Biodegradable plastic bags. Not where you thought I’d be going with this, was it?
The plastic record bag was ubiquitous through the late 1970s, especially at school, where every second child (more boys than girls, you might think, but the girls I was hanging out with were often lugging around their own 12 inch square bags stuffed with the latest must-share records) was toting a bag of albums to go with the obligatory backpack, or ‘schoolbag’ as we still called them at the time.
Carrying your own or someone else’s precious albums around was fraught with danger in Aberdeen. Even on the calmest days, you never knew if there was a howling gale lurking around the next corner, ready to whip your record bag round and smack it against your knees; or if a sudden downpour might allow rain in to soak the precious cardboard sleeve – there was a way of twisting the handle to try to mitigate against this, but it often resulted in circulation being cut off from your fingers. You couldn’t quite hide it under your blazer (or I couldn’t; as noted before, I was a Small Child), and that, along with stuffing it into your schoolbag, ran the risk of bending the contents, possibly permanently.
Still, we persisted – albums were swapped, taped, and handed back on a strictly understood rotation – you had to have enough time to listen carefully and decide if you wanted to record it, but you didn’t want to appear as if you had just decided to keep the album for yourself. Some albums seemed to live in a permanent rotation, with Brain Salad Surgery one of those which seemed to live at school, being passed from hand to hand until no-one was entirely sure who actually owned the thing. Others, and Physical Graffiti was very definitely in this category, only appeared rarely; their owners being extremely nervous about lending them out, and dreading being approached and asked for a listen.
The 1970s were a time of excess in music, of course – it’s one of the reasons punk happened, after all – and few albums represent that excess as well as Physical Graffiti. If it does, as I’ve suggested before, represent exactly what it was like in 1975, it is as much in the sprawl and excess of the thing; in it’s intricate cardboard engineering, as it is in the music itself.
And it’s the sprawl of it which made it so valuable, and made its owners so nervous. It was, for one thing, a double album. Double studio albums were not nearly as common as double live albums, of course – serious collectors probably only had the White Album, Exile on Main Street and maybe Blonde on Blonde before this came along – and were more expensive to own in the first place. Add to that the way this is packaged, with so much die-cut cardboard which could be so easily damaged – the dreaded sudden gust of wind as you rounded the art block might whip the thing out of your hand and slide it expensively across the concrete and into the wire fence before you could react.
Add to that the fact that the bag it was contained in might not be a sturdy plastic one with reinforced handles, but in one of Boots’ own-label biodegradable ones – the ones which school legend had it would dissolve if carried in the rain – and it was probably better just to pretend you didn’t own a copy of Physical Graffiti at all.
Prior to the opening of The Other Record Shop in 1976, we either bought our albums in Bruce Miller’s, whose bags were sensible and mostly rain-proof, especially if you folded the top over and carried it under your arm (again, shorter arms made this tricky for some of us), or from Boots, whose selection was for some reason more eclectic and slightly cheaper. At least, that’s what I remember. The downside of buying from Boots was the weird, slimy, not-quite-plastic biodegradable (and proudly so) record bag. The bag bore the slogan ‘Record and Tape Value’, which gave a clue to the real reason I spent so much time in Boots’ record department.
I couldn’t afford to buy an album every time I went in there, of course, but I could keep a keen eye on the blank cassette tape section for any deals. Multipacks of C90 tapes were the order of the day; you could get two whole albums (or one double album) on one, so if you bought a five pack, you had an instant record collection once the required number of albums had done the rounds of the playground. I’m sure I had a favourite brand, but the truth is that my favourite brand was whichever one was on sale – I remember having quite a lot of Boots own brand tapes.
So, having negotiated the purchase of enough blank tapes to effectively kill off the music industry single-handed, having been reluctantly allowed to take the hallowed object home, and having not damaged it in any way during the process, what awaited the eager young record enthusiast when Physical Graffiti was eased out of the biodegradable bag?
Before getting anywhere near listening to it, a significant amount of time is spent just marvelling at the thing. It’s a triumph of the sleeve designer’s art, this – no wonder it was so expensive. You slide the inner sleeves out, only to discover that they had been inside another sleeve, which could be removed, revealing the tracklisting, and that the actual outer sleeve is indeed full of holes as you had heard – the only record sleeve you’ve ever seen which you can see through.
Of course, some time is spent putting the various inner sleeves back in different orders to see how each of them looks through the various windows, and peering at all the pictures, trying to interpret what’s going on here – some of those are clearly pictures of the band; others are – well, mysterious.
And, of course, the whole thing is a bit mysterious. Even given my exposure to some complex music in my early teenage years, I’m not sure I was really ready for Led Zeppelin; not really sure what on earth they were on about half the time – I was just swept up in the power and grandeur of the whole thing. Physical Graffiti was a physical experience; even if I didn’t understand it, I could still be swept up in it.
So, having admired the packaging, and then the fantastic label, the needle drops on side one, and this seemingly serious and grown-up album kicks off with a track called Custard Pie. I mean, now I know what was going on, but Robert Plant could have been singing about anything at all at the time – I had no lyric sheet to ponder, so it just washed over me.
The Rover seems to be in a similar mode; I imagine that the first time through I might have had a slight concern about whether this album was going to be four sides of straightforward blues-based rock songs, but In My Time of Dying quickly (well, it doesn’t do anything quickly, but you know what I mean) puts that to rest – this sprawling, epic extended jam on all manner of gospel songs and motifs is still mesmerising and startling – it takes several minutes to feel like you’ve got a handle on it, only for the gear change to propel you into full wakefulness. Listening to it now, I’m as amazed as I ever was by the instrumental interplay – I can hear the bass clearer now than I ever could have back then, but it’s still familiar to me; it all works together to slide you through eleven minutes with barely a pause for breath.
And then, just like on Revolver, some studio chatter at the end causes much grinning – the lack of polish is part of why I keep saying that this is the sound of 1975.
Side two starts with the song which appears to be on the wrong album – Houses of the Holy was a couple of years old by the time this was recorded, and apparently didn’t fit on the album which took its title. It definitely fits here, though – side one feels like it was warming us up for this and the two which follow.
Every rock band of the 1970s wrote songs about cars and sex; none of them did it quite as thoroughly (and quite as disturbingly to the overheated teenager) as Trampled Underfoot – I wonder if it was ever possible, even in my wide-eyed innocence, to read it as a straightforward song about how much Plant loves his car.
Probably not. Maybe I just sublimated all my confusion into an appreciation of the weird and wonderful sounds coming out of whatever keyboard John Paul Jones was playing. None of which quite prepares you for the first time (or the hundredth time, come to that) you hear Kashmir. This is proper rock and roll over-indulgence; all those strings doing those non-rock and roll things, evoking some unknowable part of the world – not Kashmir, exactly, but somewhere other. I read Dune around this time, and Kashmir was my mental soundtrack for a lot of it – it’s perhaps the ultimate ‘lost in the desert’ song, and you can feel the temperature rise just by putting it on, even after all this time.
And it would be the best song on Physical Graffiti, too, if it weren’t for the next one.
There’s a natural gap here, as you get up to swap records over, and it’s probably just as well, because the otherworldly introduction to In the Light might be a bit much if it just followed directly on from the end of Kashmir. In the Light remains firmly in my favourite Zeppelin songs, as it has been since I first heard it – maybe it’s because it’s a bit more like the prog songs I had been immersed in, or because I love the way it is arranged, with Jimmy Page’s guitar illustrating rather than driving the whole thing forward. I know that some people find it unfinished and unsatisfying, but it seems to me that it fits the slightly ramshackle nature of this album; I think Zeppelin could be guilty of being too polished at times; they were an organic experience, and ultimately that’s why I’m talking about this great, sprawling, self-indulgent album rather than the better-known and probably more loved ones.
Bron-yr-Aur is the only possible way to ease us back in to the rest of the album; anything else would risk sensory overload. Mind you, even after I figured out the tuning for it (or more likely, was told it), learning to play it was way beyond me – it’s the very definition of ‘deceptively simple’.
Down by the Seaside is calm and almost relaxed in comparison to much of what has come before, and is about as 1975 as you can imagine. Even turning the distortion up in the midsection and sliding back in to the Zeppelin sound can’t derail that laid-back West coast feeling, which has fully reasserted itself by the end.
Ten Years Gone puts us back to the blues-soaked songs of side one, but this is a grown-up, world-weary version of the strutting hero of those earlier songs. I keep thinking of the wide-eyed teenaged me listening to all this, and trying to work it out. What did I know about all of this grown-up stuff? I suspect I mostly ignored the words and concentrated on the tone of the guitar during that delightful, lyrical solo.
You can make a case that the album actually had three sides worth of material, and that the final side is less than essential. Well, you could make that case; there won’t be any of that nonsense going on here. Physical Graffiti is a complete package – it has a natural flow – peaking, to be sure, either side of the mid-album disk swapping, but the tail is as important to the overall shape of it as the head is. Not many people’s favourite tracks will ever be picked from the final five, but that doesn’t mean you should just skip over them.
Night Flight is obviously an anti-Vietnam War song now; it’s extraordinary how American Zeppelin were at times – no-one was going to be drafting a long-haired bloke from Wolverhampton to go and fight in Vietnam, but Plant carries it off as if he was personally on the run from the authorities.
The Wanton Song is another slice of the 1975 sound; the guitar sound between the verses is not one we’ve heard before, but it’s instantly recognizable as belonging to this exact point in time. Lyrically, it’s right back to the febrile, sweaty stuff we thought we’d left behind about an hour ago, but it’s all part of the plan.
Boogie with Stu and Black Country Woman definitely wouldn’t have made it onto a single album version of this; they are of a piece with some of the less-focused tracks on Exile on Main Street; the Rolling Stones album closest in spirit and lack of overall plan to this. Black Country Woman was recorded outside, and features a passing aeroplane, which was just left in – you can hear the decision being made before the track proper starts. I can’t help feeling that the spontaneous feel of it works rather well, and covers up some of the lack of polish which would surely have been applied to a studio version.
We end with Sick Again, and perhaps the less said about the lyrical content the better. At best, you can read it as a warning, but you can’t help hearing just a bit of swagger in it. It’s a slightly depressing way to end, but again, it’s just about as 1975 as you can get.
We have a few more stops on my timeline before the excesses of the mid-seventies are swept away by punk and all that followed. You can hear why there were so many objections to a lot of this, but you can also, clearly, hear why it has survived as long as it has. It may or may not be the best Led Zeppelin album; it may or may not be your favourite, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the most interesting.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Let’s see, the first four demonstrate a band growing into their sound and figuring out how to take over the world. The second and fourth are usually picked out, for reasons which become immediately obvious when you listen to them, but I remain fond of the way Led Zeppelin III doesn’t do the things it was clearly expected to at the time. Houses of the Holy is as good as the albums either side of it, and is perhaps a little overlooked. Later albums, after the car crashes and tragedies, really don’t hang together as well, but I still like In Through The Out Door, for all its flaws – I think you can see where this band might have gone next (and if you want to know where they thought they were going, have a listen to Wearing and Tearing from the posthumous album, Coda).
Compilations to consider?
A couple – I think Mothership contains everything you need to know if you want to find out what all the fuss was about; there are others out there, and as long as they’re curated by Jimmy Page, you’ll be in safe hands.
I’m sure I’m not the only person to have been a little underwhelmed by The Song Remains the Same at the time; I’ve never quite got round to listening to the remaster, I really should do that. The Page-approved How the West Was Won is perhaps a better representation of what they sounded like in 1972, and we’ll address Celebration Day below.
Any number of books, of which Hammer of the Gods is lurid, sensationalist, and probably mostly true. I recently read When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall, which is thorough, even if I could have lived without the bits where Wall imagines a band-members’ eye view. The Song Remains the Same film doesn’t really work, sadly – there’s a lot of ‘you had to be there, and on the same drugs’ about it, but if you want to watch the four of them living out their fantasies over some poorly-recorded concert footage, don’t let me stop you. There is a DVD of some of the concert footage, significantly cleaned up, but I’ve not seen that all the way through, so should reserve judgement. Celebration Day, however, is worth a look. The concert footage of the only reunion show is, of course, crystal clear, the sound is excellent, and the band appear mostly to be enjoying it. It’s not what a 1970s show would have been, of course, but it gives you an idea.