Music

New classic album review: Led Zeppelin – Houses of the holy

Once my big brother had left home to attend a Scottish university, his room came up for grabs. I immediately claimed first dibs on this for a while, meaning that both my younger brother and myself both got a room to ourselves (we had previously shared).

When trying to get off to sleep, I would stare at the posters on his wall. Two which caught my attention were those for Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the holy’ tour circa ’73/’74. They were horrifyingly graphic – one showed a stormtrooper’s head exploding, the other a man in chains with his head being slowly compressed between the buffers.

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They were the type of images which made your brain turn queasily upside down, but compel you to keep looking. Led Zeppelin’s name in their classic font appeared beneath Each picture. I thought how could a band condone such brutality?(I was only ten or eleven at the time, so I didn’t actually have the word ‘condone’ in my lexicon – but these were the thoughts of an impressionable young boy). Thus the mystique of Led Zeppelin began for me.

So why pick HOTH? It’s customary to choose Zep IV, and of course, this is a magnum opus. Come to think of it, I consider every Led Zep album up to ‘Presence’ – a classic. For me, HOTH holds a special place because it was able to transfer me to a fantasy world more completely with it’s canon of totally original, often sophisticated tracks. There was less of a link with the blues interpretations – not that there was anything wrong with this approach (potential lawsuits with Willy Dixon and Jake Homes aside). I find I’m not the only one who raises the torch to this album either. For example, Sammy Hagar name checks it in a song from Chickenfoot’s second album, ‘Chickenfoot III’ (no, that’s not a typo).

So, some salient information. The album was slated for release in January, 1973, but was delayed until March due to difficulties with hipgnosis’ cover art. For further detail on blue naked children and ritual sacrifices, see Mick Wall’s excellent biography, ‘When giants walked the earth.’ I’m not going to give much information on the recording of the songs, tour history etc. as this has been covered extensively elsewhere, but some tidbits are appropriate. Many songs were taken from the ‘Stargroves’ sessions – Zep used Mick Jagger’s Berkshire retreat to lay down initial tracks. Another bout of recording took place at Olympic Studios in May 1972, and during the band’s 1972 North American tour, additional recording sessions were conducted at Electric Lady Studios in New York. Other songs were recorded and made their way eventually onto ‘Physical Graffiti’ – most notably a song called ‘Houses of the holy!’

Now, down to the tracks:

The song remains the same                                            Watch/listen here

Originally given a working title ‘The overture’ and then ‘The campaign,’ this was the natural successor to ‘Stairway to heaven’, in fact Page described the desire within him to create a new epic number which had a slow buildup. Plant’s vocals were sped up in the production so that his normal ‘air raid siren’ was morphed into an other-wordly pitch and timbre. Page used to play this live on the 12 -string neck of his Gibson EDS 1275. This gave it a ‘jangly’ feel, but with a ‘crunch’ tone and allowed him to create an experimental tapestry of notes involving occasional double-string bends and ascending/descending runs. Check out the link above for the version that appears on ‘The Song Remains The Same’ soundtrack.
What more can I say about this track other than that it’s a masterpiece? The lyrics are zen-like proclamations about the eternal constant which is music and the switch to half-time (suggested by Plant) makes it highly original.

Rain Song                                                                        Watch/listen here

This song can’t really be separated from the previous track as TSRTS segues into it immediately (except when I’m playing it as an mp3 in the car. Why itunes doesn’t allow gapless playback with the compressed format is anybody’s guess.) Alongside ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘All of my love,’ this must be one of the most alluring tracks ever written by Zep. How Page came up with the chord sequences and arrangement is beyond me. It’s the sort of epic that you would think was written by a keyboard player like Tony Banks, but maybe writing it in Dsus2 (D-G-C-G-C-D) helped in this respect.
As an aside, I learned to play this in standard tuning, key of G, and it twists your fingers into almost impossible stretches. The chord/songbook I was relying on obviously hadn’t done their research very well, and when I saw Page perform this on youtube it was very frustrating to see him playing simple chords with a single finger across the fretboard sometimes. Another note for the guitar geeks is the reason why this and TSRTS were performed in a different key live. Wikipedia gave me the answer:
“The likely reason the alternate tuning was used in live performances is that while it required Plant to sing in a higher key, it necessitated a tuning change of only two strings (the B and G) on the EDS-1275, whereas the song’s original key would have required the tuning of five strings. As this same guitar would later be used in the show for “Stairway to Heaven”, the six-string neck would then need to be returned to standard tuning—the alternate “Rain Song” tuning allowed this to be achieved with relative ease.”

Now I can’t ‘unlearn’ my way of playing it so I just soldier on, but it regularly features in my practices as it is so satisfying to play, and has the effect of a meditation for me. John Paul Jones mellotron added to the arrangement is a masterstroke. At first I thought it was an orchestra – then I saw JPJ at the keyboard when I watched the live DVD of the soundtrack.
The song is reputedly the vocal which Plant is most proud of. Certainly, the lyrics are way up there with ‘Stairway’ in terms of poetry. From ‘This is the springtime of my loving…’ to ‘upon us all a little rain must fall,’ it’s a lyrical masterpiece.

Over the hills and far away                                                 Watch/listen here

Page’s recipe for success included the vital ingredient ‘light and shade.’ So, after the grand ending of the rain song, the opening folk twiddles of Page’s Martin acoustic provide an appealing contrast. 12-string accompaniment follows in the second stanza, finally breaking into full-on electric and Bonzo’s driving rhythm. Beware the fade out and fade in part at the end!
I was a bit disappointed with Zep’s live renditions of this number. Partly because Page did the intro electrically and it sounded naff, and partly because Plant opted for singing a different (lower register) melody vocal. It robbed the song of impact, but here on the studio version it was a big thumbs up.

The crunge                                                                           Watch/listen here

Apparently a homage to James Brown, you can hear the similarity in style, but to me it’s got a life all of it’s own. It’s a very clever song as the funky beat matches the vocal patter of the garrulous Plant, crooning about his latest hitch. The song was never played live, as far as I’m aware, but the main guitar motif was visited during the mid-section of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ live version on the Madison Square Garden concerts. The ‘I’m just looking for the bridge…’ interplay ends the song suddenly on a humorous note.

Dancing days                                                                         Watch/listen here

Apparently, the song was inspired by an Indian tune that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant heard while traveling in Bombay, and again it moves us into an area of penumbra in the light and shade stakes. Most hard rock bands seem to divide their offerings into rockers and ballads, but Zep offer us the whole spectrum. The rhythm is like no other song up to this point on any Zep album and really shows the versatility of Bonham on the drums. The drony guitar is mixed with a fifty’s style swing which somehow works. I’ll be damned if I know what Plant is singing about but I love the line ‘I saw a lion, he was standing alone with a tadpole in a jar.’ Magic mushrooms anyone?

D’yer Maker                                                                            Watch/listen here

Probably the least well-liked song on the album, but for me it allows the listening experience to rest awhile in the greensward of an Alpine valley, before scaling the heights of the next track. OK, it’s reggae, and I’ve never really got into it as a genre but at least it showed that Plant and the boys were willing to experiment and never stand still.

No Quarter                                                                                Watch/listen here

This is the high point of side two and sees Plant re-visiting fantastical mythological themes again. It’s an eerie song with it’s modulated vocals, sustained lead guitar and moody keyboards from JPJ. It became a showcase for the Zeps bassist/keyboard maestro during live shows and provided the theme for his ‘Dream sequence’ on the film soundtrack. Page dispenses with stereotyped blues scales and switches into more jazz-inflected passages – a trick which Tony Iommi used to do e.g. Planet Caravan. Page/Plant re-arranged the whole track to produce an alternate-tuned acoustic version during the nineties, and was one of the few ‘re-inventions’ I’ve heard which really adds something new. Watch it here

The Ocean                                                                                Watch/listen here

I always wondered what Bonzo said in his intro. To this song, but apparently it’s: “We’ve done four already but now we’re steady, and then they went 1, 2, 3, 4!” He was referring to the number of takes required to perfect the complex alternating 4/4 and 7/8 beat in the intro and chorus. Once again, Bonzo demonstrates what a hard hitter he was with a rhythm that would put a herd of rampaging Brontosaurus’ to shame. Dedicated to the legions of the band’s fans as they appeared at their sold-out shows, I see in my mind’s eye the crowd at the Bath festival or Knebworth. An apt tribute. The ‘doo-wap’ segment at the end sees the band take a left-turn into unexpected territory and finish on a joyful note with Plant’s ‘Oh, it’s so good.’

So this is an album to sit down and listen to with wrapt attention. Stare at the gatefold sleeve and read the lyrics as you get lost in the swami vibe of this classic. Your mind will revel in the journey and your soul will be purged.

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Fin.

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    Tim Adams
    30th September 2015 at 5:41 pm

    I want my room back

    • Reply
      Tom
      30th September 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Yes – it has special memories. You once said that you didn’t like the Zep albums post ‘Houses… ‘Tim. Didn’t physical graffiti grab you?

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