Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy': The Story Behind Every Song
Led Zeppelin kicked off their fifth album with a track called "The Song Remains the Same." But that was a lie.
Released on March 28, 1973, Houses of the Holy was anything but the same as its predecessors. Led Zeppelin had established some range by incorporating strains of folk and ringing acoustic majesty amid their blues-steeped heavy rock, but on Houses' eight tracks, the quartet pushed even further - whether on the Jamaican-flavored doo-wop soup of "D'yer Mak'er" or the funky snake-foot of "The Crunge" or the orchestra prog ambitions of "No Quarter." Houses of the Holy had plenty of hard rock for the Zep heads, too, but the overall soundscape of the album was so much broader.
"There was a lot of imagination on that record," Robert Plant acknowledged to High Times in 1991. "I prefer it much more than the fourth album. I think it's much more varied and it has a flippance which showed up again later." He also noted that "there's no place we shouldn’t try and joyfully go" in Barney Hoskins' oral history Trampled Underfoot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin.
House of the Holy certainly found Led Zeppelin flying higher than ever. The fourth album was an unqualified triumph if only for "Stairway to Heaven" but there was much more to it than that. The band Jimmy Page started in 1968 was filling arenas and on its way to stadiums, and you couldn't spend more than an hour listening to an FM rock station without hearing a Zeppelin song.
The spoils of that success helped push the band to experiment on Houses. Page and John Paul Jones had both installed home studios, which allowed them to bring more fully formed tracks to their bandmates. The excesses that would ultimately render Zeppelin inconsistent in concert had not yet sunk their claws into the band, so when the jamming began - during February 1972 in Dorset, England, and then in May at Mick Jagger's home, Stargroves, in Hampshire - the four were as hot as ever.
That combination of preparedness and ad hoc energy made the Houses sessions magic, even as they moved on to Olympic Studios in London and, later, Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady in New York for finishing touches with new engineer Eddie Kramer. (It should be remembered that the prodigious sessions also produced songs such as "The Rover," "Black Country Woman" and the song "Houses of the Holy," which all surfaced on 1975's Physical Graffiti, "Walter's Walk" for 1982's Coda and reportedly a set of Elvis Presley songs and other '50s rock favorites recorded at Electric Lady.)
Critics, as usual, drew their swords when the album -- whose release was delayed to get the memorable, and Grammy Award-nominated, Hipgnosis cover just right -- came out. Rolling Stone predictably dubbed the outing a "limp blimp" and "one of the dullest and most confusing albums." It was "a clunker," "inconsistent" and "strangely sluggish" to other outlets declaring Houses a holy mess. The fans weren't entirely sure what to make of it either but still got behind the set; it was Zeppelin's third No. 1 album in the U.S. (eventually certified Diamond for more than 10 million copies sold) and fourth consecutive chart-topper in the U.K. "D'yer Mak'er" even made it to No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, only the third Top 20 hit for the notoriously singles-averse band.
And the 1973 North American tour, following a month's worth of arena dates in Europe, began six weeks after the LP's release with sold-out stadium dates in Atlanta and Tampa for a combined total of nearly 100,000.
We take the microscope to each of the polarizing album's eight tracks below and have a bit of celebration day for a release that, over time, has achieved a deservedly iconic status in the rock pantheon.
"The Song Remains the Same"
Page had constructed an instrumental piece called "The Overture" in his home studio, and its majestic, sweeping attack inspired Plant to write lyrics about the experience of being on tour, which prompted an initial title change to "The Campaign." The layers of guitars, both six- (Fender Telecaster) and 12-(Rickenbacker)string, sounded like an orchestral army, propelled by the dependably sturdy backing of Jones and drummer John Bonham. To recreate it live, Page would employ his famed red Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck that he used in "Stairway to Heaven." It was one of several Houses tracks Zeppelin would preview on tour, giving "The Song Remains the Same" its premiere in October 1972 in Japan and keeping it in the set through the summer of 1975.
"The Rain Song"
When George Harrison sniped that Led Zeppelin didn't do ballads, Page came up with this answer, written almost in its entirety in his home studio as well. It even borrows opening notes from the Beatles' Harrison-penned hit "Something." It had the working title "Slush" as Jones worked up an orchestra of simulated string parts on a Mellotron. The track - weighing in at a "Stairway"-like 7:39 - also features the usually bombastic Bonham deploying drums and Page playing his electric parts on a Danelectro, mixing different tunings to add to its sonic richness. It's certainly among Plant's finest vocal performances. It's the most prog-leaning track Led Zeppelin had recorded to date, a restrained meander that staked some genuinely fresh territory.
"Over the Hills and Far Away"
Another Zeppelin staple to emerge from Houses of the Holy, "Over the Hills and Far Away" had roots in "White Summer," an acoustic guitar solo Page played in Yardbirds that was part of Led Zeppelin's early live sets and was something he and Plant began toying with during 1970 in Wales, at the cottage in Bron-Yr-Aur where they were writing Led Zeppelin III. Page keeps the acoustic going throughout the track, even when it blasts off into full-throttle electric nirvana after the first verse. The song was known as "Many, Many Times" for a while, and Plant blended inspirations from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and from the nomadic hippie lifestyles he saw taking place in the U.S. during Zeppelin's early tours there ("Many times I've gazed along the open road"). "Over the Hills and Far Away." was the first single released from Houses of the Holy, reaching No. 51. The band previewed the song months earlier, during its U.S. tour dates in 1972.
One of the most polarizing tracks on Houses of the Holy, this group-written track that closed Side One began with a Bonham beat that inspired Page to play a funky riff. For the lyrical pattern, Plant channeled some inner James Brown, right down to asking "Where's the bridge?" about Brown's "Take It to the Bridge." (Plant's line, "Ain’t' gonna call me Mr. Pitiful / No, I don't need no respect from anybody," pays tribute to the Otis Redding and his songs "Mr. Pitiful" and "Respect.") The joke here is it's a dance song you can't dance to, and the band members freely acknowledged that the track was a sendup, "a giggle," as Page referred to it. There were even thoughts about including a diagram of dance steps in the album's packaging, but the idea was later abandoned. Page would occasionally slip the main riff into extended solos, both with Led Zeppelin and at solo performances, and "The Crunge" lived on thanks to samples by Double D and Steinski ("Lesson 3 - The History of Hip Hop Mix") in 1985 and De La Soul's "The Magic Number" four years later.
The second-oldest idea on Houses - it was performed as early as November 1971 at the Electric Magic show in England - "Dancing Days" was inspired by Indian music Page and Plant heard during their travels in Bombay and was among the most lighthearted and direct songs the group ever recorded. They were so happy with it that engineer Kramer spoke about watching the ebullient four members dancing in line on the lawn at Stargroves as the track played from the Rolling Stones Mobile recording unit. Among the joys is hearing Page lace slide guitar over the main riff, which created a degree of challenge in recreating the song live. Even though it was released commercially as the B-side of "Over the Hills and Far Away," "Dancing Days" was the first Houses of the Holy song made for radio play, with promotional discs distributed to radio stations. BBC Radio One had the honor of premiering it on March 24, 1973, during its midday program, just four days before Houses of the Holy came out. Bobby Brown sampled Page's riff on his hit 1992 single "Humpin' Around" during some different kinds of dancing days.
A head-scratcher for fans and critics, maybe even for the band itself, "D'Yer Mak'er" was considered another "giggle" by the band. It certainly displays some advanced musical ambition, as Bonham twisted a beat between '50s doo-wop and reggae (which Kramer captured by positioning microphones a distance away from the drums in a glass-walled conservatory at Stargroves), with some influence from Ricky Nelson's 1958 hit "Poor Little Fool." It sounds like, and is, a bit of a mess, but one that appealed to listeners beyond the band's established fan base: The song hit No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, only the fourth track by the notoriously singles-averse Zeppelin to reach that high. Page was surprised by the polarization over the song, however, telling Trouser Press that he "didn't expect people not to get it. I thought it was pretty obvious." So what does the title mean? While some thought it was a reference to a sexual encounter, more authoritative sources confirmed it was a way of saying "Jamaica" based on the island nation's distinct pronunciation.
Jones birthed this ethereal opus during sessions for Led Zeppelin's fourth album, though it didn't have much traction at the time. He continued working on it in his home studio, slowing it down from its original version and brought it to the band for Houses of the Holy, where it fits the band's more experimental philosophy. It provided a showcase for Jones' piano playing and, in concert, provided a vehicle for improvisations that extended 20 minutes or more. "No Quarter" was nevertheless a fan favorite that Page and Plant revived for their No Quarter: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Unledded project in 1994, and it's been memorably covered by Tool, the Flaming Lips, Gov't Mule and Dread Zeppelin.
"The Ocean" ends Led Zeppelin's stylistic adventurous LP back on terra firma, with a stomping blues-rock riff that at times recalls "Good Times Bad Times" from their debut and boasts some clever Easter eggs before we ever called them that. You can hear Plant refer to his daughter Carmen, as "the girl who won my heart," in the song's last line, and Bonham and Jones make rare backing vocal contributions to "doo-wop," also sung near the end. And just over a minute and a half into the track you can hear a telephone ringing. Lyrically "The Ocean" is Plant's metaphor for the sea of bodies regularly coming out to see the band, though there's also a reference to blues legend Robert Johnson as "the hellhound," referring to his legendary deal to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for fame - which Led Zeppelin mythology claims Page, Plant and Bonham did as well. Another Houses of the Holy song that became a staple, "The Ocean" was later sampled by Beastie Boys for "She's Crafty" on their No. 1 1986 album, Licensed to Ill.