Physical Graffiti was Led Zeppelin’s sixth album, released on 24th February 1975. The band wrote eight new songs for what would become Physical Graffiti at Headley Grange recording studios. Upon realising that due to the length of the tracks, they would not be able to fit all eight songs on one record, they decided to make Physical Graffiti a double LP by using the eight recorded tracks together with one outtake from Led Zeppelin III, three from Led Zeppelin IV and three from Houses of the Holy, including the unused title track. The new songs written for Physical Graffiti included Kashmir, a monolithic eight minute piece which became a staple part of every Led Zeppelin concert from 1975 onwards.
The song was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, with contributions from John Bohnam, over a period of three years. The lyrics were written by Plant in 1973 immediately after Led Zeppelin’s 1973 US Tour in an area he has referred to “the waste lands” of Southern Morocco, whilst driving from Goulimine to Tantan in the Sahara Desert. Despite the geographical location of the song’s conception, the song is named after Kashmir, a region in the Indian subcontinent. In an interview with William S. Burroughs in 1975, Page mentioned that at the time of the song’s composition, none of the band had been to Kashmir. Plant explained the reason for naming the song Kashmir to Cameron Crowe for his extended essay to accompany the Led Zeppelin boxset, The Complete Studio Recordings in 1993:
“The whole inspiration came from the fact that the road went on and on and on, it was a single-track road which neatly cut through the desert. Two miles to the East and West were ridges of sandrock. It basically looked like you were driving down a channel, this dilapidated road, and there was seemingly no end to it. ‘Oh, let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dreams …’ It’s one of my favourites … that, All My Love and In the Light and two or three others were the finest moments. But Kashmir in particular, it was so positive, lyrically”.
In an article with Triple J Broadcasting Association for an article entitled Hottest 100 of All Time, in 2010, Plant spoke of the challenges which he faced writing lyrics for such a complex piece of music:
“It was an amazing piece of music to write to, and an incredible challenge for me … Because of the time signature, the whole deal of the song is … not grandiose, but powerful: it required some kind of epithet, or abstract lyrical setting about the whole idea of life being an adventure and being a series of illuminated moments. But everything is not what you see. It was quite a task, ‘cause I couldn’t sing it. It was like the song was bigger than me. It’s true: I was petrified, it’s true, it was painful, I was virtually in tears”.
The song has a very distinctive musical composition featuring a rising and falling guitar riff played on a guitar tuned to DADGAD. It was inspired by Middle-Eastern, Moroccan and Indian music. In the 1994 book, Led Zeppelin by Chris Welch, Page explained: “I had a sitar for some time and I was interested in modal tunings and Arabic stuff. It started off with a riff and then employed Eastern lines underneath”.
To add to the composition’s uniqueness, Kashmir was one of the very few Led Zeppelin songs to feature outside musicians. Session players were brought in the studio to record the string and horn sections. As well as the original Physical Graffiti version of the song, several alternative versions exist, including one entitled Driving Through Kashmir (Kashmir Rough Orchestra Mix) with a slightly different structure. This version was released in February 2015 as part of the remastering process of all nine albums.
Additionally, and perhaps most impressively out of the alternative versions of Kashmir, Page and Plant recorded a live 12 minute version with a Moroccan / Egyptian orchestra for their album No Quarter (1994).
As the lyrics begin with the line “Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream”, we are introduced to the narrator, a powerful, mysterious and transcending figure. This audible thought finds the narrator pausing from his travels to soak up the warmth and light from above, figuratively, and perhaps literally, recharging himself. In the following line, “I am a traveller of both time and space, to be where I have been”, we are told that this is a journey of epic proportions, one which transcends the limitations of this dimension, both temporarily and in physical space.
Following this, “To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world had seldom seen” could refer to Revelation 4:4 in the Book of Revelation where John the Apostle is caught up in the heavens and sees the 24 elders seated on their thrones: “And around the throne were twenty-four thrones and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads”. Alternatively, this line and the next three, “They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed, Talk and songs from lifting grace, whose sounds caress my ear, But not a word could I relate, the story was quite clear”, may refer to JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings (1954). Plant was well known to be a fan of Tolkien and often used imagery from his work. Take for instance, the lyrics to Ramble On (Led Zeppelin II, 1969): “Mine’s a tale that can’t be told, My freedom I hold dear, How years ago in days of old, When magic filled the air, ‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair, But Gollum and the evil one crept up, And slipped away with her”.
Additionally, see the song titles, Over the Hills and Far Away (Houses of the Holy, 1973) …
… and Misty Mountain Hop (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971).
Following this, the line “But not a word I heard could I relate, the story was quite clear” is also likely to be a Tolkien reference. In a number of Tolkien’s works, particularly The Silmarillion (1977), it is mentioned that when the elves sing in a language the listener can’t understand, they can sometimes still see the images that they are singing about.
Moving into the bridge section, the lyrics, “Oh, I been flying … mama, there ain’t no denyin’, I’ve been flyin’, ain’t no denyin’, no denyin’” could refer to the band travelling round the world before and during the composition of the song.
In the following lyrics, “All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground, And my eyes fill with sand, as I scan this wasted land, Trying to find, trying to find where I’ve been”, we can clearly see the landscape which inspired Kashmir, “the wastelands” in southern Morocco. Next, “Oh, pilot of the storm who leaves no trace”, perhaps refers to God, whilst following this, “like thoughts inside a dream” refers to the creator of the storm being as hard to visualise as the thought inside one’s dream. The creator is elusive and mysterious but somehow very real.
The “Shangri-La” mentioned in the lines “Heed the path that led me to that place, yellow desert stream, My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again” refers to the fictional paradise from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon (1933). In the novel, Shangri-La is a utopian lamasery high in the mountains of Tibet. Shangri-La is often referred to in the same way that someone would refer to the Garden of Eden. These lines suggest that the narrator of the song s haunted by the memories of the place which he speaks of and is attempting to return.
“Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when movin’ through Kashmir” finds the narrator once again speaking of the dusty road which inspired the song. Following this, the “father of the four winds” mentioned in the following line possibly refers to Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds who is usually depicted as the controller of the Anemoi, the minor wind gods. Alternatively, the “Father of the four winds” could possibly be another Tolkien reference: Manwe, the King of the Valar, from The Silmarillion.
More travel imagery follows with “… fill my sails, across the sea of years, With no provision but an open face, along the straits of fear”. Here, the lyrics once again compliment the utter vastness of the composition, with the narrator, the “traveller of both space and time”, travelling across “years”, unsure of what he will discover on his journey.
The song reaches its climax with Plant singing “… well I’m down so down … let me take you there”. Kashmir speaks of a dark time of reflection, of God, of existence and Plant attempting to find his place in the midst of all of this.
One thing to note about Kashmir is its curious placing on the album. One may expect a song of such monolithic proportions to end the album but it is instead placed, if we were to think of Physical Graffiti as a double vinyl album, at the end of side two. In an interview with The Guardian in 2015, Page said of this:
“Each side of the vinyl was sequenced to showcase whatever was on there, so it wasn’t square pegs in round holes. Any of the four sides could be your favourite side. All of them have an intensity to them, but some have got more rock roots than others. A double album was so right for Zeppelin”.
Similarly, on the vinyl versions of Physical Graffiti, the colossal 11 minute In My Time of Dying closes side one of the album.
Once again speaking to The Guardian, Page said: “Those songs – In My Time of Dying, Kashmir – are supposed to be: That’s it. Nothing follows that. You need time to catch your breath after”.