A high-flying double album featuring some of John Bonham’s most exciting drumming hits shelves again, with cleaned-up sound and a bunch of bonus workshop tracks.
Pound for pound, Physical Graffiti is Led Zeppelin’s fattest album. For such a hefty band, that’s saying a lot. Comprising outtakes from the quartet’s three previous records plus lots of brand-new music, the nearly-ninety-minute masterwork proudly displays all the Zeppelin hallmarks while adding new dimensions and cementing the group’s ability to craft hair-raising multipart rock epics in the tradition of “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Rain Song.” This past winter, as part of Zeppelin’s remastered-catalog rollout, Physical Graffiti was reissued forty years to the day after its initial unleashing. As with all of the current reissues, a deluxe edition features music freshly unearthed by guitarist/producer Jimmy Page, in this case early versions of some songs, plus a few alternate mixes.
The scope of the 1975 double album urges John Bonham toward some of his most dramatic drumming in the studio, to the point that each single foot chick on the hi-hat during the empty spaces in “Ten Years Gone” adds a nail-biting sense of tension. In other places, of course, Bonzo hits you over the head. The highly demanding bass drum work in sections of “The Wanton Song,” “Night Flight,” and especially the eleven-minute “In My Time of Dying” shows a firm-footed powerhouse who knows how to pace himself, while “Kashmir” is legendary in its stripped-down directness. Today, in an era where unembellished, good-feeling rock timekeeping is more highly prized than it seemed to be in Bonham’s day, we can point to the drumming on “Kashmir” as one of the earliest and most influential examples of this approach.
It can be a bit tricky to discuss the funkiness of the drumming on Physical Graffiti, because Bonham, along with soul-mate bassist John Paul Jones, was pretty much always funky, but here he certainly sits in the pocket as much as, if not more than, ever. Sandwiched between the marathon tracks “In My Time of Dying” and “Kashmir” are the groovy numbers “Houses of the Holy” and “Trampled Under Foot.” The former is a simple riff-based song with a bouncy quarter-note vibe and the steady reinforcing clonk of a cowbell in parts, and Bonham mimics Page’s funky rhythm-guitar fills with quick bass/snare figures that seem to come right out of the James Brown handbook (1:15). “Trampled,” centering on Jones’s wocka-wocka Clavinet line, has a straightforward main drum part—one that makes you wanna dance. Bonzo has fun with his embellishments, blasting off imaginative fills that occasionally break the barline (1:00).
Another couplet near the album’s end, “Boogie With Stu” and “Black Country Woman,” while hardly a major entry in the Zeppelin canon, adds to the unpredictable fun of the set. “Stu” is Ian Stewart, a longtime Rolling Stones associate who leads his tossed-off namesake jam on piano, with Page on mandolin and Bonham playing a clapping, slapping pattern far from the tone of a conventional drumset. Bonham enters the acoustic “Black Country Woman” by kicking quarter notes, and then his fat metal snare slams its way in, often echoing his beefy bass drum double strokes.
Over all, Physical Graffiti is bursting with beautiful drumming that rises to meet the band’s peerless songwriting. Bonham had a sense of intuition that allowed him to craft perfect parts that are sturdy and clean yet creative and daring. “Ten Years Gone” is a deep and powerful song by any standard; Bonham, with his streamlined groove, well-placed ghost notes, and riff-reinforcing tom pounding, gives it even more depth, but in a measured way. The electroacoustic “Down by the Seaside” is unlike any other Zeppelin track. Along with Jones’s electric piano, Page’s delicate licks, and Robert Plant’s longing vocal, Bonham plays a shuffle with doubles on the snare, almost like a slowed-down and scrubbed-up Ringo beat—and then he kicks into a hard-hitting straight pattern, firing off his signature snare/tom/bass ruffs (2:51) before locking right back into the shuffle feel.
In his press rounds for the Zeppelin reissue series, Jimmy Page has downplayed the sonic remastering of the music, focusing on the previously unheard bonus tracks. But it’s no small thing to hear improved digital versions of the proper albums from a group that’s always sounded best on vinyl. The extras are geared toward hardcore fans hungry for any sorts of alternate tracks, no matter how slight the differences. Here, “Brandy & Coke” is an early mix of “Trampled Under Foot,” and “Everybody Makes It Through” an early “In the Light.” The latter has significantly different keyboards and vocals—and, given the final version we all know, it shows the need for more work. Neither reveals much in terms of Bonham’s drumming. The brief “Sick Again” does have a different drum track, with snare licks that Bonham eventually changed to a more syncopated version incorporating the bass drum. In the end, of course, it’s the official Physical Graffiti that counts most, helping to prove many people’s claim that John Bonham is the greatest rock drummer of all time.
by Michael Parillo