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.
The album kicks off with the guitar-based epic "The Song Remains the Same," a tune that Page originally called "The Campaign." There's a frenzy in Jimmy Page's multiple layers of acoustic and electric guitar, an energy matched in John Bonham's thunderous drums and Robert Plant's musing lyrics about dreams and omniscience. This is the blistering Led Zeppelin behind songs like "Dazed and Confused" and "Whole Lotta Love," but refined by hundreds of arena shows and its role in the international spotlight.
From there, the songs take a decidedly different direction. At nearly eight minutes, "The Rain Song" is a showcase for a different side of Page's work as a guitarist. Slow and steady acoustic strumming works as the intro, along with some of Plant's most unadorned and resonant vocal work.
This leads into textured rounds of orchestral strings and bright piano lines by John Paul Jones, whose multi-instrumental work on the Mellotron turns into the star by the end of the song. "Over the Hills and Far Away," with a lead riff that would turn into a staple for generations of beginning guitar students, followed with a similar dynamic. Page's tasteful beginning acoustic riff blossoms, morphing into a driving, explosive treatment by the rest of the band.
The record only gets more surreal from there. The band tips its hat to James Brown in "The Crunge" and offers more complex and layered instrumental work on "Dancing Days." "D'yer Mak'er," a pun title based on the Englishmen's pronunciation at the word "Jamaica," is a twist on reggae, a genre that was building a cult following in the waning months of 1972. The band joked that Bonham couldn't play a reggae beat, and the tune is a weird kind of hybrid, a pseudo-Rastafarian venture that's still solidly rooted in the Led Zeppelin dynamic.
"No Quarter" is another showcase for Jones's production skills on his newly acquired Mellotron, a tape replay keyboard that provides the eerie melody line at the outset of the tune. Oddly enough, the song also features a bright, acoustic piano solo from Jones, an instrumental stretch that could fit in a lounge act.
The album closes with "The Ocean," a tune Robert Plant titled after the massive crowds that attended Zeppelin's live shows, throngs of young fans that looked like a human sea from the stage. The song starts out in a typical Led Zeppelin fashion, a driving riff propelled by Bonham's savage drumming and Page's forceful guitar. But the tune wraps up with doo-wop backup vocals and riffing from Page, with Plant declaring, "It's so good."
Like most of the band's critical feedback during its career, the reviews for Houses of the Holy was lackluster at best. But the band seemed to know it had produced something special from the very beginning. The tunes from the album would figure into a typical set list during tours in late '72 and early '73, months before the official release of the record.
While Led Zeppelin would go on to start its own label and produce other memorable records, Houses of the Holy came at an apogee for the band. Page would go on to struggle with a serious heroin habit, and Bonham would eventually lose his battle with a legendary addiction to alcohol and drugs. The band's fifth album came right before those tough times.
Led Zeppelin was still at the top of the rock world, defying critics with sold-out arena shows and a consistent showing on the charts. As Zeppelin engineer Eddie Kramer recalls, the first playbacks of the Houses of the Holy tracks at Stargroves brought an immediate response from the entire band:
"I have a very strong vision, from my perspective in the mobile with the doors to the truck wide open, of all four of them dancing in single file on the lawn during the first playback of 'Dancing Days,'" Kramer recalls in Stephen Davis's biography Hammer of the Gods. "It was Robert, Bonzo, Jonesy and Jimmy dancing in a line on a green lawn, celebrating this incredible thing they'd just recorded."