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‘Houses Of The Holy’: Behind Led Zeppelin’s Roof-Raising Classic Album
In Depth

‘Houses Of The Holy’: Behind Led Zeppelin’s Roof-Raising Classic Album

Diverse and confident, ‘Houses Of The Holy’ is an impressive follow-up to Led Zeppelin’s monolithic fourth album.

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After the release of their illustrious untitled fourth album (usually referred to as “Led Zeppelin IV”), Led Zeppelin became bona fide superstars. Released in November 1971 and featuring the band’s epic signature song, Stairway To Heaven, that monolithic record topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and eventually moved over 20 million copies in the US, but it also left Led Zeppelin feeling intense pressure when it came to recording their fifth album, Houses Of The Holy.

“We felt that pressure, but though everyone was clamouring for another ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, it’s very dangerous to try and duplicate yourself,” Jimmy Page acknowledged in Light And Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page. “I won’t name any names, but I’m sure you’ve heard bands that endlessly repeat themselves. After four or five albums, they just burn up. With us, you never knew what was coming next.”

Listen to Houses Of The Holy here.

“Page had a very clear idea of what he wanted”

Despite experiencing stratospheric levels of stardom, Led Zeppelin were still hungry to create new music, so while they embarked on a lengthy world tour following the release of “Led Zeppelin IV”, they began informal rehearsals shortly after returning to the UK in 1972. Initial get-togethers took place in Puddletown, in Dorset, before the band discovered a suitable out-of-studio location for more intensive work. This residential approach had worked wonders when they decamped to Hampshire’s Headley Grange to lay down much of “Led Zeppelin IV”, but this time Zeppelin settled on Stargroves, a country mansion in Hampshire owned by Mick Jagger.

To assist them in their quest, Page and co rehired Eddie Kramer, the highly respected studio engineer renowned for his work with Jimi Hendrix and also on Led Zeppelin II. Kramer was excited to discover that Page and John Paul Jones had recently installed their own home studios, which meant they arrived at Stargroves with fully-arranged demo versions of several new songs, including Over The Hills And Far Away and No Quarter.

Energised, confident and with their creative juices flowing, the band hired The Rolling Stones’ mobile recording truck for the sessions and Kramer was more than happy to indulge their experimental approach.

“We were going for ambient sound, so we utilised every aspect of the house and its grounds we could,” the engineer recalled for Louder in 2017. “I remember putting a Fender amp in the fireplace and putting a mic up in there, while everyone’s gear was in different rooms. There was no CCTV, but I put talkback mics all around, so people could yack to each other.”

“The album where John Paul Jones stepped out of the shadows”

Houses Of The Holy’s hard-edged rock songs were clearly influenced by the band’s experiences while traversing the globe. Robert Plant’s poetic lyrics remembered “California sunlight/Sweet Calcutta rain/Honolulu starbright” during the album’s opening cut, the shape-throwing, Who-esque The Song Remains The Same, while the ragas Page and Plant heard during their brief sojourn to India in 1971 infiltrated both Page’s sinewy riffs and the melodies’ Eastern slant on the insistent Dancing Days. Meanwhile, the album’s grandstanding closing song, The Ocean, found Plant acknowledging Zeppelin’s ever-growing and faithful army of fans (“Singing to an ocean/I can hear the ocean’s roar”) who were now packing out the world’s biggest auditoriums.

Elsewhere, the band fearlessly explored new genres on the slippery, James Brown-esque funk of The Crunge and the light-hearted, reggae-influenced D’Yer Maker, with the latter song (later a surprise US Top 20 hit) copping its title from an old English music-hall gag: “My wife’s gone on holiday.” “Jamaica?” “No, she went of her own accord.”

Eddie Kramer later praised John Bonham’s majestic drumming on D’Yer Maker (“You could record him on a cigarette lighter and he would still have sounded fantastic”, he told Record Collector), while the engineer also acknowledged that John Paul Jones came into his own on Houses Of The Holy’s towering ballads, The Rain Song and the enigmatic, keyboard-driven No Quarter.

“This was definitely the album where Jonesy stepped out of the shadows,” Kramer told Louder. “I knew him from before Led Zeppelin, when he was a session musician. He was a superb arranger who could conduct an orchestra while playing bass with one hand. I once saw him do that. The Mellotron he plays on The Rain Song is what lifts the track to another emotional level. And the piano, which he also plays, is like raindrops, or maybe teardrops. I don’t think they’ve ever done a track so subtle before. It’s quite beautiful – and No Quarter is his personal showcase.”

“There was a unity of spirit and a direction of sound”

Issued in an eerie, Grammy-nominated sleeve – designed by Hipgnosis’ Aubrey Powell, and standing as one of the most memorable Led Zeppelin album coversHouses Of The Holy was first released on 28 March 1973. Its eclectic mix of material initially divided the critics, though positive retrospectives (among them Pitchfork’s declaration that “Houses Of The Holy might be Zeppelin’s most impressive album on a purely sonic level”) have significantly restored its reputation as an essential album.

Not that Led Zeppelin’s ardent fanbase ever doubted the record’s worth – and they came out in force, ensuring Houses Of The Holy topped both the UK and US charts, spending two weeks at No.1 on the Billboard 200 during an impressive 39-week run. The fact it eventually moved over ten million copies in the US vindicated Led Zeppelin’s inherent belief that they could experiment and still take their fans with them – an approach which again bore fruit on their next record, the landmark double-album Physical Graffiti.

“There was a unity of spirit and a unity of direction of sound,” Eddie Kramer later told Louder. “A lot of that had to do with Pagey and the fact he had a very clear idea of what he wanted… The whole album had a very upbeat quality to it.”

‘Houses Of The Holy’, Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

The Song Remains The Same

A fitting opener to one of the best Led Zeppelin albums, The Song Remains The Same grew out of a Jimmy Page instrumental known as The Overture, with Robert Plant adding lyrics that related to life on the road as one of the best rock bands in the world, conquering arenas wherever they went (“California sunlight/Sweet Calcutta rain/Honolulu star bright, the song remains the same”). The song simply roars out of the traps, with Page’s power chords urged on by John Bonham and John Paul Jones’ surging rhythm section, and it makes for one of rock’s most explosive curtain raisers.

The Rain Song

After the pyrotechnics of The Song Remains The Same, the seven-minute The Rain Song provides a welcome oasis of calm. Famously written in response to George Harrison’s gripe that Led Zeppelin “never did any ballads”, the band rubbed their response in further by adopting the same opening chord sequence Harrison used for his Abbey Road classic, Something. From thereon in, however, Led Zeppelin turned The Rain Song into a courtly, contemplative ballad with an enigmatic quality that stands apart among the best Led Zeppelin songs. Drawing upon the changing of the seasons and the elusive qualities of love, Plant’s poetic lyric (“This is the mystery of the quotient/Upon us all, a little rain must fall”) proved the ideal foil for the band’s sweeping performance, enhanced to near-perfection by Jones’ Mellotron-derived strings.

Over The Hills And Far Away

Over The Hills And Far Away dated back to Plant and Page’s fecund rural writing sessions at Bron-Yr-Aur, the remote North Wales cottage the pair rented in 1970 to prepare most of the material for Led Zeppelin III. Rather like that record’s Gallows Pole, Over The Hills And Far Away was instilled with a quiet-loud dynamic, albeit one stemming from one of Page’s more languid acoustic guitar figures. Plant’s vivid lyrics speak of a rambling minstrel with a wandering eye (“Many times I’ve loved and many times been bitten/Many times I’ve gazed along the open road”) while the band get the balance bang on, doling out light and shade in equal measure.

The Crunge

Developing out of a jam at Stargroves which was based on an odd, cyclical Bonham beat stopping just short of funk, The Crunge also featured an improvised Plant lyric which deliberately parodied James Brown’s onstage direction to his musicians (“Take it to the bridge!”) as his own bandmates change gear during the song. Entirely tongue-in-cheek, with the emphasis on fun rather than funk per se, The Crunge was an experiment Led Zeppelin enjoyed, and they even unleashed it onstage on occasion – usually as part of a medley within a 20-plus-minute version of Dazed And Confused.

Dancing Days

After Led Zeppelin toured Australia and New Zealand early in 1972, Plant and Page had intended to visit Singapore, yet the country notoriously refused them entry on the grounds of the length of their hair. India, however, was happy to welcome travelling rock royalty, and the Zeppelin stars touched down in Mumbai (then Bombay) in March 1972. The city’s culture fascinated both men, and an Indian influence is easy to detect in Dancing Days, a supple yet sturdy rocker driven by Page’s snaky, raga-like guitar riffs. Showcasing one of Houses Of The Holy’s most assured performances, Dancing Days reputedly pleased the band so much that studio engineer Eddie Kramer recalled them dancing around the garden at Stargroves while they listened to a playback of the final mix.

D’yer Mak’er

Another song deriving from jocular, light-hearted jamming, D’yer Mak’er sprang from an attempt to marry two highly unlikely bedfellows – reggae and doo-wop. Jimmy Page later confirmed this MO, telling Trouser Press that the song was “a cross between reggae and a 50s number, [Ricky Nelson’s] Poor Little Fool, or Ben E King’s things, stuff like that”. On paper, it sounds like quite a leap of faith, though it actually works quite well, with Jones’ skanking piano figures working off Bonham’s thunderous beats to create something unique in the Led Zeppelin canon. In keeping with the song’s flavour, the song’s slightly cheesy title came from a play on the word “Jamaica” when spoken in an English accent, but D’yer Mak’er’s broad appeal rewarded the band with a surprise US Top 20 hit.

No Quarter

Very much a showcase for John Paul Jones, the keyboard-led No Quarter dated back to the sessions for “Led Zeppelin IV”, though Jones significantly reworked the original idea, adding electric piano and layers of synths. Jones’ moody epic inspired Plant to write a lyric which – like the Led Zeppelin III classic Immigrant Song – was infused with imagery evoking Vikings and Norse mythology (“The winds of Thor are blowing cold”). A live favourite from the get-go, No Quarter provided a solo showcase for Jones during Led Zeppelin’s live sets, and it continues to inspire. In a 2019 Planet Rock interview, one of the song’s biggest admirers, producer Rick Rubin, said, “It takes such confidence to be able to get really quiet and loose for such a long time. Zeppelin completely changed how we look at what popular music can be.”

The Ocean

Rather like another Led Zeppelin classic, Black Dog, The Ocean pivots around a sinewy riff played in an ambitious time signature (a repeated figure consisting of one bar in standard 4/4 time, followed by another in 7/8) which really shouldn’t work. In practice, though, it not only works like a dream, but it also rocks enthusiastically, too. Just to keep the listener on their toes, the song also includes a little Dion And The Belmonts-esque doo-wop breakdown before surging through a rampant final coda in which Plant exhorts “Oh, sooo good!” just before the song finally climaxes. According to Led Zeppelin biographer Dave Lewis, The Ocean’s title derives from “the sea of heads facing the band in auditoriums”, and the excellent Houses Of The Holy ensured those venues would only increase in size as Led Zeppelin powered on towards their classic double album, Physical Graffiti.

Buy Led Zeppelin vinyl box sets and more, at the Dig! store.

Original article: 28 March 2021

Updated: 28 March 2023

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