We have Peter Grant to thank for Physical Graffiti. After a knackering US tour in late 1973, a tired and emotional, not to mention family-starved, John Paul Jones announced he was retreating to Winchester Cathedral to become a choirmaster. It was a plot to escape the excesses and endurances of being one quarter of the biggest, baddest behemoth in rock’s Serengeti. Led Zeppelin were ginormous by the time the Houses Of The Holy tour drew to a close and the bassist/keyboardist was feeling it.
Grant, one of the music industry’s most infamous bullies, imposed his considerable 6ft-5in bulk on Jones, convincing him to take a couple of weeks off. Anglican hymn recital’s loss was rock history’s gain. The break proved enough time for Jones to revive, get in some quality time with his kids and return with the group to Headley Grange to develop song ideas Jimmy Page had crafted back in his Sussex pile. “It was never discussed again,” the manager later confirmed.
Page was looking increasingly to the dark incantations of Alistair Crowley. Plant, meanwhile, was weaving daisy chains (“I’d missed a season [on that tour] and I really need each season as it comes,” the big hippie told Melody Maker in 1975). Both were sure of one thing, though; something vast was needed from Led Zeppelin. A crowning adamantine achievement that would remind any number of Pink Floyds and Black Sabbaths who was in charge. Something “mammoth,” as Plant mooted. “Watch out, Beethoven’s Fifth,” they all crowed from Headley Grange on Quaalude and cocaine.
Forty years later and most of us are in agreement that Physical Graffiti approaches such heights, whether you’re a frowning Led-Head or a casual observer. I always thought it a touch disingenuous to attribute such accolades to an album on which seven of its 15 tracks are outtakes (from III, IV and Houses of the Holy) sprinkled through to pad it out to double-LP size. ‘Boogie With Stu’, a 12-bar-blues ditty, certainly felt like it could’ve remained on the cutting-room floor. ‘Down By The Seaside’ always seemed half-arsed and unfocused.
At least they did until experiencing the songs brought to life by a remarkable troupe of Dublin musicians who specialise in recreating faithful but flesh-driven renditions of Zeppelin albums for one special night of the year. Tonight was Physical Graffiti’s turn to get the Whole Lotta Zepp treatment and things ended up making more sense in terms of those least loveable offcuts. ‘Night Flight’ was now an organ-driven love letter to East Coast soul. The sudden change in tempo and direction on ‘Down By The Seaside’, from eco-friendly bliss to sharp disenchantment, has to be negotiated by real humans, no longer just frequency changes on a playback. And so on.
“Doing the big double album was tricky,” said drummer and WLZ bandleader Simon Freedman afterwards. “Not only are there a lot of tunes, many of which are very long, but at times we needed four guitarists to manage all the guitar lines, which often see various melodies and counter melodies on the go simultaneously. The length of the songs and the complexity of some of the arrangements also posed some problems for us when piecing it all together; Zeppelin never made things easy for folk to copy, with odd bar counts and rhythmic shifts. In short, you can’t bullshit your way through this stuff. It really takes time and a lot of work from each player.”
It is undoubtedly Led Zeppelin’s “Martian album”. Like Radiohead’s In Rainbows or Icky Thump by The White Stripes, it’s the one you’d give a total newcomer to give an overview of their arsenal spectrum; stripped down folk instrumental (‘Bron-Yr-Aur’); gut-busting, libidinous rockers (‘Custard Pie’, ‘The Wanton Song’, ‘Houses Of The Holy’, ‘Sick Again’); expansive, dimension-warping psychedelic voyages (‘In My Time Of Dying’, the sludgy, Sabbathesque ‘In The Light’); six-string temples of sombre reflection (‘Ten Years Gone’).
And at the album’s spiritual epicentre, bringing to a close the first half of this staggering anthology, is ‘Kashmir’, Plant’s favourite Zeppelin track and the one he always said he wished to be remembered by rather than ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Freedman is here accompanied by two extra drummers, swelling Whole Lotta Zepp’s ranks to nine to recreate ‘Kashmir’’s rolling metronomic vortex. Its effect is palpable. The Sugar Club stays locked in the throes of that ominous Eastern tick-tock, like watching a storm approach landfall.
On promotional duties for the album’s inevitable repackaging earlier this year, Page spoke of having the entire concept for Kashmir “basically there” before entering Headley Grange for the album sessions proper. But you can’t imagine this composition being born without the hallway crashes of John Bonham (who was apparently half-man/half-mandrax during those sessions) thundering through it (“It was what he didn’t do that made it work,” Plant later said). It is nothing without Plant’s Moroccan roadtrip mystical mumbo-jumbo. And as for Jones, the nearly-choirmaster of Winchester Cathedral, we have this “quiet one” of Led Zeppelin to thank for those swirling, widescreen string arrangements underpinning the entire thing.
Yes, how different it could all have been. Since his death twenty years ago, Grant has been both lionised for shaking up the live music industry and vilified for his thuggish antics. His greatest legacy, however, may just have been keeping four rock gods tethered for one last moment of immortality.