As far as the Zeppelin catalog goes, I think their first one is the best, their fourth one is the most accomplished, and Physical Graffiti, with its great and epic sprawl, is by far the most interesting. They had been forced to leave some tracks off their previous three albums, Led Zeppelin III (1970), Led Zeppelin IV (1971) and Houses of the Holy (1973), and when they discovered they once again had too much material for Physical Graffiti, they decided to add in their previously unreleased material, turning Physical Graffiti into a full-blown double album. Led Zeppelin towered over the first half of the 1970s in the same way Elvis reigned over the second half of the 1950s, and Physical Graffiti offers a snapshot of the biggest band in the world by covering them at just about every angle.
Physical Graffiti is an absolute monster, and unlike most double albums, which rarely feature any difference in content between each disc (there are exceptions, like Cream’s Wheels of Fire, which features a studio disc and a live disc), Physical Graffiti‘s two discs have a much different feel from each other. Most of the unreleased material can be found on the second disc (the exceptions are “The Rover” and “Houses of the Holy,” which were both recorded for, you guessed it, Houses of the Holy), giving the disc a unique odds-and-ends feel. Not that this does a disservice to the album, since the material is so uniformly strong. The second disc is a bit more relaxed, as well, which comes as something of a relief after the hard-charging rockers that grace disc one.
The first Led Zeppelin song I ever fell in love with was “Kashmir,” the last song on disc one. It’s one of their most accessible songs, and is undoubtedly one of their finest, as well. The majesty of it was absolutely overwhelming when I first heard it at the age of fifteen or so. When the orchestra comes in that first time it sounds like the sky opening up to the heavens or something. I couldn’t afford to buy entire discographies at the time, so I eventually settled on the Early Days and Latter Days greatest hits albums so I could sample their entire catalog quickly while I slowly tracked down their albums at the library. I ended up listening to the Latter Days disc a lot, since it had “Kashmir.”
When I was in tenth grade, my Algebra 2 teacher let us listen to music during tests, and I remember listening to my Latter Days CD one time. (This was before the iPod era, obviously.) I don’t remember how I did on the test, but I remember listening to “Kashmir.” Now that I’ve heard all of Led Zeppelin’s albums save for their last one, 1979’s In Through the Out Door, I actually have come to be pretty critical of the track selection for the Early Days and Latter Days compilations, since the following songs are MIA: “How Many More Times” from Led Zeppelin; “Heartbreaker” and “Ramble On” from Led Zeppelin II; “Tangerine” from Led Zeppelin III; “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “Dancing Days,” “D’yer Mak’er” and “The Ocean” from Houses of the Holy; and, well, pick your poison from Physical Graffiti.
They rectified these omissions somewhat with a two-disc release called Mothership in 2007 (I actually have the guitar book), which added in “Heartbreaker,” “Ramble On,” “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “D’yer Mak’er.” But they reduced the number of Physical Graffiti songs from four (“Houses of the Holy,” “Trampled Under Foot,” “Kashmir” and “Ten Years Gone”) to three (no more “Ten Years Gone”), which seems like a rather severe oversight. Then again, aside from “Kashmir,” none of Physical Graffiti‘s other fourteen tracks have become lasting hits the way say, “Whole Lotta Love” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Immigrant Song” have become classic rock staples. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. If none of the material on Physical Graffiti‘s second disc was deemed worthy of Mothership, that’s fine. I like being able to head over there and hear a completely different Zeppelin.