“Physical Graffiti”: Led Zeppelin’s 1975 double-LP magnum opus gets the “Under Review” documentary treatment

By on August 9, 2016

Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti — their sixth studio album, released as a double-LP magnum opus on February 24, 1975 — gets the “Under Review” treatment in this 2008 UK documentary, which features rare and classic performances (including their epic masterwork, eastern-influenced orchestral rocker “Kashmir”), rarely seen photographs and expert analysis by a few of their critics and colleagues. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

This one hour and thirty minute doc tells the complete story behind what what Rolling Stone writer Jim Miller called “their Tommy, Beggar’s Banquet and Sgt. Pepper rolled into one.”

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Physical Graffiti was an incredible album that mixed heavy rock blues, acoustic finger-picked folk, 50s-influenced rock ‘n’ roll (a la Little Richard and Ritchie Valens) and other styles, and contained both the longest and shortest studio recordings by Led Zeppelin (“In My Time of Dying” clocks in at eleven minutes and five seconds, while “Bron-Yr-Aur” is just two minutes and six seconds). It is considered by many, including Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to be the band’s highwater mark.

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Each of the fifteen songs on the two-LP set is examined and discussed in-depth by a host of contributors, including: Ron Nevison (who engineered recording sessions at Headley Grange); Chris Dreja (former Yardbird and bandmate of Jimmy Page’s); Maggie Bell (Swan Song recording artist); Nigel Williamson (author of The Rough Guide to Led Zeppelin; Dave Lewis (Tight But Loose editor and Led Zeppelin archivist); Malcolm Dome (Classic Rock Magazine); Rikky Rooksby (renowned guitar tutor and author); and, Neil Daniels (Robert Plant biographer), along with narration by the BBC’s Nicky Horne.

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Of these, Chris Dreja — who originally played rhythm guitar with the Yardbirds before switching over to bass, so that Page could become the band’s once and future guitar god — provides the keenest insights as to how Led Zeppelin were formed; Page who had wanted to take the band into a heavier direction (originally they were to be called the “New Yardbirds,” but Dreja says they “would have never been Led Zeppelin.“)

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Dreja:

“… The Yardbirds were a wonderful breeding ground of crazy ideas and free form, and of course Jimmy absorbed all that from us. I don’t blame him for taking them into the Zeppelin and making them tight and rock and heavy. It was an obvious thing for him to do, and he was lucky enough to find one of those rare things in the world. It’s like the Beatles. There are so few bands that have that mix of players that just feed off each other and create [such a] unique sound. It’s really rare, and I think Jimmy really hit the jackpot there.”

Dreja would end up dropping out of Page’s new Yardbirds project — he pursued photography instead — and John Paul Jones joined up on bass and keyboards.

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From the documentary we learn that Stevie Wonder may have influenced “Trampled Under Foot,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young may have influenced “Down By The Seaside,” and we’re treated to a performance of “Ten Years Gone” at the Knebworth Festival in 1979 (one of the live concert performances that didn’t get released on Led Zeppelin’s official DVD in 2003).

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Physical Graffiti originally began as a single album, with the band writing and recording eight songs at Headley Grange, a 3-story stone mansion (originally a workhouse for the poor, infirm and orphaned in Headley, Hampshire, England), where the band had previously recorded tracks that had ended up on Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy (we told you about how Page and Plant had also written several of the album’s tracks at Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales in this post).

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They used Ronnie Lane’s Mobile Studio at Headley Grange, and according to engineer Ron Nevison, the eight tracks recorded were “belters,” meaning Plant was really belting out the blistering rock vocals for these tracks.

When the band realized they had already surpassed the available album length (approximately 40-minutes)— and they didn’t want to cut any of these great heavy rock tracks they’d already recorded — they decided to pad it out with tracks compiled from tapes recorded at many of the band’s previous recording sessions — beginning in July and December 1970, then January thru March 1971, May 1972, and then multiple sessions recorded in January and February 1974 — although the material was so good it can still hardly be considered “padding.”

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Nevison:

” “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.”

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The album’s cover artwork — an intricate die-cut sleeve designed by Peter Corriston — was created from a photograph taken of two five-story brownstone tenement buildings side-by-side in the East Village in New York City, at 96 and 98 E. Eighth St. at St. Mark’s Place (the fifth floor of the building had to be cropped out to fit the 12-inch square album cover format).

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Inside the little windows of the building were images of American icons — like W.C. Fields and Buzz Aldrin — along with a self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp and other images. The concept and design was created by AGI/Mike Doud (London) and Peter Corriston (New York).

Photography was by Elliot Erwitt, B.P. Fallen, and Roy Harper. “Tinting Extraordinaire:” Maurice Tate, and window illustration by Dave Heffernan. The design was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of best album package.

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When the album was released on February 24, 1975, Led Zeppelin had already begun their tenth concert tour, and immediately shot to number one on both the Billboard album charts in the U.S. and also #1 in the UK.

It was the first album to go platinum on advance orders alone, a colossal achievement, and upon its release, each of the previous Led Zeppelin albums also simultaneously entered top-200 album charts again.

For much of 1975, Led Zeppelin were hammering gods of 70s rock, dominating sales charts and FM airplay, and towering over just about every other band in the land.

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Check out Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti — A Classic Album “Under Review” over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.