THE YEAR was 1973. Led Zeppelin was the biggest band on the planet. Having already unleashed four monumental classics of hard rock legend – relentless electric riffage that launched a million garage bands – they were faced with a sudden, but not entirely unforeseen, predicament. There was no going back from ‘Stairway to Heaven’, no going back from “the fourth album”; like other bands before and after them, Zeppelin had to make the record after the stone-cold classic that ultimately defined them in the eyes of most fans.
Houses of the Holy was released on the eve of an American tour that would see them play 36 shows in two months, break The Beatles’ Shea Stadium attendance record (56,800 paying fans at Tampa) and film the three Madison Square Garden finales that would become the bulk of their concert movie, The Song Remains the Same. The tour was a mammoth one, and the strain on Robert Plant’s voice from his wild caterwauling slowly began to take its toll; it would be the last tour before a vocal cord operation robbed him of the higher echelons of his ferocious, berserker range.
But none of that is evident from Holy’s opening salvo; originally called ‘The Overture’, then ‘The Campaign’, the track – and the album as a whole – opens at a breakneck pace, heralded by Jimmy Page’s jangling fanfare, with John Paul Jones and John Bonham in perfect syncopation on bass and drums. There’s a full minute and a half before Plant’s keening vocals come in as the band slip into half-time; slightly sped up on the album release, his singing is an ethereal invocation for the universality of music as a whole, evinced by lines like, “California sunlight / Sweet Calcutta rain / Honolulu starbright / The song remains the same.”
It was the first time that Zeppelin had started an album at such a ferocious pace from the opening note; even ‘Black Dog’ or ‘Immigrant Song’ weren’t this fast. It’s utterly thrilling, buoyed by a sublime rhythm section at the peak of their powers. ‘The Song…’ fades, on its last ringing chord, into ‘The Rain Song’, a gorgeous, swelling track that acts as the pastoral companion to ‘Stairway’. The structure is much the same – Page delicately plucking an Open G-tuned acoustic, this time layered with electric guitar, adding Plant’s gentle vocals, lyrics peppered with seasonal imagery; add in Jones’ piano and mellotron, beautifully imitating a string section, before Bonham’s drums emerge, first with brushes, then with sticks, for a rousing, triumphant conclusion.
Then it all comes back down for a recapitulation of the verse, Page soloing us out, and back in, to the full, rich, acoustic hammer-ons of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. Evoking the homely trappings of Led Zeppelin III, the song soars into electric chugging at the minute-and-a-half mark, Page delivering one of his strangest yet finest solos over a deliciously precise bass accompaniment. It’s the perfect blend of the ‘light and shade’ that Page had always espoused for the band, simultaneously proving his considerable chops as a producer – the acoustic sound is some of the best-captured in recorded history.
‘The Crunge’ shuffles in next, on a joyously leaden Bonham beat. The first of two “joke songs” on the album, it serves as undeniable proof that Zeppelin could properly have a bit of fun when they weren’t carousing with Vikings and shredding out (astonishing) 30-minute versions of ‘Dazed and Confused’ on-stage. A play on James Brown and funk in general, with Plant asking after “that confounded bridge”, it’s a pervasively enjoyable jam, with Jones chiming in on a delicious bass lick and cheesy synth.
The second “joke song” is ‘D’yer Mak’er’, an embarrassingly bad pun on a joke about Jamaica, immediately indicating this is Zeppelin’s take on reggae, as was ‘The Crunge’ with funk. Derided by Jones in the years since, the track is a harmless ditty that, though rather undeveloped, is played with enthusiasm by the ensemble who clearly wanted to have a bit of a laugh. Whether this merited inclusion over, say, the title track of the album that eventually wound up on Physical Graffiti is another matter, but it’s ultimately further evidence of Zeppelin’s cavalier determination to experiment.
That willingness is clear to hear in ‘No Quarter’, a broodingly sombre piece that’s lead by Jones with murky keys on both electric and acoustic piano. Inspired by the death of his father, he leads the quartet through a trudging, uncertain soundscape, as indebted to Viking legend as it is to the Louisiana swamps. It was the closest to jazz and full-blown progressive rock that Zeppelin would ever get to, and it’s all down to Jones’ fathomless musical abilities.
Page’s soloing is merely supplementary here; he’s only throwing colour on Jones’ keys. So powerful is ‘No Quarter’ that, even 43 years later, it chills to the bone. In subsequent live performances, Jones would lead the band through improvisatory passages of Rachmaninov and ‘Amazing Grace’, extending the original seven minute song to, at times, 35 minutes. It’s a testament to Jones’ talent that none of it bores.
‘Dancing Days’ and ‘The Ocean’ are two-of-a-kind; to conflate the two is only natural, given that they’re basically the same song – rip-roaring, riff-heavy, harkening back to the Zeppelin of yore. While the former is pretty standard fare for the group – and still better than 90% of bands’ best efforts – the latter is notable for an acapella middle section, from which Plant would lead fans (the “ocean” of the title) and the rest of the band in chorus. And then the coda explodes, the band in full doo-wop mode as Page shreds effortlessly, with Plant improvising wildly over the top.
Pure Zeppelin. That’s what Houses of the Holy is – an invitation to rock n’ roll and have a fucking good time in the process. It’s the vital fifth step between The Fourth Album and Physical Graffiti, their crowning masterpiece and, to this writer, the greatest album of all time. Though sandwiched between their two biggest albums, Holy acquits itself with flying colours, easily matching – and in many cases, surpassing – their earlier work.