Led Zeppelin was already a record-setting global powerhouse when Atlantic Records released the band's fifth album, Houses of the Holy, on March 28, 1973. The English quartet had laid down the basic tracks for the record in the spring of 1972 at the Rolling Stones' mobile recording studio at Stargroves, a county estate west of London at Berkshire. In the months leading up to the release, Led Zeppelin toured the world, selling out arenas in the United States, Europe and Japan, smashing ticket records set by the Beatles.
"Stairway to Heaven" was quickly turning into a mystic anthem for multitudes of disaffected teens across America, and the toll of the drugs and the lifestyle had yet to truly sink in for guitarist Jimmy Page and drummer John Bonham. Led Zeppelin was at a popular peak, and it seemed they had nowhere else to go creatively.
But with Houses of the Holy, the group charted a new course. The album redefined the band's sound, range and direction moving forward. Even in the midst of the drugs, the groupies and the outfit's Dionysian lifestyle, Led Zeppelin managed to write a powerful new chapter. The record represented a range of firsts for Led Zeppelin when it came out in the spring of 1973:
It was the first Led Zeppelin album with a proper title (the act's first four albums had followed the simple naming convention of Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III and, informally, Led Zeppelin IV). That benchmark remains a bit puzzling, simply because the song "Houses of the Holy," recorded during the Stargroves sessions, didn't make the final cut; it would appear on the 1975 double album, Physical Graffiti.
It was also the first time the band included lyrics on the record sleeve, even though some of the words were purposefully fudged (Robert Plant's references to hell in "The Ocean," for example, were changed to nonsensical gobbledygook). Even the cover art felt like a new step for the band: The front sleeve showed a group of naked blond children crawling up a Neolithic stone formation on the Hebrides islands. The interior art depicted a distant figure of a naked man standing in front of mossy ruins; he's holding up one of the children in a ceremonial gesture of sacrifice. It took months to finalize that artwork; indeed, changes to the cover design ended up delaying the release.
But the watershed moments on Houses of the Holy went much deeper than album titles or packaging design. The final Led Zeppelin release on the Atlantic label broke from the patterns established on the band's first four records. Gone were the direct tributes to Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and other American blues masters, like "You Shook Me," "The Lemon Song" and "Since I've Been Loving You." Absent also were the ambitious experimentation of III and the fantastical, mythic themes of IV.
The songs produced at Stargroves and later refined at Olympic and Electric Lady studios went beyond straight-ahead tributes and muddy mysticism. Page's guitar work was more layered. Plant's vocals were direct and unadorned. Bonham found new ways to be monstrous on his drum kit, and John Paul Jones took the first steps beyond his previous role as a bassist and keyboard player operating in the background.