I suppose that for many who have not heard of T.Rex, this album may take a bit of a listen to get used to - especially some of the less 'mainstream' tracks. Yes, it's on this release that you will find "Bang a Gong (Get It On)", but that's a track that one could consider as a bonus to the rest of the tracks, all of which are solid.
Marc Bolan (frontman for said band) and David Bowie were friends and spent a fair amount of time hanging out; one could say that they were effectively cut from the same cloth (though Bolan's theatrical tastes were far bested by those of Bowie) and if you ever wondered where the genesis for Bowie's "The Rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars" you need look no further than this record (which predates TRAFOZSATSFM) by a year or so.
I wouldn't in any way call this record a concept album (an assessment often made of Bowie's TRAFOZSATSFM) apart from the concept of Glam-rock having informed many of these tunes. Many of them are heavy on the mellotron (which was a short-lived but important keyboard instrument used on some other classics (the into to the Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever" as but one...) and typical pseudo-stereo effects (also heavily used on TRAFOZSATSFM). Still, when you strip away the effects, the music is still solid.
We open with "Mambo Sun", a driving bass and drum-led rocker that has a sort of laid back yet always moving rhythm; it remains one of my favorite rock tunes from this era. Some really nice guitar work here with at least one part (lead) being played through a distortion pedal - but played well...a really nice use of effects...
This brings us to "Cosmic Dancer". Again, a very melodic tune / structure from which Bowie 'borrowed' heavily for TRAFOZSATSFM (on more than one tune) with some utterly bizarre lyrics - just look 'em up sometime and you'll see what I mean. Yet, there's a really nice string arrangement that seems to work really well in this track...which takes us right up to...
"Jeepster". From the soft, melodic structure of " 'Dancer" we jump right back into a simple (about as simple as you can get) 12-bar blues-based tune, with (yet again) bizarre lyrics...and yet once again, some great guitar work; Bolan does a nice job of syncopating parts of this track via anotehr distorted guitar riff; the use of slap-back echo also seems to suit this piece. All in all, an enjoyable and yet amusing (though I doubt deliberately so) tune. Also, Bolan's vocals are double-tracked on this and do well to help fatten the vocals out nicely.
"Monolith" has much in common with " 'Dancer", especially musically...right down to the backing vocals and pseudo-stereo effects. Musically though, it's a nice slowly rocking piece...and yes...again...some obtuse lyrics.
This brings us to "Lean Woman Blues", which is probably my favorite track on the record. Yes, "Get It On" is every bit the classic, but I just love the slow, sloppy feel to this - right on down to the guitar parts.
Next up "Bang A Gong (Get It On)". I really, really love how this track begins - just a sparse bit of bass and guitar...maybe two bars' worth, and then the main riff starts. the mellotron featurtes heavily on this track as well (starting right around the 0:38 mark). I see this as the classic, quintessential glam rock track - and due to it's massive airplay world-wide, one of the more influential songs that pushed glam to the fore (albeit briefly).
"Planet Queen" is very much like "Mambo Sun", though played in a slightly slower meter...and yes...Bolan's bizarre lyrics abound.
Then we have "Girl". This is probably the most 'sparse' track on the record (the reverb on Bolan's vocals notwithstanding). This is pretty much driven by acoustic guitar, a distorted lead / fill guitar, and what sounds like a french horn. There are no drums or bass on this track, and given Bolan's sensibilities, this tune becomes a bizarre but very listenable track.
"The Motivator". Great tune. This one bounces and features some great backing vocals (primarily Bolan's) and complements "Girl" in terms of its sparseness. It is not as orchestrated / produced as some of the other tracks on this record, but I think (for me anyway) it is what makes this tune 'work'. I also like how the congas carry the rhythm of this track.
"I could have loved you girl, like a planet" ... yes...those are the introductory lyrics to the next track ("Life's a Gas")...again...congas are featured on this (as they were on "The Motivator", albeit not as forward in the mix). Like most tracks, the vocals fill nicely here due to them being double-tracked. There's also a cool, but brief guitar solo here... I felt like I had to quote at least some of the more unusual lyrics (though these songs are replete with such lyrics).
The record closes with "Rip Off". In some ways, this almost seems to pre-date rap. When I say that I am referring only to the vocal phrasing, but this tune turns on the glam with its saxophone fills and orchestrated sound.
All in all, this still remains one of my favorite rock records, but I think you have to categorize this one as glam (primarily) that has been informed by blues and rock as well. As I have mentioned before, the lyrics are, in some ways, laughable...but at the same time, they fit the songs. Indeed, I find this album to be the quintessential 'period piece'of that short-lived but very influential period when glam held sway.
If you stop and think about where the Band members 'were' when this record was recorded (in approximately three weeks' time), it's hard not to see it as a watershed moment for them; they were arguably the world's biggest band at the time (for better or worse), and in some ways, the 'worse' was taking its toll on the band members' lives. Page's experimentation with heroin had morphed into an addiction, and Bonham's drinking (long excessive) had grown even worse. Thus, from a health perspective (as well as emotional well-being) this very well might have been the low point (or the start of a prolonged low point) for the band, at least, according to various interviews with the surviving band members. Indeed, Plant sang most of these tracks from his wheelchair, while recovering from an automobile accident in Greece (When I first posted this review I had erroneously said, referring to the accident "that left his son dead - talk about living in the shadow of something dark...I am amazed that he could even find the motivation and focus". However, I was wrong, though Robert sustained serious injuries as a result of said automobile accident; Plant's wife Maureen, was also injured, and hospitalized for treatment. The Plant's lost their son Karac not as a consequence of the accident, but rather due to a viral infection around two years after the incident in Rhodes).
The track listing is as follows - I'll try to give a brief description of each:
1) Achilles Last Stand
2) For Your Life
3) Royal Orleans
4) Nobody's Fault But Mine
5) Candy Store Rock
6) Hots On For Nowhere
7) Tea For One
"Achilles Last Stand": Hmmm...well, I have to say that this is a huge, sprawling track. (Jimmy) page purportedly overdubbed something like nine individual guitar parts to make this come together, but like a lot of Zeppelin's tracks, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It's also one of the longest songs in the canon and features a cyclical nature, that is, the track fades in (at the start) and out (at the end) with Bonham performing essentially the same phrasing on the drum kit. This is a thunderous track, and you can see where a song like this, played as it is (great performances from all, but especially the drumming, which is (for rock), mighty impressive) and with its allegorical lyrics, it does sort of conjure-up some other worldliness. While in production, Page (who oversaw most of the production for this release) used Vari-speed, and the previously mentioned overdubs to come up with the wall of guitar parts. Page has been quoted as saying that he feels this track is every bit as good as "Stairway to Heaven" (love it or hate it...it's an icon), and that when experimenting with the production, he decided to do the exhaustive guitar over-dubbing; initially, most of the band members thought that he had 'gone mad', but as Page has stated, upon hearing it, they understood his musical vision for the piece. Overall, this track is probably as technically involved and challenging to play as just about any other high point in the catalog. Very, very impressive. If, perchance, you play the drums...you'll want to give this one a listen.
For Your Life: If I'm interpreting this correctly, this is effectively a song about a guy whose significant other is struggling with what appears to be a formidable addiction to drugs, most probably cocaine. This is also borne out by the lore about this song, several sources of which say that Plant wrote the lyrics in reference to a girlfriend that he once had (and if you listen very closely right around the 5:30 mark in the song, you can hear the sound of someone performing an exaggerated 'snort', so it sounds logical enough). Musically, a very interesting tune. As if often the case, the rests in a piece are often as important as the beats...and that is definitely the case here - it gives the track a very herky-jerky rhythm, and Bonham (drums) and Jones (Bass) are in dead-on lockstep in these beats. Interesting guitar work here as well as Page uses what certainly sounds like a whammy-bar, though to be fair and honest, I'm not sure which guitar(s) he used for this track.
"Royal Orleans": Early in the review, I mentioned the humor that, until realizing the lyrics, had long been lost on me. What we have here is a song about a guy who, by circumstance or deed, picks up a call girl, only to find out that she's a man. This track is purportedly based on a true story (this happened to John Paul Jones) when the band were living it up in New Orleans, and according to lore, was the name of a hotel in which the Band liked to stay. There appears to be some truth to this as Plant used to joke about this tune during live shows, specifically in reference to Jones. Back to the humor - there's a lyric in the song that goes "When I step out, strut down with my sugar, She'd best not talk like Barry White!". Still, setting the humor aside, the musicianship is really good here - great guitar riffs and phrasing, and Bonham's drumming is replete with a relaxed yet focused swing to it.
"Nobody's Fault But Mine": Just wonderful drumming here...heavily syncopated, and some really, really good harmonica riffs laid down by Plant. 'Zeppelin 'borrowed' heavily from American blues musicians, and I have read (though have not substantiated) that this is actually a cover of a Blind Willie Johnson tune; still others say it's a Robert Johnson tune...or an Otis Redding tune...I can't say, but what I can say is that this is a great tune that, like most tracks on this, feature some great cohesive playing. Lyircally, it's great fun as Plant uses a faux-stutter to emphasize certain lyrics and diminish others. A great tune, and again, largely overlooked by fans and critics alike. Stories abound as to the theme or inspiration for this, but the most logical seems to be that Plant wrote this after having developed an addiction to pain killers (prescribed after a serious car accident in Greece, which killed Plant's son, and put him in a wheelchair for part of his recovery). Regardless of the theme...or the subject for that matter, here's another one that is very high energy, and as the kids say (or once said), "rocks".
"Candy Store Rock" : In many ways, this tune's sound telegraphed what was to come on "In Through the Out Door", specifically, "Hot Dog". However, in contrast to Hot Dog, which was (in my opinion) somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Candy Store Rock really has its roots in true Rockabilly; you can hear Plant channeling Elvis on this one, but more specifically, the slap-back echo so prevalent in early Elvis (and other rockabilly) recordings is likewise rendered here. Rockabilly was always an important (and shared) experience for most of the band members (in particular Page, influenced by British skiffle, itself arguably a derivative of American Rockabilly) and Plant, for whom Elvis was always an iconic singer). In fact, the band were known (especially shortly after having formed and thus, not having all that much original material to play) to cover songs by the likes of Eddie Cochran ("Summertime Blues", "Somethin' Else" et al) and others like him. As far as subject matter, lyrically, and 'conceptually', I would say that this is pretty close to the subject matter of another raucous 'Zeppelin classic, "Custard Pie". According to some 'sources', Plant considers this as one of his favorite 'Zeppelin songs, and according to still other 'sources', Plant felt that this song, and "Achilles Last Stand" were the only 'strong' vocal performances on "Presence". I have to disagree though (if this is in fact true) as I find much of the vocals on display elsewhere on the album to be really, really good.
"Hots On For Nowhere": Like "For Your Life", the musical phrasing here is herky-jerky, but very, very catchy. I can't even tell you why, but I love the timbre of the guitars achieved here. Yes, I love the phrasing, but it's the timbre that grabs my ear...and never lets go. If I'm not mistaken, there's more whammy-bar work around the 2:18 mark. I find the rhythm and lead phrasing here really, really fun. Some (in forums etc) have said this is Zeppelin's worst song, but I just can't agree with that - for me, that distinction goes to "Dancing Days" (on "Houses of the Holy", an album, I otherwise love). Lots of reverb (and some echo) on the guitars here, which fatten them out nicely. Lyrically, another interesting song. According to some 'sources', this was written by Plant as a thinly-veiled attack on Page and (Peter) Grant, the Band's Manager whom he flet were not sensitive to Plant's aesthetic desires and visions for the Band. That may be all conjecture (a polite word for BS), but whether about Page and Grant, there is an interesting self-Bowdlerization of the lyrics; Plant sings about "friends who would give me fluck-all", apparently as a way to get the song past the U.S. radio censors. Whether that part is true seems inconsequential. Again, it's an indicator as to where the Band members were 'in their heads' while making this record, so whether it was directed at them, or someone else in general matters not...but the frustration felt by the singer comes across.
"Tea For One": Even the first time I heard this, I could not help but think that it was derivative of "Since I've Been Loving You" (on Led Zeppelin III), one of my favorite ballads ads from the band. While not a musician, I have read that both tunes (TFO and SIBLY) are basically 12-bar blues written in C-minor, so maybe this explains why both tunes affect me in similar ways. Yes, this is a simple blues, but like most well-executed blues, I find this tune really affects me - it's both sad and beautiful all at once. To this day, it affects me emotionally every time that I hear it, and while nowhere near as complex as some of the other tunes on this release (or other 'Zeppelin releases), it still affects me. I like this to good film-making; in the end, I may not be crazy about what the film says (i.e. its message), but if it affects me, and makes me think about what I have just seen, then it's a success in my book. Such is the case here. Again, given the choice, SILBY is my preferred 'version' of this theme, but at the same time, it also fits what the band members were struggling with at the time. It's dark haunting, and somber...and everything in it - from the drumming and bass, to Plant's vocals...to Page's guitar phrasing and timbre, convey this emotion to me. Clearly, we have to consider frame of reference - Obviously the Band are British, and let's face it - for the Brits, tea is as much about structure as it is a set-aside time for social interaction. The idea of tea for one conveys, at least to me, the idea of loneliness and isolation - and it certainly comes across in the feel of the tune...but I suspect that this is very much what Plant was feeling when he penned these lyrics.
In summary, like I said, I don't see this as the band's most 'uniform' or 'even' effort. However, I do think that it stands on its own merits and truly does not get the attention that it should. Moreover, if you factor-in what each band member was struggling with while making this recording, I think it informs the recordings, and makes this pretty much akin to a time capsule for the band - where it was, where it was going, and in fact, just how (precious) little time they had left as a band - it ended all too abruptly.
Look...you can borrow this CD for free. Do it. Give it a listen...that's all. You may just like it.
There are other classics to be found here as well - "Immigrant Song" and "Celebration Day", bioth of which are solid rock numbers. By contrast, "That's the Way" found its way onto the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe's film "Almost Famous" - it's a gentle, melodic, and heartfelt piece. Here again we see one of the things that I found most appealing about Zeppelin - they could rock...and yes, it could escalate to full-on bombast, but unlike a great many other bands, they could also make the quieter tracks (both musically and in terms of volume) work. Page and Plant had a really good grasp of the concept that contrast allows tracks to be seen (heard really) with some context and a basis for comparison.
I don't think I can honestly call this Zeppelin's finest work - there's plenty of material against which this record can be compared, and ultimately, when measured against can fall a bit short of some of their other high water marks. Still, it is a very listenable record start to finish, and it serves as a document to where Zeppelin had been (musically), and where they were (possibly) going.
I will say this though...this is one record that is worth having if for no other reason than to be able to hear "Since I've Been Loving You". Zeppelin played this track many time during their live shows (and really never played it the same way twice), and this version (studio) features some great guitar solos as only Page can play 'em (somewhat sloppy, but replete with feeling and passion).
Reserve this record and listen to it. You won't be disappointed.
For better or worse, this is the album that contains "Stairway to Heaven", a tune that just about every living person on the planet knows or has heard. However, that tune alone should not be a reason to try this record out, or to reject it either. The album is a very even release, that is, there are no tracks that were obviously added as 'filler' in order to have a sufficiently-long record.
This record opens with "Black Dog", a brilliant rocker that has some real quirks to it (deliberately so). While I can't really describe this in accurate musical terms, all you need do is listen, and you will hear what I mean - there's 'jump' to the ryhtym that you first notice right around the 0:42 mark; rumor has it that this quirk was suggested by John Paul Jones (bass / keys) in order to render the tune one to which people could neither dance or 'groove'. He may have been right about the former, but make no mistake - this is one classic groove.
Next up is "Rock and Roll", which apparently came to be as a consequence of a jam session in the studio when 'Zeppelin, working on a completely different track ("Four Sticks", also found on this release), were having issues working out that particular track...and as a tension-releaser, they started to jam on this 12-bar blues structure, and John Bonham (drums) started playing the intro to a Little Richard tune...with Page then coming up with the riff. Magic...and now it's truly a 'classic' tune...covered by scores of bands to this day.
All of the tracks are 'hits' (not in the radio airplay sense per se) in the sense that none of them lack groove, emotion, or musicianship, and there are some great dynamics to this record. That's not to say the dynamic range on any of these tracks is great (it is after all, mostly rock music), but that the record moves from full-tilt rock (especially due to the first two tracks), and then throttles down the engines by going into "The Battle of Evermore", a mandolin-driven folk-meets-rock creation which also features a guest vocal by Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention).
The placement of "The Battle of Evermore" works perfectly with the next track ("Stairway to Heaven") as 'Stairway starts in the same gentle manner in which 'Evermore moves; these are very complementary tunes. Say what you will about 'Stairway, but I still find it to be a great tune. Overplay, yes...way overplayed, but still, it's a great tune owing to its movement from what amounts to folk, and then slowly, but steadily progresses into a rock assault. Stairway really is an amalgam of styles, and one could argue that the first several minutes are anything but rock, but could far more aptly be described as "folk".
Next up "Misty Mountain Hop". This one has a bit of a nod to the '60's and the various happenings that were taking place in major cities around the world. I find this tune to be a lot of fun and features some nice keys by John Paul Jones, but to be perfectly honest, I always felt this song needed to be played at a somewhat faster tempo than it is. Then again, my surname is neither Page or Plant...so I should probably just shut up about that.
Then we have "Four Sticks". Wow...I have always loved John Bonham's drumming, and this track is but one example (in a long list) of why so many people (including myself) consider him to be the best rock drummer of all time. Like the segue between 'Evermore and 'Stairway, the segue between 'Hop and 'Sticks also works really well in terms of the record's 'pace'.
Which brings us full circle to the quiet side of the band - "Going to California". This is a great number that, like many Zeppelin tracks, paints a picture for the listener of the things that the singer really wants (a full life, happiness, love, comfort, family) and how his willingnmess to 'make a new start' holds the promise of bringing these things to fruition. This is a very gentle ballad comprising only vocals (Plant) guitar, and mandolin (Page).
And then ... the hammer drops. The record closes with "When the Levee Breaks". This track, like so many Zeppelin tracks, was recorded at Headley Grange. You have to love the natural reverb on the sound that Bonham gets from the drum kit (which was accomplished by situating the drum kit in the four-story foyer at headley Grange, with mics hung overhead, and Bonham playing the kit in that space - all natural reverb). As for the tune itself...this is classic Zeppelin in the sense that it's blues-driven (and features some great harmonica playing by Plant).
Again...if you listen to rock music, chances are this is already in your collection...but if it's not...and if by chance you have not heard it (or are just new to Led Zeppelin) you really need to hear this record. Like I said at the start of this review, the word 'classic' is over-used, but in this case, it's an apt descriptor.
Trust me - this one's a "Must Have".
As for the sessions, it's important to remember that several of the tracks were actually recorded for other Zeppelin records, but for whatever reason were not included in those releases. This is why, for example you will find "Houses of the Holy" on this record and not on the record released under the same name. That's but one example as there are several 'left'overs' that ended up on this record. Eight tracks were recorded at Headley Grange (if you ever wondered how Zeppelin got that "fat" drum sound on "When The Levee Breaks" on Zeppelin IV, it was there, in the (huge) foyer of Headley Grange that Bonham's drum kit was situated to take advantage of the low echo but lengthy reverb present in the space (remember...these were the pre "Pro Tools" days)), but among the tracks that were from other sessions (and included in 'Graffiti) were classics like Bron-Yr-Aur (pronounced "Brahn-rahr"), which is a beautiful in-the-round type mix that features Page alone, playing in an alternate tuning (I think open C...maybe?), recorded back in 1970.
Some of the other out-takes from previous sessions (included on 'Graffiti) were "Night Flight", "Boogie with Stu" (an homage to Richie Valens' "Ooh, My Head" and so named because it featured Ian Stewart on a rather out-of-tune piano), and "Down By the Seaside", all three of which were recorded during the sessions for Led Zeppelin IV (and you know that one...don't you?). There are still other out-takes that were included, but the thing about this record is that much like the Stone "Exile on Main Street" it works both on the merits of individual tracks, as well as complete release; the context borne of all tracks frames the others.
Indeed, the record was not originally conceived as the double-LP that it was ultimately issed as - this stemmed from the fact that the original eight tracks would be too long for a single record...and yet, there wasn't enough material to warrant a double-LP...until they decided to go back to the vaults and find suitable tracks, previously recorded, that would fit the overall musical theme and stylings of the record. However, it all sort of worked out. I suppose you could criticize the effort by saying that not all of the tracks were played with the completed project in mind and therefore, its merely a happy accident that it turned out as well as it did. That may indeed be the case, but it doesn't in any way detract from my enjoyment of the record, and in fact, I'm forever grateful that Page Plant et al decided that including previously recorded tracks made the record 'work' and allowed all eight (original) tracks to be heard.
There are some full-on rock anthems on this record (the record opens with "Custard Pie" ('talk about a great guitar solo...)), but also, there are some beautiful, melodic, and often times bitterwseet tracks. A personal favorite of mine being the seldom heard "Ten Years Gone", which speaks to a critical moment in Robert Plant's life when faced with an ultimatum given by his then girlfriend ("it's music...or me...make a choice") he chose the former rather than the latter. It's a really great track, with nice dynamics (for rock music anyway), with some great riffs played by (Jimmy) Page - it's a rather unusual rock track in that it almost appears to be written in movements rather than the traditional rock / blues structure.
You want "Full-Throttle"? OK then...queue-up "The Wanton Song" (Bonham's triplets on this are legendary - and check out the timbre that John Paul Jones managed to get from the bass on this track - I have no idea how it was done, but the bass sounds incredibly good), the previously mentioned "Custard Pie", "Trampled Under Foot", "The Rover"...
Then there's "In My Time of Dying". Zeppelin were heavily influenced by American blues and gospel, and this influence (particularly) serves as the roots of this track. It's a tour-de-force in slide guitar, and Bonham's drumming on this is ...thunderous. Let's not forget "In the Light", which features John Paul Jones' work on synthesizer and Page's guitar, and is the PERFECT tune for dimming the lights, and simply listening; it's a somwhat spooky / haunting number that does wonders with dynamics and phrasing. Like "Ten Years Gone", this is another lengthy track, written in movements, and begins with a dark, somewhat haunting part comprising Page's bowing of an acoustic guitar, along with Jones' synthesizer; the track builds...releases...builds again...releases again. Brilliant.
Then...we have..."Kashmir". I have to say that when I first heard the record, I liked this tune quite a bit, but it took some time for the tune to become a 'go-to' Zeppelin number for me. It's a sprawling, expansive, middle-Eastern-tinged number that some have dismissed as the height of bombast and indulgence...and while there may be an element of truth in that, it's still a remarkable number. I think (though I am not sure) that this particular track was the first where significant orchestration was employed. Sure, they used the Mellotron on a great many tracks, but this is something else. And...it is unique. Though there are periods where I avoid listening to this tune (most likely because it was over-played, both by me...and on the radio in those days), but I always come back to it.
So much to say...and so hard to say it well...but in my opinion, this record is indeed a masterpiece. If you have not heard this CD, you really need to do so. Go ahead...add it to your request list. Now.