Led Zeppelin’s ‘Physical Graffiti’ at 40: Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil Looks Back
February 24th, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s sixth LP, Physical Graffiti. Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, no stranger to heavy riffs, reflects on how the double album shaped his life.
I look back at Led Zeppelin‘s Physical Graffiti as being a collection of cool fucking riffs that I loved, but they were the songs whose titles I couldn’t remember. There wasn’t anything about Physical Graffiti that I distinguished from the other albums when I was younger, other than the first album seemed a little bit more bluesy, the second one seemed more hard rock and the third album has some acoustics on it and is maybe a little bit more folky. It’s not like how Kiss’ Destroyer is very different from Rock and Roll Over or how Ramones’ End of the Century is distinctly different from the first [four] records. Lord knows, half the songs I was humming probably came from Physical Graffiti.
I know people see that album as this different thing, but I think I only know it because of the strength of songs like “Kashmir,” “Trampled Under Foot” and my favorite one, “In the Light.” I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve heard it so often since I was a kid, that I don’t see Physical Graffiti as distinct.
The way I listened to Zeppelin when I was younger was I’d focus on the really cool guitar riff, over and over again, and then I’d get to the mellow breakdown part and then I’d move the needle over. That was kind of a weird way to listen to records. And of course, if you’d listened to the Sex Pistols, you didn’t have to listen to them like that; that sound was just kind of always up there.
I was 14 when Physical Graffiti came out. At that time, I would hear Zeppelin and Sabbath on the radio, and they were somewhat ubiquitous at any bongathon along with, like, Dark Side of the Moon. Back then, I didn’t have a lot of entertainment dollars that would go to records. Before I was done with high school, that money was going to picking up Ramones records. So Zeppelin was a thing that I would listen to, along with Pink Floyd and Sabbath, at friends’ houses because I couldn’t afford all the really cool records I wanted.
As a young guitarist, you’re kind of oriented towards things that are familiar to your abilities. A lot of young guitarists are into punk rock and hardcore because it’s a few chords and you play real fast. It fits, if you’re young. As you get better, you start listening to other stuff that might be more challenging and that’s where a band like Zeppelin fits in. The first Zeppelin song I learned how to play, I think when I was 17, was the main riff of “The Ocean” and then those little suspended guitar chords right-neatly afterwards. There were these other parts of the song that I couldn’t figure out and those were parts that I would move the turntable. I’d move the tone arm and skip the groove over to the next song.