Strange tunings, brooding mellotrons, and scary children with no clothes, help usher in a new golden age of Rock supremacy for Zeppelin
The majority of Houses was recorded at Stargroves, a country estate in Berkshire owned by none other than Mick Jagger, employing The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio. Further sessions took place at London’s Olympic studios, followed by additional work at Electric Lady, Jimi Hendrix’s old haunt, in New York, under the supervision of engineer/producer Eddie Kramer.
By the time the album was completed, Houses Of The Holy would mark the beginning of a new phase for the band, one which saw Led Zeppelin’s popularity rise up into the stratosphere, especially in America, a country whose many sports stadiums were an ideal environment for Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham’s colossal, near-volcanic overtures.
Let it be said that the first three songs are right up there with the best of anything in the Zeppelin canon. “The Song Remains The Same” is a cavalry charge of frantic guitars, bass and drums, complemented by Plant’s emotive multi-orgasmic vocal delivery. The pace quickly changes with “The Rain Song”, an exquisite rock-ballad dominated by Page’s elegant guitar and John Paul Jones’ graceful, uplifting mellotron. After a tender start, the track gently rises and falls, before concluding with an orchestral-like climax at the end. Certainly it’s one of Zeppelin’s most beautifully arranged numbers, and probably not really what George Harrison had in mind when he suggested that they should write more melodic tunes.
The record’s other showpiece is “Over The Hills And Far Away” (a title Plant borrowed from Beatrix Potter), another fine folk-rock composition, with some superb acoustic playing by Page, while Jones and Bonham are locked in tight, providing powerful, though never overbearing, backup, as Plant wistfully reflects on “how much there is to know” as he gazes “along the open road”. From here the band detours in all manner of directions. The white funk of “The Crunge” thunders along quite nicely, and even includes a parody by Plant on James Brown’s “Take it to the bridge” by adding “Where’s that confounded bridge?” right at the end.
Side two begins with “Dancing Days”, a heavy rocker built around an exotic guitar riff by Page, and Plant’s post-hippie vocal, containing lyrics such as “I got my flower, got my power… as the evening starts to glow”. Strangely it was the first track off the album Atlantic submitted for radio play. The reggae influenced “D’yer Mak’er” began life as a jam at Stargroves, with Plant and the boys mimicking 1950’s doo wop, before deciding to record the song proper and include it here. Despite its dubious merits, the track obviously had commercial appeal, and was released as a single in the US, managing to break into the Top 20.
Recorded a year earlier at Headley Grange, “No Quarter” is a sinisterly mysterious creation, thanks largely to Jones’ spooky piano, synth and bass, while Plant’s vocals are given a certain otherworldly presence, supported by Page’s slightly demonic sounding guitar, heightening the dramatic effect. Overall the playing is understated, but no less full of tension, as if each four members were literally battling against a blizzard.
Bonham’s midlands accent introduces the album’s final track: “We’ve done four already but now we’re steady and then they went… one, two, three, four”, before the entire band comes crashing in together like a quartet of boulders down a mountain. Page’s big meaty riff is what holds the listener’s attention most, although Bonham plays with such force as to make your windows rattle and floorboards shake. Title “The Ocean” was Plant’s metaphor for the group’s many devoted fans, who not only flocked to buy their records but see them in concert en mass.
When Houses Of The Holy was issued in March 1973, the critics reaction was mixed. But who cares what critics say anyway – because the album peaked both the UK and US charts, and saw them break box-office records previously held by The Beatles’ performance at Shea Stadium. And while devoid of much of the intensity of their first four albums, Houses not only holds its own, but also laid down some of the groundwork for future releases, most notably their magnum opus Physical Graffiti.