History is often not as judicious in granting sympathy to the album that follows a classic. As great as the Beatles’ “White Album” is, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is typically the starting off point for lists about the greatest albums of all time, due in large part to its placement atop Rolling Stone‘s top 500. The mystique behind Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon casts a shadow over the superior Wish You Were Here. Chatrooms dedicated to progressive rock are more likely to have exuberant praise for In the Court of the Crimson King rather than In the Wake of Poseidon. And, perhaps in the greatest case of all, there’s the wake left by 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV, also known as Zoso, also known as “the Led Zeppelin album most people forget is unnamed”. That record, covered in the fall of 2011 in an excellent Between the Grooves series by AJ Ramirez, is certainly a deserved legend; to imagine Zeppelin without “Stairway to Heaven” is damn near impossible. But what came after Zoso was an album that to this day is still a top contender for Zeppelin’s best work: Houses of the Holy.
Debates about what is or isn’t the best in Zeppelin’s oeuvre could go on for days, with many defending obvious choices like Zoso and some going out on a limb to redeem the material typically deemed inferior to the major works, like Presence (1976). The point of this series here is not to engage in such fanboy argumentation; instead, my purpose here is to provide a close listening of an album that faces a lofty obstacle that really any Zeppelin LP faces: comparison to Zoso. For Houses of the Holy it is an especially difficult obstacle, given that it directly followed that incredible record.
But more importantly, few albums demand a track-by-track evaluation as much as Houses of the Holy does. The discography of Led Zeppelin is broad and diverse, and fewer of its works encompass that fact as much as HOTH. Sure, Zep’s career had weirder experiments than anything present here—the hilarious rockabilly jam “Hot Dog” from In Through the Out Door (1979) comes to mind—but no other of its LPs integrate unity and diversity in the way than this record did. The medieval folk for which the band has become legendary is in full force here; it might be said this record finds Zeppelin at its most mystical. At times, Robert Plant sounds like a shaman calling forth the end of days, and when material from Houses of the Holy was performed during Zeppelin’s legendary “Celebration Day” concert in 2007, in his old age he certainly looked the part.
This is plainly evident from the iconic sleeve art, which depicts several naked children—if one could even call them that—ascending an artistic rendering of the basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to some monument far ahead. When the gatefold of the vinyl LP is opened, a picture of a man lifting a child up to a shining light is revealed; a strange act of sacrifice? Of worship? It’s hard to tell, and the lyrics to Houses of the Holy give no indication as to what this pagan art might indicate. If one looks an album later (1975’s Physical Graffiti) to the delayed title track of Houses of the Holy, no clear signs are given either. Some references to “Satan’s daughter” are made, and if one stretches the lyrics far enough a semi-plausible reading could be made. In the end, however, such an endeavor is moot; the allure of Houses of the Holy‘s sleeve art is in its enigmatic nature, and it further shrouds the LP in the mystique that makes it such a tantalizing record to engage with.
1. “The Song Remains the Same”
“The Song Remains the Same”, the album’s triumphant opener introduces this overlooked classic with a joyous ode to music’s universal language.
This mystique, however, fades for but a moment as “The Song Remains the Same” kicks things off. Jimmy Page introduces a simple, repeated D note on the guitar which is interrupted by staccato chords on alternating beats. Then, when the song picks up with the rest of the band joined in, an undeniably positive mood is created. Plant’s lyrics, however cheesily inspirational they may be, are especially effective in this creation: “People won’t you listen now? / Sing along!” And, given how joyous his delivery is, it’s hard not to join in. “The Song Remains the Same” is the ultimate song to start almost anything off: an album, a road trip, an international expedition — an equally apt title for it would have been “Beginning”. This mood is beautifully expressed by one of Plant’s better couplets: “California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain / Honolulu starbright—the song remains the same”.
That feeling of universality is to be expected in a song like this. Coming off of Zoso, the members of Led Zeppelin had turned into full-blown international stars, something that would become even more true when touring for Houses of the Holy, where they would take in some of their biggest concert receipts. When Plant sings of “City lights oh so bright as we go sliding through”, the image of the band members’ faces painted with streetlights as their bus cruises a major city is immediately evoked. The experiences of the road, of meeting fans on a global scale, are things that undeniably changed Zeppelin’s music. There are probably many reasons why Zeppelin chose to name its first live album after this song, but the lyrics to the song itself are probably reason enough; it’s an incredible testament to the universality of not just Zep’s music, but the experience of music as a whole. “The Song Remains the Same” is a reminder of how Led Zeppelin are the one of the key participants in that experience.
It’s fitting, then, that the song gets a spot both on the live album of the same name (1976), as well as the just-released Celebration Day double LP. As a live track, it’s essential Zeppelin. The energy it possesses is formidable, and though it’s far from the heaviest thing Zeppelin ever wrote, it’s certainly one of the group’s most propulsive efforts. Part of this has to do not just with the lyrics, but also the arrangement. Page lays on guitar track atop guitar track here, mixing both six- and 12-string guitars. In doing so, Page brings an almost symphonic quality to these proceedings: Houses of the Holy‘s own overture. And while there’s little else that sounds like “The Song Remains the Same” on Houses of the Holy, it’s nonetheless as fitting an opener as this — or really any — record could ask for.
2. “The Rain Song”
Though you’re rarely going to hear anyone place “The Rain Song” in a shortlist of Led Zeppelin’s best songs, it might just be the most beautiful—if not the best—thing these Brits ever performed. No other song on Houses of the Holy matches how utterly captivating it is.
Too frequently, writers—especially those who write reviews of film, music, or literature—are told to be “objective”. People have a tendency to want not just an opinion embellished with 2400 SAT-level language and an endless supply of name-drops; they expect writers to take a step back and give a work of art fair treatment, using notions of objective goodness or badness in determining whether or not that work of art deserves a positive or negative review. Otherwise, this line of reasoning holds, people will be publishing nothing more than well-worded rants and raves; journalism and criticism are supposed to have higher standards than that.
Now, I won’t argue the childish claim that “all art is good art”, which swings too far the other way on the continuum of subjectivity and objectivity. However, I will say that insistence on being “as objective as possible”—reaching for a sort of artistic “view from nowhere”, to borrow Thomas Nagel’s phrase—cannot ever be done. The host of logical and pragmatic barriers in an insistence on objectivity are obvious: as the wise Angry Metal Guy wisely put it, “If we consider that objectivity is something quantifiable, testable and that we are able to really able to work with repeatedly and come up with the same results again and again, then objectivity is not possible in the subjective judgments of reviewers.”
If I could plug in an album — say, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy — into some pre-determined artistic theorem or formula and spit out a judgment that I would then describe in a full-length review, my job wouldn’t be very fun. I would cease being a reviewer and become a transcriber instead. Moreover, no one experiences art in this “objective” way; before us high-minded critics begin writing out our thoughts in long, ambling essays and reviews—not unlike this one, some might say—we experience music through means of pure enjoyment. When I first heard Houses of the Holy, I didn’t think to myself, “Jimmy Page’s folk-rooted guitar playing on ‘Over the Hills and Far Away'” really demonstrates the influence of medieval music on Zeppelin’s sound”; I thought to myself, “This is a damn good song”, and I turned the volume up.
The truth is, whether people like it or not, some music means so much to a particular reviewer that “being objective” just doesn’t make sense. Some art demands that the viewer makes it personal based on his or her experience. For me, a key example of this is “The Rain Song”, the second track on Houses of the Holy. Despite how much I love heavy music—especially the heavier aspects of Zeppelin’s discography—I have not come back to a Zeppelin song more than I have “The Rain Song”. My defense of “The Rain Song” as the best Zeppelin song ever written has to work against a considerable uphill battle: it’s a track that few ever talk about when discussing Zeppelin’s greatest works, it appears on only one of the group’s live albums and none of its greatest hits compilations, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a low-key ballad that relies on weather metaphors. Rock ‘n’ roll, many might conclude, it ain’t.
But while it may not rock in the way that “Black Dog” or “Ramble On” does, it’s so utterly gorgeous and captivating it’s hard to believe it’s not the object of gushing adoration by the leagues of Zeppelin fans globally. You won’t ever hear it uttered in the same breath as “Stairway to Heaven”, but that doesn’t make it any less strong of a track.
After a complete listening of Houses of the Holy, “The Rain Song” immediately stands out by virtue of being the record’s only ballad. Houses of the Holy is frequently labeled Zeppelin’s most creative LP—or, in the words of detractors, “scattershot”—which means that the fast/slow ballad/rocker dynamic is completely absent, another testament to the album’s greatness. For this same reason, though, there aren’t many tracks that one would describe as “beautiful” in the commonly used sense. With the experimentation here shifting between folk, reggae, funk, and ominous rock, the band doesn’t stick within one genre enough to wring out all the beauty it could. “The Rain Song”, however, definitely fits the label. Both the lush studio version and the subdued live incarnation on The Song Remains the Same are career highlights for the group.
The first thing that’s striking about “The Rain Song” is the layering of the guitar tracks. It opens with slowly strummed, jazz-accented chords played on a six-string guitar; then, a 12-string kicks in, re-creating the symphonic effect heard on “The Song Remains the Same”. Right before Robert Plant’s vocals kick in, the jazz stylings of the guitar become more obvious as a glissando chord glides into the tranquil verses. For the majority of the song, the guitar work is very subdued: individual arpeggios are faintly plucked, chords are left to shimmer and echo, and the fingerpicking is ever so delicate. When the thunderous finale kicks in—especially potent in the live version—it’s like the band has finally arrived at the mountaintop. John Bonham’s drumming is absolutely marvelous; though he’s largely absent here, his brief involvement is crucial to driving the power of the song home.
But as fantastic as the guitar work is on “The Rain Song”, a single ingredient really enhances all the other instruments: Mellotron. That tape-based keyboard instrument, the ultimate tool in the prog-rock musician’s toolbox, is utilized to maximum effect here, creating a sweeping, mournful background to Jimmy Page’s legato guitar. “The Rain Song” isn’t a song of sadness—if anything, it evokes sitting next to a window as rain pitter-patters down the glass—but the Mellotron brings out an introspective, melancholy mood that amps up the overall gorgeousness. The Mellotron is an interesting instrument in this respect; though it lacks the “real-ness” of a string section, its unique, almost ghastly quality still carries the imprint of the strings it samples, while also morphing the sound into what essentially amounts to an entirely different instrument. When combined with the symphonic interplay of Page’s guitar tracks, it creates something of a pseudo-symphony, a garden fantasia that teems with beauty both artificial and natural.
Plant’s lyrics here, while far from his best, are nonetheless wonderful in the context of this song; it’s easier to see the worn framing device of “It was the springtime of . . .” followed by “It is the summer of . . .” as incredibly poignant when its background is as richly orchestrated and arranged as this one. Whereas “No Quarter” evokes the Lord of the Rings-type lore that was in the foreground on cuts like “The Battle of Evermore” from Zoso, “The Rain Song” uses slight allusions to mythical characters—”Keepers of the Gloom”—to underscore a simple weather metaphor. Weather here is about emotion: “Upon us all a little rain must fall”, Plant sings, a slightly more poetic way of saying, “We’re all a little blue sometimes.” Emotion may be a banal topic in the broad sense, but since the instrumentation of “The Rain Song” is positively dripping of emotion, it’s an understandable place for Plant to go.
On the live version of this track, things take a much quieter turn. Page, the only guitarist on stage when this is being performed, is constrained in his ability to recreate the orchestral effect caused by the mixture of six- and 12-string guitars. But rather than play pre-recordings in addition to his solo guitar, he takes things down a notch, playing the song only on a six-string. This minor change makes a world of difference; on The Song Remains the Same DVD, which provides the best example of “The Rain Song’s” live transformation, it’s as if every note played by Page rings perfectly clear.
People may point to the litany of his excellent guitar solos when instructing aspiring guitar players (but, of course, no “Stairway” allowed!), but this song is just as much a masterclass of guitar playing as any of Zeppelin’s other rock riffs. Another basic but hugely important move made by Page here is a shift in tuning: whereas the studio version of “The Rain Song” is tuned a step down from standard pitch, in its live incarnation the guitarist needs to tune-up, creating a much brighter sound. It’s by no means a tricky move, but it is hugely important in creating a specific aura in the live setting, an essential part to making a live take on a track stand out from the slickly-produced studio master.
So there you have it. I’ve exhausted my list of superlatives, praises, and adorations for “The Rain Song”. It’s about as objective as I can be in describing it. I don’t view it as a bad thing, as I said at the beginning of this essay; the rigid confines of objectivity cannot always hold in what a writer truly needs to say about a particular work of art. Of the handful of songs and albums, I consider deeply personal to my growth not just as a music writer but as a listener, “The Rain Song” will always hold an important place, as it was in classic rock that I started to find my calling as a writer.
Whenever I hear the sublime outro to this song—a peaceful bit of acoustic guitar work that countless metal bands would later go on to emulate—I’m reminded of why Led Zeppelin is such an important group. I don’t forget how important they are when I hear the other material in their impressive discography, but no other song of theirs truly makes me feel that importance. I first heard this song in eighth grade, and all these years later I’ve loved few other pieces of music like it. It isn’t hard to feel Led Zeppelin glowing as it plays these notes.
3. “Over the Hills and Far Away”
The most popular song from Houses of the Holy isn’t the one that stands out as the obvious choice for a single, but that doesn’t mean its place amongst Zeppelin’s revered singles isn’t warranted. Its air of warmth and philosophical openness makes it essential Zeppelin.
After a first listen-through of Houses of the Holy, one isn’t likely to arrive at the conclusion that “Over the Hills and Far Away” would later go on to be the most remembered track from the album. Other songs immediately come off as better choices for a single: “The Ocean” or even “Dancing Days” have a better immediate FM radio appeal. During the record’s 1973 release, the lack of such singles was likely a disappointment to fans who were anticipating a bigger emphasis on rock after the titanic impact of Zoso.
Many were no doubt surprised by the lack of blatantly rockist fare like “Black Dog” or “Rock and Roll”. The blues-rock influence, while not absent from Houses of the Holy, is certainly diminished, with folk elements rising to the forefront. “The Ocean” can be retrospectively (and cynically) read as the one cut on Houses of the Holy to assuage those who disliked the change in direction the album signaled. The diversity found on this LP, while a key fact of its success for those who count it amongst Zeppelin’s best, is often just as easily labeled one of the reasons why it’s sub-par to works like Physical Graffiti or Zoso.
But regardless if one prefers Led Zeppelin with the distortion pedal turned on or off, “Over the Hills and Far Away” has a single quality that makes it an instant classic: warmth. Few other songs in Zeppelin’s catalog possess such an immediate friendliness; both lyrically and musically—especially the former—it’s as welcoming a song as the band ever wrote. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is the spiritual companion to the world music tribute “The Song Remains the Same”, but its embrace of universality spans even wider.
Though at first, the song begins with Robert Plant serenading a nameless woman (“Hey lady / You got the love I need?”), after the first stanza, his language becomes about human experience on the broad scale. It’s as if in his act of wooing a particular individual, he has come to realize his love for all people: “Many have I loved / Many times been bitten / Many times I’ve gazed along the open road”. By the end of the song, Plant’s mind has seemed to drift completely away from the woman he addressed at the beginning; he’s instead become engrossed with the human experience—nebulous though the phrase may be, it’s true of this song—in its perplexing totality.
“Many times I’ve lied / Many times I’ve listened / Many times I’ve wondered how much it is to know”, Plant muses. The question of the limitations of human knowledge—an important discussion in the field of epistemology—extends far beyond the five minutes that “Over the Hills and Far Away” affords, but in the few lines of lyrics Plant does sing, he says a great deal. More importantly, though, he says it honestly: “I live for my dream”, he professes, not before adding the self-deprecating “and a pocketful of gold”. With the stature afforded to Plant and the rest of Led Zeppelin after the four-album succession between their 1969 self-titled LP and Zoso, it’s a wonder he manages to keep talk of money brief. Refreshingly, Plant slips into the role of the wizened philosopher, sitting next to a new friend with whom he has begun sharing his life experiences. Led Zeppelin would finish its studio output four albums later (three if Coda is viewed as a B-sides collection instead of a studio LP), but the refinement that comes with age is at its most evident on Houses of the Holy.
And while it is Plant’s genial grace that is the crux of “Over the Hills and Far Away”, his bandmates do splendidly as well. Keeping in line with “The Song Remains the Same” and “The Rain Song” before it, “Over the Hills and Far Away” showcases Jimmy Page’s six-string and 12-string guitar interplay, an arrangement style that is one of the defining elements of Houses of the Holy. While Guitar Center stores are more commonly plagued with youngsters attempting the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven”, Page’s guitar playing here is some of the best for aspiring guitarists to mimic. The hammered and pulled-off notes (see the opening guitar melody) are a hallmark of his style of guitar playing. His transition from the lead guitar melody to the power chords in the chorus is wonderful, elevating the song from folksy storytelling to road-trip radio jam, with a measure of funk thrown in—after each of Plant’s verses, the band plays a near danceable couple of bars that’s a microcosm of how well these four musicians played off of each other.
To borrow a phrase from the pseudo-philosopher Walter Sobchack, the beauty of “Over the Hills and Far Away’s” composition is in its simplicity. Much like the aphoristic quality of Plant’s lyrics, Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones don’t overstuff this song with layers overdubs or lush orchestrations; since this track has to follow Houses of the Holy‘s most beautiful moment—”The Rain Song”—the band wisely decided to rein in the arrangements. The music here is usually about a single riff or a single groove that happens at a particular time; when the shift happens from the folk guitar of the opening to the sunny rock of the later verses and chorus, it doesn’t feel anything like the suite-like transitions of the group’s great epics. The stylistic changes here aren’t fancy or complex, but they’re perfect in expressing the pensive mindset Plant sings from.
So while “Over the Hills and Far Away” may not pack the punch that the core of Zeppelin’s fan favorites do, to this day it remains a track that anyone who wants to experience Zeppelin for the first time should consider as a starting-off point. For all of the doom, gloom, and quasi-Paganism of its lyrical matter, Zeppelin was always a band about inclusivity and the inherent transcendence of the musical experience, an ethos distilled in its purest form in “Over the Hills and Far Away”. It may not be the cut that insists upon itself during the first listen, but the strength of its philosophical effervescence is such that it’s no wonder it has remained in the memory of Zeppelin fans worldwide more than any other track on Houses of the Holy.
For many, “The Crunge” commences a three-song sequence that makes Houses of the Holy a scattershot mess. We think it’s right about when the fun kicks in.
Once the hills of far away are but bumps and ridges on the rearview mirror of the listener taking the voyage to the Houses of the Holy, things start to get eccentric. Whereas the opening three tracks of the album include Zeppelin standards (“The Song Remains the Same” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”) and underrated gems (“The Rain Song”), the three songs that make up the middle—”The Crunge”, “Dancing Days”, and “D’Yer Mak’er”—are some of the most divisive cuts in the entire Zeppelin discography, especially the latter of the three. To borrow Eric Stoltz’s sly quip from Kicking and Screaming, many these songs “aim for the stars and hit the roof”. Every now and then, critics will throw out the “prog” label when describing these guys, and not without reason; the suite-like composition of epics like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Achilles Last Stand” are still aped by many a Berkelee grad still today.
When shorter, compositionally simpler tracks like “The Crunge” are viewed as small pieces in an overall career arc, they can however be seen as units of progression. The members of Led Zeppelin had already solidified their stance as the golden gods of rock by the time Houses of the Holy was released; not surprisingly, the thought of branching out came to their minds. Progression for progression’s sake is no virtue, but that’s not what is going on in tracks like “The Crunge”, nor is it the sound of a band drunk on the idea of playing the wild card. The James Brown-inspired funk of “The Crunge” isn’t miles off the sonic the group had established for themselves post-Zoso; rather, it’s a creative variation on a theme.
In fact, at the very beginning, “The Crunge” bears a clear similarity to a track that came not but an album before it: “When the Levee Breaks”. That song, the closing chapter of Zoso, has become famous not for its merits as a song—although it is one hell of a closer—but rather for the sampleability of its beat. When John Bonham’s drums kick in on “The Crunge”, one wouldn’t be wrong in wondering why it is that hasn’t made as many appearances as “When the Levee Breaks”. The 9/8 meter is trickier to match to other songs, yes, but it’s easily one of Bonham’s best beats, and when played in tandem with the swagger of John Paul Jones’ shuffling bassline, it’s as good a base for a stream of whip-snap lyricism as anything else out there.
Now, “The Crunge” isn’t a bad song. It’s actually great fun, and alongside “D’Yer Mak’er”, it’s one of the key examples of the use of humor in Led Zeppelin’s music. For all the heavy-handed macabre imagery and medieval lore that so defines some of the group’s well-known compositions, these guys are a still a rock band underneath it all, the same one that sang “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid (She’s Just a Woman)”. Even the spring clean for the may queen must come to an end.
Once the swagger of “The Crunge” has been established by Bonham’s drumbeat, however, things quickly turn sub-par. Robert Plant’s lyrics are pretty rote, with heavy usage of the word “baby” (even by rock n’ roll’s standards) to describe how much he’s fallen in love with a nameless woman. In attempting to pastiche funk, which at the time of Houses of the Holy‘s release was still largely dominated by black musicians, the band wisely avoid anything overtly racist. Still, this is a group of fairly pasty white Brits trying to come off as James Brown enthusiasts, which, if not racist, at minimum comes off as incredibly (and comically) out-of-place. If you keep an ear out for it, you’ll find moments of funk and groove scattered amongst the many songs penned by Led Zeppelin, but a single moment of funk or an individual groove won’t always grow into a full-blown jam, especially one like “The Crunge” that’s a through-and-through genre exercise. Musically speaking, the members of Zeppelin have done much better in terms of trying to expand their reach as songwriters.
Fortunately, though, the mediocre music doesn’t condemn “The Crunge” to failure. In a brilliant, almost meta turn, the band takes the time to wink at the listener with the song’s conclusion. Leading into the end, Plant keeps saying he’s looking for a bridge; in context, it seems as if the bridge refers to a distance between him and her. As things abruptly end, and Plant asks, “Where’s that confounded bridge?”, all of a sudden it is exactly clear what he’s talking about: the band didn’t write a bridge into the music. A song like “The Crunge” would ordinarily contain a bridge, but songwriters Plant, Bonham, Page, and Jones playfully left it out, self-deprecatingly accepting their inability to play any genre they like. For the majority of this short piece, Zeppelin are comfortable to play funk in their own undercooked way; had the track ended with this still being the mood, it could very well have been a throwaway experiment. But with one gag—and a single four-word question—”The Crunge” becomes a minor comedic classic, a tongue-in-cheek rumination on a group’s limitations.
5. “Dancing Days”
”Dancing Days” is proof that no matter how great a band or an album might be, there’s always a moment where a slip-up happens.
Whenever I’m forced to turn over the LP of Houses of the Holy to the second side, I’m reminded that all albums—no matter how perfect I may view them—have their weak links. In this case, it’s “Dancing Days”, undoubtedly the low point of Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album. After the conclusion of “The Crunge”, where one is left chuckling at the meta wankery of that James Brown-inspired funk jam, the tonally off riff of “Dancing Days” comes somewhat out of left field. It’s both the most unexceptional track of Houses of the Holy and the safest choice for the lead single, an interesting tension given the excellence of Zeppelin’s FM radio work prior to this LP, “Black Dog” being a good example.
This paradox is (un)surprising; given that a good deal of the material on Houses of the Holy likely differed from the public’s expectations of the band—few probably imagined the Bob Marley funk of “D’Yer Maker” following the pagan epic “Stairway to Heaven”—the masterminds deciding which track would be a good single were likely thinking, at least for a bit, to opt to the lowest common denominator. And while “Over the Hills and Far Away” was chosen as Houses of the Holy‘s lead single, “Dancing Days” stood alongside it as its b-side, a clear indicator that some record exec saw this song’s radio potential.
The majority of “Dancing Days” is dominated by a single riff, one that’s as unsettling as it is insidiously hooky. Jimmy Page’s guitar work is more diverse on Houses of the Holy than it is on any other Zeppelin LP, and “Dancing Days” is evidence that while he wasn’t throwing whatever he could against the recording studio walls in hoping something would stick, he was at the very minimum experimenting in sounds that he didn’t have a particularly good grasp on. The off-key string bending of the riff is intriguing at first, suggesting some sort of Eastern influence, but by the time the 3:43 of “Dancing Days” is up, it’s run out of whatever momentum was there in the first place. The song is notable for carrying in the LP’s trend of bright-sounding guitars in otherwise morose down tunings (“Dancing Days” is tuned to an irregular DBGDGE), but it fails to draw much else out of that beyond one interesting riff.
Robert Plant’s lyrics aren’t of much help here either. He deals largely here in generalities—”It’s alright” is repeated, and talk of an anonymous, underdescribed “woman who knows” abounds—and while it’s exactly the type of fodder that fits well on an FM radio classic rock station, it certainly isn’t up to the standard set by the other seven songs on Houses of the Holy. As a song, it’s only memorable for its hook, and even there the hook factor lasts for about the first 30 seconds.
Yet for its forgetability in the grand scheme of Houses of the Holy, at the same time, it feels like an irreplaceable part of the album. Few bands in the great pantheon of all things rock ‘n’ roll were able to churn out a legacy-establishing masterpiece with every single track they wrote, and Led Zeppelin are no exception. Short of the single-loaded Led Zeppelin II, none of the band’s other records are without a blemish. But my experience of Houses of the Holy—an experience I imagine others have shared in one way or another—is one that has “Dancing Days” in it. It may be the bastard child of this exceptional litter, but for all of its strengths and blemishes, it nonetheless feels like part of the family.
6. “D’yer Mak’er”
“D’Yer Mak’er” concludes the controversial middle section of Houses of the Holy in an uproarious fashion. With this song Led Zeppelin proves that for every Tolkien reference, there’s a corresponding joke—and a pretty damn good one at that.
In my analysis of the funk jam “The Crunge”, I noted that the three songs that make up the midsection of Houses of the Holy are often where the album faces its biggest critical bashings. “Dancing Days”, the serviceable but relatively unmemorable single sandwiched between “The Crunge” and “D’Yer Mak’er”, softens the blow posed by the two aforementioned tracks. While the shuffling groove of “The Crunge” doesn’t differ radically from Led Zeppelin’s classic singles, “D’Yer Mak’er” seems to throw a major wrench into Houses of the Holy.
Creativity is the defining hallmark of this LP—for myself and many others, it’s what makes it the strongest in the Zeppelin catalog—but not unreasonably for some, “D’Yer Mak’er” is where the band’s experimentation goes too far. Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic found that though “D’Yer Mak’er” contributed to the diversity of the record, it “suggest[ed] the band was searching for material.” In a stronger opinion, Gordon Fletcher wrote in the original 1973 Rolling Stone review that the song would likely “get the Zep laughed off the island if they bothered playing it in Jamaica”, calling it “a naked imitation” that was “easily the worst [thing] this band has ever done.” (In a revised 2003 review, Gavin Edwards relaxed the magazine’s initial criticism, calling it a “swinging take on reggae.”)
These reactions, while simplistic, aren’t to be entirely unexpected. Even on an LP as varied as Houses of the Holy, “D’Yer Mak’er” is an oddity. If there’s one thing that could be more bizarre than a group of internationally renowned white British musicians attempting an authentic take on funk—as in “The Crunge”—it’s those same musicians pretending they’re on a Jamaican vacation for four and a half minutes. The image of Robert Plant getting dreadlocks while the rest of the band lets their pasty British skin burn up in the sun comes to my mind every time I hear “D’Yer Mak’er”, and every time it happens I laugh aloud. It’s a reaction I rarely get when listening to Zeppelin—”Hot Dog” and “The Crunge” excepted—and for that reason the song is one of the tracks on Houses of the Holy that easily lingers in the memory. Though it’s unlikely to be placed in any canon of the iconic Zeppelin works (it was never played in full live), “D’Yer Mak’er” nonetheless a shining moment on the band’s best album; as such, the notion of it as an inferior one-off experiment is certainly unjustified. Following the comparatively weaker “Dancing Days”, it’s in fact the humorous boost the record needs.
Like the two tracks before it, “D’Yer Mak’er” is far from a lyrical gem. A good 50 percent of the lyrics are vocal filler: “oh”, “ah”, and “ay” are examples of the loquaciousness not present. The song’s name itself, an intentionally botched phonetic attempt to say “Jamaica”, seems to suggest the lyrics themselves are nothing more than contributions to a single joke. But if one pays close attention to the lyrics rather than getting caught up in the overall hilarity of things, they’ll discover a pretty standard lament of unrequited love. Led Zeppelin’s oeuvre does contain some breakup-worthy material (“Tangerine” and “Heartbreaker” especially) but compared to the rest of its eight-to-ten minute epics and straightforward rockers, these type of lyrical pinings are few and far between. That the group would take one of the most ubiquitous song types in pop music—the unrequited love ballad—and perform it via a mock take on reggae is gutsy, to say the least.
Much like the James Brown inspiration of “The Crunge”, one gets the sense that there is a little Bob Marley worship in “D’Yer Mak’er”, and while the thought of the four members of Led Zeppelin in rasta beanies is more comical than genuine, the sense that they’re aware of their limitations is definitely present. Both this song and “The Crunge”, while operating in different genres, are great corollaries in this regard; both are clear genre exercises, a fact the band is well aware of. Rather than trying to be “a funk band” or “a reggae band” for a little part of the album, however, these rascally Brits opt to variate on a theme they know they’ll never quite be able to grasp.
This is evident in the music itself, which is incredibly simple and at times nondescript; the guitar wah-wahs just like it should, the bass lays down a decent groove, and the cymbals splash like the waves the song is meant to evoke. Yet underneath all these boilerplate composite parts lies tongue-in-cheek energy that’s admirable, and in the grand scheme of Houses of the Holy necessary given the doom and gloom of the track immediately following “D’Yer Mak’er”, the Norse death chant “No Quarter”.
This energy isn’t surprising, though. The same source of the conviviality that invigorated “The Song Remains the Same” is also present in “D’Yer Mak’er”. This LP followed Zeppelin’s stratospheric rise to the top of rock following Zoso; undoubtedly, island vacations (to Jamaica or otherwise) became much more of a reality for the group. This somewhat silly effervescence is what elevates “D’Yer Mak’er” from the genre exercise that it is to something greater, namely a musical interpretation of the joys of international stardom. This is where the title Houses of the Holy comes from: it’s the name given to the concert venues where the group performed, a name rooted in the appreciation of the Zeppelin fanbase. Zep understandably ditched “D’Yer Mak’er” in favor of more pertinent album material in its live shows, but in a lot of ways it’s a shame they did; few tracks are as expressive of its love to play live as this one.
This, of course, is but one of many interpretations. A satiric reading of the track, one where the Zep is an out-of-place gaggle of tourists, is certainly plausible. Either way, I would suggest that rather than the blight on Houses of the Holy that many make it out to be, “D’Yer Mak’er” concludes an eclectic album midsection that makes this the most vibrant of Zeppelin LPs—not to mention the best.
7. “No Quarter”
The proto-doom metal masterpiece “No Quarter” is a classic case of a brilliant track that becomes even more enormous in its live incarnations.
Thick, smoky plumes of fog creep along a mass of green hills, enveloping the countryside in a blinding gray. At first, there is nothing. But then, suddenly, a war horn blares through the murky clouds, a noise so loud that the blades of grass begin to quiver with the oscillation of the sound waves. Shortly after, these quivers give way to earth-rumbling trembling as a stampede of ironclad soldiers flood the rolling hills, swords, and maces in hand.
This is the image evoked by the first 30 seconds of “No Quarter”, the seventh track on Houses of the Holy. As the last seconds of the comedy reggae jam “D’Yer Mak’er” fade into silence, an ominous synthesizer melody is quietly introduced. Then, a single bass note is plucked—echoing deeply, as if ringing through a gorge—further deepening the morose mood of this opening salvo. It’s hard to believe for a moment that things have progressed in this way; not but a song ago, Led Zeppelin were leaving the listener equally perplexed and amused (not to mention irate in some cases) with their bizarro take on reggae.
To shift to the chilly pre-battle landscape of “No Quarter” may seem like an odd move following such an uncharacteristic Zeppelin track. But, truth be told, there really is no proper way to transition to a song like “No Quarter”. Even if the band had placed a full-throttle rocker like “Black Dog” before this cut, there still would be an unavoidable sense of foreboding with the opening notes to this song. The power of “No Quarter” has yet to falter 40 years after it was released to the public. It’s undoubtedly one of Zeppelin’s compositional masterpieces.
In his Between the Grooves series on Led Zeppelin IV, AJ Ramirez wrote,
Zeppelin always refused to restrict itself to bludgeoning caveman headbangers (something which would result in metal fans often positioning Black Sabbath—an ensemble that is on record as being enamored by and taking cues from Zep—as the “proper” founding father of metal), instead maintaining a broad stylistic palette that incorporated acoustic instruments and diverse ethnic sounds to realize the “light and shade” dynamics Page strove for.
Led Zeppelin’s status as the classic rock band is, for the most part, undisputed. Placing them in the lineage of heavy metal, however, is a trickier exercise. Black Sabbath, commonly regarded as the progenitor of the genre, were themselves indebted to Led Zeppelin, and Sabbath itself didn’t mark a clean break from classic rock. Rock and heavy metal are deeply interwoven genres, especially in the formative years of the latter. As Canadian metal critic Adrien Begrand once said, “Metal writers should not only know their metal history but rock n’ roll history as well.” Being heavy isn’t a mutually exclusive goal for the rocker and for the metalhead; stylistic divides between the two undoubtedly exist, a fact simple dichotomies aren’t likely to illustrate well.
“No Quarter” is an important case where the lineage of classic rock and metal are fused together. Though not the heaviest of Zeppelin tracks, the song is undoubtedly metal in its mood and execution. I would argue that the track is one of the early examples of what is now referred to as doom metal; though this genre is most commonly tied to the lugubrious, plodding meters of Sabbath, the textural and atmospheric nature of this track makes it easy to see as an instance of proto-doom metal. The minor-key sonic terrain created by the synthesizers and keys on “No Quarter”, along with the language of mythic warfare in its lyrical matter, makes this one of Led Zeppelin’s defining “metal” moments. If one were to slow this track way down and imagine the four members of the band enrobed in ringwraith cloaks, they’d fit extremely well at a Sunn 0))) concert.
The metallic aspect of “No Quarter” really kicks in after the portentous synthesizer opener. After the drums come in and Jimmy Page strums a few shimmering chords, a wicked cool guitar riff comes to the forefront. The band is especially skilled here in their balance of the pervading sense of bloodshed and (what would later be seen as) a hip-hop sensibility; like “When the Levee Breaks” and “The Crunge” before it, this opening guitar/drum interplay would work marvelously as a sample. Yet this riff only stays for a little while; not long after it sets the chord progression for the song, the doomy synthesizers pick back up once again, forming maliciously tranquil verses.
“The winds of Thor are blowing cold”, Plant intones. As a spiritual successor to Zoso‘s “The Battle of Evermore”, “No Quarter” shifts the talk of warfare away from the realm of J.R.R. Tolkien references to a philosophical discussion on the nature of violence. The armies of this song “choose the path where no-one goes”; Plant’s inversion of the Biblical aphorism about the narrow gate is an extremely good, menacing move here. This path is equally as mysterious as the message carried by the soldiers “wearing steel that’s bright and true”, Plant insists “they carry news that must get through”, but it’s never made explicit what this news is.
The only thing made certain in the lyrics is that these soldiers—whoever they might be—”hold no quarter”. As depicted in the song, these soldiers—also called “dogs of doom”—are a pervasive, relentless force, one that nature could not ever restrain. The world of “No Quarter” is one where violence has reached its point of no return, a fact reflected by the music; rather than getting caught up in brutalizing riffs or feverish arrangement, Zeppelin lets the ambiance set the scene. There is no point in trying to fight against the soldiers who have abandoned surrender. To embrace the doom is the only option.
Within the lyrics themselves, this phrase is potent, but in a large sense context-less. As a metaphor about Led Zeppelin’s live performances, however, it’s spot-on. Houses of the Holy, as mentioned in the Between the Grooves piece on “D’Yer Mak’er”, gets its title from the band’s view about the venues they performed in on their famous world tours. They viewed their concerts as, in an oblique way, an act of communion and—dare I say it—worship. With the introduction of “No Quarter” into their live set, the band stated their MO as a live outfit quite clear: they “hold no quarter.” They don’t let their music do anything other than unleash its unrestrained energy out on to the public. The message is left up to interpretation, but if there’s one thing that’s evidently clear it is Led Zeppelin’s non-negotiable desire to rock.
Though there are many contenders for the title, “No Quarter” stands out as the ubiquitous Led Zeppelin live song. The song takes up a pretty expansive seven minutes of Houses of the Holy, but live it becomes something else; at times, the group would go on for fifteen minutes, really letting the song breathe. The part of the track that begins around 3:00 into the LP version where John Paul Jones begins playing an acoustic piano is where the live version really escalates. Jones would frequently incorporate different classical motifs into his piano solo, enhancing the already epic quality of the track significantly.
The two live versions available—one on The Song Remains the Same, the other on the recently released Celebration Day—are phenomenal showcases for Zeppelin’s stature as a live band with a force to be reckoned with. The latter is especially worth listening to, as it more than any other song in the 2007 reunion show demonstrated the band’s timeless vitality. Page may have looked a little withered on stage compared to his presence in Zeppelin’s glory days, but on “No Quarter” he really lets his guitar playing cut loose with an extravagant amount of wah-wah effects.
When that nine-and-a-half minute version of “No Quarter” ceremoniously concludes, it reveals itself to be one of Led Zeppelin’s defining moments as a band. Even after ending their career on a relatively weaker note (though, let it be known: In Through the Out Door is awesome), they still managed to take no quarter live, wrinkled and aged though they may have been. “No Quarter” is emblematic of the band Led Zeppelin have always been: innovative, heavy, and, perhaps most importantly, uncompromising. As heavy metal began to rise from the same primordial ooze that wrought hard rock in the early ’70s, it was songs like “No Quarter” that provided a key link into the evolution of the genre. The rock and metal worlds would be very different today were it not for this resounding battle cry.
8. “The Ocean”
Capping off the eminently diverse Houses of the Holy is the riff-loaded “The Ocean”, a Zeppelin classic that reminds us that no matter how far the band may veer off into other realms when it comes down to it, rock and roll is their brand of noise pollution.
The structural base of the Houses of the Holy is made of cobbled-together parts. By the time the listener has made his or her way to “The Ocean”, they’ve endured a host of sonic experiments that few likely envisioned Led Zeppelin doing following the worldwide phenomenon that was Zoso. For four minutes of Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin is a mock-funk band. In another four, the group is splayed out on the sunny Jamaican shores cranking out an easy-breezy reggae jam. At one point they’re Mellotron-drenched balladeers. Then they’re decked out in Norse battle gear, ready to vanquish their opponents without mercy.
More than any other LP in the Zeppelin catalog, Houses of the Holy channels nearly every aspect of this ambitious group’s id. Short of a missing classical overture or free jazz jam out in the original analog tapes, it seems that this record is case of no stone being unturned. “The Ocean”, the rockin’ little closer that ties this veritable potpourri of an LP, follows one monster of a track—the doomy war epic “No Quarter”—and given the inherent burden placed upon it by being the grand finale, it has a lot to live up to.
What “The Ocean” has going for it, however, is that given the diversity of the songs that precede it, there’s no real “logical” way to end the record. In a lot of ways, the band could have chosen a 1910 Fruitgum Company-type pop ditty to sew things all up and—considering the strength of the majority of Houses of the Holy—it probably would have worked. That’s one of the real strengths of what Led Zeppelin did here: by providing a nonlinear (and at times nonsensical) organizational structure that benefits from high-quality material, once it’s time for “The Ocean” to rock out, its job is made a hell of a lot easier. The band has thrown out the playbook in favor of a connect-the-dots book that, when traced out, leads to a work of art that’s something like Zeppelin qua Dali. Whatever expectations the listener has for things “to be” by the time this LP’s 40 minutes are up should be entirely foregone. The thrill of Houses of the Holy is the element of the unexpected, the creativity that moved Zeppelin beyond the realm of “the guys that wrote ‘Stairway to Heaven'”.
Still, despite all the gloom, humor, beauty, joviality, and downright funk that “The Ocean” follows, it ends Houses of the Holy on a note that fans of Zeppelin had come to know quite well: straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Despite some other genre traits present here—echoes of the shuffling groove that drove “The Crunge” are still present in John Bonham’s drumming, not to mention the bliss of the a cappella doo-wop coda—”The Ocean” features some of Led Zeppelin’s riff work. The guitar tone bears many similarities to the inferior “Dancing Days”, but rather than repeating on one riff for the course of its runtime, “The Ocean” really lets the music breathe; this is a rock song, undoubtedly, but it’s simultaneously relaxed and energetic. Robert Plant’s repetition of the words “sunshine” and “sun” is key to the capturing of this paradox; while Jimmy Page plays the main riff over Bonham’s impressive drumming, he’s talking about the relaxing, even transcendent, qualities about rock ‘n’ roll. Much like how Houses of the Holy derives its name from the stadiums the group would play in, “The Ocean” refers specifically to the crowds that would fill those stadiums—the ocean that Plant would sing to and get a “roar” back.
This happiness of Plant’s extends beyond the stage. In the last two lines of the song’s lyrics, he addresses his daughter Carmen—three at the time—as the “girl who won [his] heart”. Tangential though this may seem at first, Plant’s personal address here is actually quite beautiful, and even more than that a clever inversion on the “girl” archetype within doo-wop itself, the woman who the charming and, to use today’s parlance, “adorkable” male musicians would whistle and hoot at. Topping the utter beauty of “The Rain Song” is pretty difficult if not impossible, but these two lines of lyrics are a subtle and touching moment, one that throws yet another element of creativity into what could have otherwise been just another Zeppelin rock song.
And, in the end, that’s why “The Ocean” is a perfect closer. People will continue to lob criticisms at Houses of the Holy for as long as fan Internet chatrooms remain a thing. “It’s too uneven.” “There aren’t enough core Zep tracks.” “What the hell is ‘D’Yer Mak’er?'” These are all eternal questions for the Led Zeppelin enthusiast, ones that—like any other question about any other band that has ever existed—will remain unanswered. Yet despite the truth of that fact, all of the tendencies I have, either as someone who gets drawn to particular albums more than others or as a critic who looks for the most “objective” reasons (whatever those are) to prefer one work over another, lead me to the conclusion that Houses of the Holy is the definitive Led Zeppelin record.
The four symbols of Zoso and the piper that leads us to reason may be what enshrines Led Zeppelin as rock legendaries, but Houses of the Holy captures what no other work of theirs does, not even the majestic Zoso: this is a band that was always bound to escape the confines of what was the popular conception of a “rock band” back then. Post-Zoso, these British rock legends had the whole world at their fingertips; Houses of the Holy is the sound of them taking in everything they can while still remaining true to themselves. And as its final seconds run out, “The Ocean” reminds us that Led Zeppelin remained at their core one of the greatest rock bands of all time, no matter the number of strange detours they took along the way.
In other words, Houses of the Holy is this group’s resolution of the classic problem of Unity and Diversity in philosophy. In embracing everything they were and everything they could have been, they made the defining work of their career, and what still today remains one of classic rock’s greatest testaments.