Led Zeppelin: Physical Graffiti [Record 49]
Physical Graffiti: is the sixth studio album by the English rock band Led Zeppelin, released on 24 February 1975 as a double album two years after their previous studio album. The band wrote and recorded eight songs at Headley Grange which, when combined, stretched the album beyond the typical length of an LP. This prompted the band to make Physical Graffiti a double album by including unreleased tracks from earlier recording sessions: one outtake from Led Zeppelin III; three from Led Zeppelin IV; and three from Houses of the Holy including its unused title track.
Physical Graffiti was commercially and critically successful; the album went 16x platinum in the US in 2006, signifying shipments of eight million copies.
1. Custard Pie.
2. The Rover.
3. In My Time of Dying.
4. Houses of the Holy.
5. Trampled Under Foot.
7. In the Light.
9. Down by the Seaside.
10. Ten Years Gone.
11. Night Flight.
12. The Wanton Song.
13. Boogie with Stu.
14. Black Country Woman.
15. Sick Again.
Recording session: The recording sessions for Physical Graffiti initially took place in November 1973 at Headley Grange in East Hampshire, England. For these recordings, the band used Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studio. However, these sessions came to a halt quickly and the studio time was turned over to the band Bad Company, who used it to record songs for their eponymous debut album. In an interview he gave in 1975, guitarist and album producer Jimmy Page explained the reason for this abrupt cessation of recording:
“It took a long time for this album mainly because when we originally went in to record it, John Paul Jones wasn’t well and we had to cancel the time… everything got messed up. It took three months to sort the situation out.”
However, according to Led Zeppelin archivist Dave Lewis:
“It later emerged that Jones had wanted to quit the band and take up a position as choirmaster at Winchester Cathedral. [Manager] Peter Grant urged caution, suggesting that Jones was overwrought from the incessant touring and should take a rest from Zeppelin for a few weeks. Jones changed his mind and sessions resumed at Headley Grange after the Christmas holidays.”
Once they had reconvened, the band recorded eight tracks at Headley Grange in January and February 1974, which were engineered by Ron Nevison. Lead singer Robert Plant later referred to these eight tracks as “the belters”:
“We got eight tracks off… and a lot of them were really raunchy. We did some real belters with live vocals, off-the-wall stuff that turned out really nice.”
Similar to the sessions for the previous two albums, the decision to record at the informal surroundings of Headley Grange provided a welcome opportunity for the band to improvise and develop material along the way. As Plant commented:
“Some of the tracks we assembled in our own fashioned way of running through a track and realising before we knew it that we had stumbled on something completely different.”
Because the eight tracks extended beyond the length of a conventional album, it was decided to include several unreleased songs which had been recorded during the sessions for previous Led Zeppelin albums.
“We had more material than the required 40-odd minutes for one album. We had enough material for one and a half LPs, so we figured let’s put out a double and use some of the material we had done previously but never released. It seemed like a good time to do that sort of thing, release tracks like “Boogie With Stu” which we normally wouldn’t be able to do… [T]his time we figured it was better to stretch out than to leave off.”
According to engineer Nevison, the decision to expand the album to include songs from previous sessions was not part of the original planning:
“I never knew that Physical Graffiti was going to be a double album. When we started out we were just cutting tracks for a new record. I left the project before they started pulling in songs from Houses of the Holy and getting them up to scratch. So I didn’t know it was a double [album] until it came out.”
Additional overdubs were laid down and the final mixing of the album was performed in October 1974 by Keith Harwood at Olympic Studios, London. The title “Physical Graffiti” was coined by Page to illustrate the whole physical and written energy that had gone into producing the set.
Music: In the opinion of Lewis, Physical Graffiti: was a massive outpouring of [Led] Zeppelin music that proved to be the definitive summary of their studio work… Given the luxury of a double format, Physical Graffiti mirrors every facet of the Zeppelin repertoire. The end result is a finely balanced embarrassment of riches.
Spanning several years of recording, the album featured forays into a range of musical styles, including hard rock (“Custard Pie”, “The Rover”, “The Wanton Song”, “Night Flight”, “Sick Again”, “Houses of the Holy”), eastern-influenced orchestral rock (“Kashmir”), progressive rock (“In the Light”), driving funk (“Trampled Under Foot”), acoustic rock and roll (“Boogie with Stu”, “Black Country Woman”), love ballad (“Ten Years Gone”), blues rock (“In My Time of Dying”), soft rock (“Down by the Seaside”), and acoustic guitar instrumental (“Bron-Yr-Aur”). The wide range of Physical Graffiti is also underlined by the fact that it contains both the longest and shortest studio recordings by Led Zeppelin. “In My Time of Dying” clocks in at eleven minutes and five seconds, and “Bron-Yr-Aur” is two minutes and six seconds. With the exception of “The Battle of Evermore” on their fourth album, it is also the only Led Zeppelin album to feature John Paul Jones playing additional guitar on some tracks.
Several tracks off the album became live staples at Led Zeppelin concerts. In particular, “In My Time of Dying”, “Trampled Under Foot”, “Kashmir”, “Ten Years Gone”, and “Sick Again” became regular components of the band’s live concert set lists following the release of the album.
According to Robert Plant, of all the albums Led Zeppelin released, Physical Graffiti represented the band at its most creative and most expressive. He has commented that it is his favourite Led Zeppelin album. Similarly, guitarist Jimmy Page considers this album to be a “high watermark” for Led Zeppelin.
“It’s always a case of getting together and feeling out the moods of each of us when we meet with instruments for the first time in six months. We began as always, playing around and fooling about for two days, playing anything we want, like standards, our own material or anything that comes to us, and slowly but surely we develop a feel that takes us on to the new material.”
Album sleeve design: The album’s sleeve design features a photograph of a New York City tenement block, with interchanging window illustrations. The album designer, Peter Corriston, was looking for a building that was symmetrical with interesting details, that was not obstructed by other objects and would fit the square album cover. He said:
“We walked around the city for a few weeks looking for the right building. I had come up [with] a concept for the band based on the tenement, people living there and moving in and out. The original album featured the building with the windows cut out on the cover and various sleeves that could be placed under the cover, filling the windows with the album title, track information or liner notes.”
The two five-story buildings photographed for the album cover are located at 96 and 98 St. Mark’s Place in New York City. The original photograph underwent a number of tweaks to arrive at the final image. The fifth floor of the building had to be cropped out to fit the square album cover format. The buildings to the left and right were also changed to match the style of the double front. Tiles were added on the roof section along with more faces. Part of the top right railing balcony was left out for a whole window frame to be visible. The front cover is a daytime shot, while the back cover (above) was taken at night.
Mike Doud is listed as the cover artist on the inner sleeve, and either the concept or design or both were his. He passed away in the early 1990s, and this album design was one of his crowning achievements in a lifetime of design. In 1976 the album was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best album package. (Doud would later win a Grammy for best album cover of the year in 1980, for Supertramp’s Breakfast in America).
The buildings on the album cover were the same ones that Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were filmed in front of in The Rolling Stones music video “Waiting on a Friend”. There was a used clothing store in the basement of 96 St. Mark’s Place called Physical Graffiti. There is currently a shop called Physical Graffitea. The building has been profiled on the television show, Rock Junket.
The original album jacket for the LP album included four covers made up of two inners (for each disc), a middle insert cover and an outer cover. The inner covers depict various objects and people (including photos of Plant and Richard Cole in drag) on each window. The middle insert cover is white and details all the album track listings and recording information. The outer cover has die-cut windows on the building, so when the middle cover is wrapped around the inner covers and slid into the outer cover, the title of the album is shown on the front cover, spelling out the name “Physical Graffiti”.
Release and critical reception: The album was released on 24 February 1975, at a time when Led Zeppelin were undertaking their tenth concert tour of North America. Delays in the production of the album’s sleeve design prevented its release prior to the commencement of the tour.
Physical Graffiti was the band’s first release on their own Swan Song Records label, which had been launched in May 1974. Until this point, all of Led Zeppelin’s albums had been released on Atlantic Records. The album was a commercial and critical success, having built up a huge advance order, and when eventually released it reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Pop Albums chart. It has since proven to be one of the most popular releases by the group, shipping 8 million copies in the United States alone (which has made it 16 times platinum as it is a double album). Physical Graffiti was the first album to go platinum on advance orders alone. Shortly after its release, all previous Led Zeppelin albums simultaneously re-entered the top-200 album chart.
Billboard magazine’s 5 star review of the album stated: “[Physical Graffiti] is a tour de force through a number of musical styles, from straight rock to blues to folky acoustic to orchestral sounds.” Similarly, Jim Miller stated in Rolling Stone that the double album was “the band’s Tommy, Beggar’s Banquet and Sgt. Pepper rolled into one: Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin’s bid for artistic respectability.”
In 1998 Q readers voted Physical Graffiti the 28th-greatest album of all time; in 2000 Q placed it at number 32 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever; and in 2001 the same magazine named it as one of the 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time. In 2003, the TV network VH1 named it the 71st-greatest album ever. In 2003, the album was ranked number 70 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. The album is also listed in Robert Dimery and Stevie Chick’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die (2005).