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.
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.