, melodic bowed guitar from Page contrasting nicely with the underlying drone. Robert Plant enters the scene with a double-tracked and filtered voice producing harmonies that sound like a combination of adult and child voices. I find myself thoroughly intrigued by the soundscape.
I get quickly un-intrigued when they launch into a pedestrian one-chord blues rock passage with Plant locked into sleaze mode . . . then re-intrigued by the shift to a melodic rising riff reminiscent of the British Invasion . . . then back to dullsville . . . then back to the melodic with stereo guitars for the fade . . .
What a mess.
This Led Zeppelin III acoustic guitar outtake is sort of the lost little brother of the more strum-heavy acoustic number “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” that made it into the release. My guess is the band probably felt they already had enough acoustic numbers on III and put it aside for another day. It didn’t matter in the end, as some critics accused the band of trying to mimic CSNY even without this little-over-two-minute Jimmy Page acoustic guitar solo.
I think both tributes to the cottage where they chose to unwind after a long American tour are top-notch efforts, and it was only natural that the primitive environment—a cottage in the Welsh countryside with no electricity or running water—would have encouraged acoustic explorations. Jimmy’s solo is rustic and pastoral, filled with lovely arpeggios and varied dynamics. The ringing closing chord makes for a more-than-satisfying ending.
“Down by the Seaside”
This piece was also composed during the Bron-Y-Aur sessions for Led Zeppelin III. It was a candidate for inclusion on Led Zeppelin IV but lost out largely because Jones hated the song. Plant pushed for the song’s inclusion on Physical Graffiti, winning out largely because they had room to spare.
Multiple sources have confirmed that the song was heavily influenced by Neil Young, which is obvious in the pacing, the shimmery slide guitar (possibly a lap steel guitar) and the pseudo-country feel. Plant’s vocal is exceptionally good, and I’m knocked out by his perfectly lovely falsetto aaah-oooh pattern between the verses (I didn’t think he had it in him). The bridge adds interest with its quicker tempo and more assertive guitar moving away from Young to something more Led Zeppelin-ish. The lyrics tackle the “nature vs. civilization” theme fairly well, especially if you ignore the references to the twist and the nod to the Beatles (“see how they run”). If nothing else, “Down by the Seaside” reinforces the notion that Led Zeppelin was more than your typical hard rock band.
“Ten Years Gone”
Jimmy Page envisioned “Ten Years Gone” as an instrumental, and I wish they would have left it that way. This is one of the strongest musical pieces on the album and Plant’s pedestrian, meandering, faux-symbolic lyrics about a lost love are an annoying distraction.
Page recorded an estimated fourteen guitar tracks to realize his vision, employing an impressive array of styles, textures, harmonies and chords in the process. Interludes of indefinite major seventh chords contrast nicely with the straightforward muscular main riff while the frequent use of rare “stretch chords” (F#m7-5, D6add9, Aaug and Dmadd9) help to create fresh paths from tension to resolution. The musical narrative is loaded with surprising twists and turns that are a delight to the ears. I love the quieter passages where Page gently muses over the Dmadd9/A combination, I love the transition to the solo when Jones adds soft, clean bass to the fascinating F#m7-5-Em-Dmaj7-Cmaj7 progression, I love the key change to G in the bridge and the sharper, bluesier attack . . . I just fucking love the music in this song! INSTRUMENTAL VERSION ONLY, PLEASE!
This sounds more like a Who song than a Led Zeppelin song and given Plant’s all-over-the-map performance, I think they would have been better off with Roger Daltrey at the mic. At this point, I’m getting tired of Plant’s incessant use of the term “Mama” to refer to a woman and wish he’d grow the fuck up. Plant claims that the song was about a draft dodger, but his hole-filled narrative falls far short of “Alice’s Restaurant.” File “Night Flight” under “Double Album Filler” and move on.
“The Wanton Song”
According to Songfacts, this is one of Robert Plant’s favorite songs, which should serve as a consumer warning that a series of tired sexual tropes awaits the listener. He sows his seed in verse one, braves the flames in verse two, feels the woman’s “healing rivers” in verse three . . . you get the picture. Other than Bonzo’s spirited drum part, there’s not much there there.
“Boogie with Stu”
We’ve definitely arrived at Double Album Filler Land with this on-the-spot jam featuring Ian Stewart (“The 6th Rolling Stone”) tickling the ivories and ebonies on an out-of-tune piano and Robert Plant using enough of the lyrics from Ritchie Valens “Ooh My Head” to earn Ritchie’s mom co-writer credit and some royalties. Unfortunately, they also earned themselves a lawsuit because they neglected to credit co-writer Bob Keane. Serves them right for putting this nothingburger on the album in the first place.
“Black Country Woman”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. Twelve mamas. Four babies. ENOUGH ALREADY!
A whole lot of so-called rock journalists have devoted lots of time digging up what they perceive to be the seedy but juicy backstory of this song. Personally, I don’t give a shit, but if you’re into that sort of thing, you can head over to the Lori Mattix Wikipedia page. Please note that the professional sleuthing is based on one single line in the song and that lyricist Robert Plant has denied the connection to Jimmy Page’s fetish with adolescent girls.
Plant wrote the song because . . . well, I’ll let him explain:
Plant took pity upon these girls who would flock to the hotel rooms of the band to offer them “favors”. In an interview he gave in 1975, he provided an explanation of the lyrics: “If you listen to ‘Sick Again,’ a track from Physical Graffiti, the words show I feel a bit sorry for [the girls]. ‘Clutchin pages from your teenage dream in the lobby of the Hotel Paradise/Through the circus of the L.A. Queens how fast you learn the downhill slide.’ One minute she’s 12 and the next minute she’s 13 and over the top. Such a shame. They haven’t got the style that they had in the old days … way back in ’68.”
Triple oh for fuck’s sake. Take your misplaced pity and shove it up your ass.
I’ll give credit to Jimmy Page for some seriously steamy licks, but that’s about it.
As is usually the case with double albums, they’re overloaded with stuff that only diehard fans will appreciate but really should have remained in the vault. Physical Graffiti isn’t better or worse than most of the double albums of the era: most are one-third great stuff, one-third passable stuff and one-third garbage. My count of five-and-a-half great tracks out of fifteen is pretty much consistent with my assessment of the White Album (eleven out of thirty).
I’m not going to make any sweeping generalizations about Led Zeppelin based on one double album, but I don’t think I’ll be exploring any of their other work. I appreciate their successful (“Kashmir”) and almost-successful (“Ten Years Gone”) attempts at imbuing progressive rock with hard rock power, but if I’m in the mood for kick-ass progressive rock, I have several Tull albums to choose from that also offer greater consistency.
I’m just happy that thanks to one steamy moment in Basque Country, Alicia and I can say, “We’ll always have Kashmir.”