In the Light

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If someone asked me to sum up to define rock and roll in two albums – two albums that encapsulate the entire DNA, the power, the glory, the excess, the messy, vibrant artistry of rock and roll – I would choose Physical Graffiti and Exile on Main Street in an fingerclick. I’ve often said that Zeppelin are the greatest ‘albums band’ in rock for their unbroken string of near-perfect 6 albums from 1969’s Led Zeppelin to the LP in question. A string of giant, monolithic touchstones in the recorded album’s history. Forgive my constant glorification – they were the first band I ever seriously loved, and I still hold them in a sort of childlike, unquestioning revery. Don’t get me started about In Through the Out Door, though.

Physical Graffiti kicks off with Custard Pie; a mildly sexual punch to the stomach that rocks out with loose swagger, followed by the apocalyptic rocker The Rover, a showcase for Jimmy Page’s mastery of guitar production. Not a single track on this sprawling epic has the same guitar sound; further solidifying the fact that, while Page isn’t the greatest ‘feel guitarist’ that he is often lauded as, he was a genius at producing, layering and recording his instrument, and Physical Graffiti is packed with these chunky, chewy, alien, tones.

Robert Plant outside Headley Grange, with the Rolling Stones’ Mobile Studio to the left

The second disc is packed with overlooked classics: Down by the Seaside and Ten Years Gone have a bittersweet calm about them, and the beautiful Bron Yr-Aur instrumental which I will post below.

By 1975, Zeppelin were disintegrating. But as so many great rock ‘n’ roll albums have showed us (Big Star’s Radio City, Exile on Main Street, Tonight’s the Night), an artist in cynical excess and disintegration makes far more interesting records than one in youthful naivety. There are moments where the band sprawl themselves naked and apathetic, and it’s fascinating: In Boogie With Stu, distant intoxicated chuckles are heard as the band relax in the garden with Ian Stewart, recording an impromptu, raggedy blues stomp.

These moments sum up exactly what the double album should be: an artist pouring every single strand of their musical DNA into an inconsistent, glorious mess of a record; it’s the unfocused spilling of one’s artistic guts out onto two plates of black plastic. That’s why so many artists have never made it out alive: Marvin Gaye never made another good album after the naked, raw emotion of Here, My Dear; the Stones never created anything of true merit album-wise after Exile on Main Street; Prince could never after live up to the majestic disorder of Sign O’ the Times. This is the case with Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin’s last stand, and arguably their most representative work.

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4 thoughts on “In the Light

  1. Hmm. Very interesting premise, Freddo. Very interesting indeed. Let me say upfront that I love both albums. ‘Exile’ is – IMHO – the greatest rock album of all time. And when ‘Graffiti’ came out, I used to drive around listening to it in the car all the time. Now, does that mean I can ‘define rock and roll in those two albums?’ I don’t know. Much as I think they’re great, I’d have to think about that. My inclination is to say that perhaps ‘Graffiti’ wouldn’t be one of them, simply because it doesn’t make my top ten. But you’ve given me something to ponder.

    And as an aside, isn’t it interesting that some other guy might say, for example, The Ramones and, I don’t know, Black Flag or something? And neither of these albums is on his radar. I ran into a guy last night who had no interest in blues per se but loved a band called Porcupine Tree, a long-gone prog-rock band that I have never once heard of in my life. It’s almost like there are parallel musical worlds out there.

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  2. I second that Exile on Main Street is the greatest rock album of all time. Graffiti is also a vastly different album – Exile is far more ragged and personal whereas Graffiti, to me, is more heavy and intricately recorded and engineered.

    And you’re right: it’s impossible to define rock ‘n’ roll in just two albums, but my logic was that if I HAD to choose only two that would represent it best, these would be the one. But then again; I think that Prince’s Sign O’ the Times is also pure rock ‘n’ roll, and most people would think that’s ridiculous 😉

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    1. And so, while it pains me to be perhaps so cliched and obvious, but going by your criteria of “if I had to name only two albums, ” then one must be the Stones and one must be, for me, the Beatles. For all the aforementioned reasons, ‘Exile’ is the go-to Stones album. It is raw, it is bluesy, it has gospel, ballads, quasi-spirituals, rock ‘n roll, country – you name it.

      I struggled with which Beatles album to go with, all the while leaning towards ‘Abbey Road.’ But as good as it is, did it convey the ‘glorious, messy artistry’ of which you spoke? No. The only album that does that is…

      The White Album. And in this instance, instead of a unified entity you get four very different views. Rockers, country, oddities, avant-garde, ballads, blues, two Ringo vocals, four Harrison songs. Plus Eric Clapton. Dear God. Is The White Album the Beatles’ (sort of) ‘Exile?’ Or vice-versa? I think I’m on to something. 😀

      Anyway, that’s my thought. No way I can narrow it down to two albums and not have the Fab Four on there. And I will further say that if we hand these three (including Zep) albums to our descendants, they will have a pretty good idea of what rock sounded like once upon a time.

      PS. Mind if I poach this idea for future?

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  3. Sure! This really started out as just a review of Physical Graffiti, so it wasn’t really based off of any real idea. Poach ahead.

    For me, the White Album is the only time the Beatles ever came to true rock ‘n’ roll greatness. Of course their other albums are incredible, but the White Album is definitely their Exile.

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