Zeppelin Week comes to a close as Matt Domino tries to make sense of the moment Led Zeppelin started their decline.
There is a startling moment in every Led Zeppelin fan’s journey through the band’s catalogue when they realize that Robert Plant’s voice is never coming back. No longer will he shriek the choruses to “Communication Breakdown” or “Immigrant Song.” No longer will he be capable of clear, swooning verses that variously explode and shimmer like “Your Time is Gonna Come” or “Thank You.” This moment is the mark when Early Led Zeppelin turns into Late Led Zeppelin, and I imagine in 1975 it was truly terrifying for some followers of the band.
Now, there is plenty of merit to the songs of Late Led Zeppelin. “Achilles Last Stand” is an overdramatic song, but it is cinematic and unyielding and one of the first examples of its kind on record. “All of My Love” is perhaps Zeppelin at its most mature. “In The Evening” seems endlessly meaningful in some vague way, mainly due to the fact that Plant leaves every bit of vocal strength he has left on the track. Plus, “Carouselambra” is as weird and progressive as anything the band ever recorded. However, there is never the same electricity, the same dynamics, the same pure unbridled force that were once possible on a song like “How Many More Times”—quite possibly the thesis statement for what Early Led Zeppelin meant in toto*.
(*Editor’s Note: If we are talking about the “best” song of Early Led Zeppelin, that award has to go to “When the Levee Breaks.”)
Which is what makes Physical Graffiti such an interesting album. Some people consider it Zeppelin’s finest work, some consider it, like most double albums, to be overlong and a bit sloppy. It is my favorite record for a variety of reasons, but it was only recently that I realized a perspective on the album that I had never taken into account before.
When I first listened to Led Zeppelin’s entire catalogue, my heart grieved when I realized that Plant had permanently lost his upper register. There was a genuine nostalgia for the days when I could listen to “Thank You” and the rest of the early tracks without a care. It was as if something in my stomach wanted to cry out, “Ah, those were younger days!”
However, Physical Graffiti is that moment when you realize that the band will never be the same ever again and that, in fact, they are changing right before your eyes. You can hear Plant losing control over the upper register, his voice covered in reverb and other studio tricks. Page still has plenty of riffs purchased straight from the spirits of the Dark Forest, but he seems to be receding from the gut-dropping guitar of “Moby Dick” and “Bring It On Home” into something more generically “rock.” And, as it was in the beginning, so it was in the end—Bonham and John Paul Jones remain the same.
In the March 13, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone, Cameron Crowe manages to get a great interview with Led Zeppelin. The band had been the “white whale” of his journalism career and he finally has a chance at a long interview with Page and Plant. If you have time, I recommend you read the entire thing.
At the time, Led Zeppelin were beginning their tour behind Physical Graffiti and there is something entirely odd about the postures that Page and Plant take throughout the entire conversation. They are simultaneously nostalgic for the past and confident about the future. At times, they both seem completely exhausted and weary of their lives as rock stars, while at others it seems like they couldn’t imagine living any other way; in fact, while thinking about their stardom, they then become nostalgic again for the way things were when they first started touring.
During the interview, Plant, who was twenty-six at the time, when asked if he remembers Zeppelin’s first American tour responds:
“Nineteen years old and never been kissed, I remember it well. It's been a long time. Nowadays we're more into staying in our rooms and reading Nietzsche.”
The first time I read that, I have to admit I was a bit floored. Not because I thought it was profound for Robert Plant to be reading Nietzsche, but because I couldn’t help but think, “What a bunch of bull shit!” Especially as Plant continues on to say:
“It was just the first steps of learning how to be crazy. We met a lot of people who we still know and a lot of people who have faded away. Some ODed. Some of them just grew up. I don't see the point in growing up.”
Meanwhile, Page has his own memorable quotes such as:
“I think it's time to travel, start gathering some real right-in-there experiences with street musicians around the world…. you know what you can gain when you sit down with the Moroccans. As a person and as a musician. That's how you grow. Not by living like this. Ordering up room service in hotels.”
A statement that is followed by:
“I like change and I like contrast. I don't like being stuck in one situation, day to day. Domesticity and all that isn't really for me. Sitting in this hotel for a week is no picnic. That's when the road fever starts and that's when the breakages start, but I haven't gotten to that stage yet. I've been pretty mellow so far. Mind you, we're only into the tour a week.”
Or you can play the guessing game as to which one, Plant or Page, gave each of the following quotes:
“It typifies the days when we used to chug around the countryside in Jeeps.”
“I don't know whether I'll reach 40. I don't know whether I'll reach 35. I can't be sure about that. I am bloody serious. I am very, very serious. I didn't think I'd make 30.”
“Just good-time boys, loved by their fans and hated by their critics.”
“I always find myself wistful and enveloped in a feeling I can't really get out of my system.”
It’s not ground breaking news that rock stars—especially rock stars on the scale of Led Zeppelin and Page and Plant—are prone to contradictions and waxing poetic, but it is enlightening, to me at least, to just see how varied their thinking is. Plant talks about staying in his room and reading Nietzsche, but says he misses the band when he’s away from them. Page warns of the possibilty of damaging a hotel room when he is cramped up on tour too long, while elsewhere Plant downplays their image as monsters and hotel trashers. Page outrightly dismisses domesticity and imagines himself as a guitar-playing gypsy touring Morocco.
So, then, it only makes sense that they would be giving this interview while on tour to support their most varied and expansive album; they were both (and the band as a whole) stretched to the limit. They had one foot in the past, in the early days of arriving in Los Angeles and touring America or of writing songs in the country for Led Zeppelin III, while simultaneously thinking about how to grow as musicians, thinking about whether or not they will make it to forty, wondering what Led Zeppelin can actually do next.
And despite all the pompousity and the myth-perpetuating, you kind of like them. Maybe I’m biased since I have always loved their music and can’t resist a good interview, but it’s true—they do seem like “just good-time boys.”
Good-time boys who can’t help but name drop Nietzsche.
The majority of Physical Graffiti was recorded in 1974. Sure, there was a stalled session in late 1973—and some of the tracks were leftover from sessions done in 1970 and 1972—but for all intents and purposes, the album was created in 1974.
I mention this fact because the Physical Graffiti sessions fall right in the middle of Zeppelin’s lifespan as a band. Formed in 1968. Disbanded in 1980. Despite the fact that their catalogue is front-loaded, Physical Graffiti is the work of a band in middle-age, and middle age does funny things to people.
Obviously, there’s no way Zeppelin knew that they were going to break up in 1980. None of us know when we are going to die; likewise, Page, Plant and Jones didn’t know that Bonham was going to choke to death. Even so, there’s trademark signs of middle age: the wistful looking back in “Bron-Yr-Aur” (leftover from 1970) and “Night Flight” (leftover from 1971); the moving ahead into maturity of “Kashmir” and “In The Light”; the actual preparation for death in “In My Time of Dying"; and the acceptance of who you are in “Custard Pie,” “The Wanton Song,” and “Trampled Under Foot.” There is some bloat, but you’ve made it this far with this band and this music and you love it for what it is. And, yes, it’s starting to show some grey, the ears are starting to sprout hair and the sex isn’t as frequent as it once was, but it still rocks and is, in many ways, superior to the younger band. Plus, the sex is different and more interesting than it was in the beginning.
Metaphors aside, this is an album; a rock n’ roll double album. One of the five best double albums of all-time and easily one of the best fifty albums ever made. You can listen to Physical Graffiti a million times and still be surprised. And if you really love it, like me, you’ll just listen to “In The Light” on repeat.
You’ll listen to that song and the entire album over and over again even if you hear Plant’s voice dying on “Boogie With Stu” even back in 1971; or hear him straining on “Sick Again” and know that the end is near and it will never be like the early days.
I want to posit one more theory about Physical Graffiti.
At one point in that same Rolling Stone interview, Cameron Crowe asks Page and Plant what gambles they have taken. Plant’s response is the following:
“Let me tell you a little story behind the song ‘Ten Years Gone’ on our new album. I was working my ass off before joining Zeppelin. A lady I really dearly loved said, ‘Right. It's me or your fans.’ Not that I had fans, but I said, ‘I can't stop, I've got to keep going.’ She's quite content these days, I imagine. She's got a washing machine that works by itself and a little sports-car. We wouldn't have anything to say anymore. I could probably relate to her, but she couldn't relate to me. I'd be smiling too much. Ten years gone, I'm afraid.”
On the surface, that may just seem like Plant taking enjoyment in the fact that he made the “right” decision and became one of the biggest rock stars in the world instead of staying with his teenage sweetheart. Yet, there is that great moment where he says “we wouldn’t have anything to say anymore…I could probably relate to her, but she couldn’t relate to me.” Regardless of Plant’s narcissism, that feeling is valid.
We all have those moments where we think about what we could have done, who we could have been with. Those strange moments when we think of our alternate selves and can swear that we have seen our own ghost in someone else’s life. The part of Plant that wants to stay in and read Nietzsche is the same part of him that could be a country boy with his lady and have a “washing machine that works by itself.” But in 1975, he was not a country boy. He was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and only a handful of people on earth could relate to that.
In high school, “Ten Years Gone” used to make me cry just because it sounded sad. I never really knew what it meant or cared to find out why. Now, even if the lyrics don’t state it, I understand why. The melody and the title say it all (if a bit dramatically) and Facebook has more than enough photos to show me the ghosts of possible lives I could have lived.
And I imagine that’s what was happening to Led Zeppelin in 1975. They were starting to look around and decide if this was the rest of their life. However, they were probably afraid; afraid that if they changed, took that other road, that perhaps in ten years they wouldn’t be able to relate to one another again—which kind of happened for awhile anyway.
Even though I know Zeppelin’s catalogue front and back, I still get a little sad when I hear Plant start to lose it on Physical Graffiti (and then even moreso on Presence). Like I said, I love almost all of the Late Led Zeppelin songs, so I don’t dread a dimished quality to the music. It’s just that no one wants to think about the story coming to the end. No one wants to long for the early days.
More specifically, no one wants to think about listening to “Achilles Last Stand” or “Ten Years Gone” on headphones in their high school cafeteria and wonder, “what if.”