Music History

Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy turns forty

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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."

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A.H. Goldstein

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