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24th Favorite: Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin

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Houses of the Holy. Led Zeppelin.
1973, Atlantic. Producer: Jimmy Page.
Bootleg cassette, 1986.

IN A NUTSHELL: Houses of the Holy, the fifth album by the mighty Led Zeppelin, is eight different songs, eight different genres, and all kinds of cool. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham are in fine form whether playing famous riffs, supporting lush orchestral works, or taking on funk and reggae. It doesn’t sound like other Zep records – and that might be why I love it!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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I generally modify all sentences I write so that I don’t make grand pronouncements stating “Everyone who …” I do this to avoid making generalizations that are easily challenged by an example or two that therefore render my statement false. However, I stand by this grand pronouncement: Every artist abhors plagiarism.

I mean any kind of artist, anyone who creates. Creativity – all creativity, whether drawing stuff, building stuff, writing songs, writing stories, it doesn’t matter what – is at its very core about personal ideas. It’s about having an idea in your head or your heart or your soul or wherever they come from, and shaping and building that thing into something that people around you can experience. It’s about allowing others to experience something within you; it’s about sharing your self with others.

However, creativity is a weird thing. The raw materials of creativity are pulled from the surrounding world, and most people experience that world – at least in part – via the art around them. Books, movies, songs, visual art … it all becomes – along with everything else in the artist’s life – another input to creation.

And although, when compared to painters or composers, some may consider their output culturally flimsy, rock/pop musicians are creative people. The list of musicians who graduated from, or attended, art school is a who’s who of pop music, from Pete Townshend and Keith Richards through A$AP Ferg. Musician/novelists include country-rocker Steve Earle and John Darnielle, of The Mountain Goats. Musician/painters include John Mellencamp, Joni Mitchell and The Replacements’ Chris Mars. Musician/Actors include almost every musician who ever had a hit record.

So, being creative types, musicians bring in all sorts of inspiration into their work, and some of that inspiration is bound to be the music they are listening to. And there can be a fine line between “inspiration” and “borrowing.” Sometimes the borrowing is intentional. Clearly John Lennon knew the Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me” when he wrote “Come Together.” I don’t know why he didn’t credit Berry, but he ended up recording an album of Rock ‘n Roll covers as part of his settlement with the publisher of Berry’s songs. (And backed Berry on an episode of The Mike Douglas Show, a very 70s moment.) And many artists have reworked classical works to generate hit songs. The practice of sampling songs is just another form of this process.

And that process is not just part of crafting modern pop music. Such borrowing is part of the fabric and history of classical music. And “borrowing” in other arts is routine. Authors like John Updike and others are fond of updating classics.

But sometimes (or often, some would argue) you don’t realize you’ve borrowed something. This (apparently) happened to George Harrison in the 70s. It happened to Rolling Stones Keith and Mick in the 90s, but they realized it and gave k.d. lang a writing credit, even though they’d never met her. And sometimes the difference between conscious and unconscious borrowing creates some Blurred Lines. (Ha! Get it?)

Giving proper credit is what separates “borrowing” from flat-out stealing, to my mind. If you don’t credit the source, you’re a thief. Sting, in a very Sting-like way, on the album notes for Dream of the Blue Turtles, carefully pointed out his own copying of the romance theme from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev for the song “Russians.” Credits (and therefore royalties) have been given to sampled records since at least the early 90s.

I say all this because this post is about Led Zeppelin, and if I thought no one would know – or if I was a good enough writer to disguise it – I would completely steal four pages from Chuck Klosterman’s 2005 book Killing Yourself to Live right here. On pages 197 to 201 of that book, he explains the popularity of Led Zeppelin with men, and posits that “every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” In a resonant few hundred words he concludes “Led Zeppelin sounds like a certain kind of cool guy; they sound like the kind of cool guy every man vaguely thinks he has the potential to be, if just a few things about the world were somehow different … For whatever the reason, there is a point in the male maturation process when the music of Led Zeppelin sounds like the perfect actualization of the perfectly cool you.”

I understand this phase, I’ve gone through this phase, I’ve watched others go through this phase. (And as a big fan of the amazing “all-girl” tribute band Lez Zeppelin, I think some women go through this phase as well!) My freshman year roommate at college listened to nearly nothing else, had a collection of Led Zeppelin posters and pounded John-Bonham-Air-Drums nearly constantly, accompanying all the mighty Zep that silently roared through his drug-fuzzed brain. About that time I caught the bug, too, and I began listening, near constantly, to all the LZ tapes I’d made in high school.

I’d go in cycles regarding which one was my favorite. Dr. Dave gave me a cassette of their debut, Led Zeppelin, with the editorial comment “Their first. And their best!” And I agreed sometimes. Then I’d switch to those deemed “the best” by most fans, Led Zeppelin IV or Physical Graffiti. Even the widely disparaged In Through the Out Door would bubble to the surface. My Led Zeppelin Phase lasted several months, and all along I thought they were the perfect band. Fragments of that phase remain with me.

I can’t explain why Led Zeppelin main songwriters, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, were so reluctant to credit the sources of many of their songs. (If you don’t know, some of “their” songs, like “Whole Lotta Love” and “The Lemon Song,” were actually adapted by them, with credit only given to the original writers after lawsuits.) They were young, sure, but both had been around the music business for years before Led Zeppelin began, so they knew their way around contracts and rights. They either thought no one would know, or they thought they’d changed it enough to disguise it.

And this sort of ties into why I love Houses of the Holy. While many Zeppelin albums are filled with reworked blues, lifted from old African American blues artists, or acoustic folk pieces, closely “inspired” by obscure folk artists, this album has eight songs that are unique, independent and demonstrate a variety that many Zep albums (and I love them all, still) lack. I guess you could say “the song doesn’t remain the same.”

Ha! That’s a (very funny) reference to the romping opener on the album, “The Song Remains the Same.”

It’s a galloping opener that immediately grabs you with its buzzsaw guitar and suspenseful fanfare until the main riff enters, about 0:22. Led Zeppelin is a collection of four talents unsurpassed by any other rock band, and bassist John Paul Jones (who is my favorite member, although I play bass and so have a special fondness for bassists) starts showing his skills immediately, bouncing behind Page’s guitar. Page has a nifty solo, and then the song slows to allow the mighty Robert Plant to start singing. My only complaint about this song is Plant’s voice, which is slightly speeded up, giving his already high-tenor sound a kind of mosquito-esque timbre. His lyrics are about the joy of experiencing music. I love Jones’s descending bass line behind his verses. I also like the shifting tempos, which drummer John Bonham directs with ease. Page has a couple brilliant solos left in his bag of tricks, and at times sounds to be playing four or five other guitars in the background. From Page’s solo at 3:47 until Plant enters again at about 4:50 is one of my favorite 60-seconds-worth of rock music. It’s a fantastic opening track.

The next song is more fantastic, and completely different. I didn’t like the effects on Plant’s voice on “The Song Remains The Same,” but his unaffected vocals on “The Rain Song” steal the show.

It’s one of my all-time favorite songs. The acoustic guitar opening the song sets a mellow, mellow vibe, and the two-note hook, at about 30 seconds, is simple and classic, and calls to mind The Ventures’ classic instrumental “Sleepwalk.” Plant enters, soulfully reviewing the seasons of his love, and after each verse Page beautifully calls to mind rainfall on a series of descending runs (1:08). The band has never been shy about putting orchestral arrangements in their songs, and they revel in the lushness on this song, taking time to let the music swell and ebb, nearly 3 full minutes without vocals. So much happens in those three minutes – Jones plays lovely piano, Page deftly supports it all, and John Bonham finally enters, with some soft triplets. It’s a lovely piece, and Plant has barely sung at all, but the last half is his. His melody lags behind the music, helping give the entire piece a hypnotic, drowsy feeling. Behind the second verse, the Bonham’s drums are gradually building the song’s momentum until, just about 4:55, Page’s acoustic sets up the crash of drums to transition the song into Full Power Mode. It pulls back for the final verse, and resolves with a last acoustic coda. This song is wonderful and should not be blamed for any bullshit 80s hair-band faux-metal cheesy-asspower ballad” that DJs of the era may have tried to characterize as “Zeppelin-esque.” Puh-leeze.

We’ve heard Heavy and Soft, so why not combine the two? Zeppelin have always been the masters at mixing hard rock with acoustic, and they may have perfected it on the radio hit “Over the Hills and Far Away.”

This is the blueprint for Zeppelin, perhaps the most Led Zeppelin song Led Zeppelin ever played. The first minute and a half is country-folk, almost CSN&Y-sounding, but Bonham crashes in at 1:26, and Plant uses his signature wail on a series of koan-like snippets that, what the hell, at least sound good when he sings them. Page/Jones/Bonham pound through the verses, then transition at 2:20 into a sort of funky break with a great Page solo. The three sound like they’re having so much fun playing together, and their transitions across all Zeppelin songs are unequalled, moving songs between time signatures, keys, tempos with ease. In this song it’s done with an ascending run at 3:00. They can do anything.

Even funk! Although it’s their own brand, probably the only funk song ever played in a 9/8 time signature, “The Crunge.” It’s the least-danceable dance song ever recorded, basically four guys jamming in the studio with Jones overdubbing some curlicue organ. It’s a fun and funny song, one that many Zep fans don’t like. But I appreciate it, even if Plant’s lyrics are afterthought-like. The song has no bridge – a section in many pop songs that is different from the verse or chorus. In a nod to James Brown, the creator of funk, who often directed his band live in the studio to “take me to the bridge,” Plant asks for the bridge many times, to no avail. It’s a bit of humor from a band that can sometimes seem very serious.

Is there anything else this band can do? Well, if they can put their stamp on funk, why not try it on reggae, as well?

The title, “D’yer Mak’er,” is not pronounced “Die-uhr Make-uhr,” as me and a million other teen music fans thought for years, but instead is a phonetic spelling of the country Jamaica, the birthplace of reggae. It’s another song some Zep fans hate, but I love the big drums, the clear Jones bass, and the sound of Page’s guitar, especially the picking behind the vocals. Plant avoids the temptation to affect an island patois in standard “girl, you hurt me” lyrics.

After showing its fun side, Zeppelin gets dark and dreary and psychedelic (and still friggin’ awesome!) on the chilling “No Quarter,” a song that I used to dislike but grew to love – maybe due to hearing it while inebriated so often. One of the amazing things about Bonham’s drumming is that he sometimes seems to be drumming in a different time signature than the rest of the band. At 1:00, when the main riff starts, Bonham plays on the “two,” but skips the “four” in every other measure. It’s a melodic piece of drumming, just like when he mimics Plant’s rhythm, at 2:28. He’s both deft and powerful, great attributes for a rock drummer. Plant’s voice sounds underwater, telling of knights journeying in bad weather to deliver a message. At 3:00, the band goes into a prog-rock jam that sounds like something off a Yes album, before Plant re-enters. More Bonham fun: listen to his drums from 5:20 to 5:35. He’s brilliant.

We’ve heard so many different styles, but how about straight-up pop rock song? Well, I give you one of their most popular songs, “Dancing Days.”

But of course it’s not so straight-up – just listen to that weird, dissonant chord 5 seconds in! The wailing guitar by Page sounds cool, and Jones plays a strange synthesizer that isn’t noticeable at first, but by the second verse is peeking through. Plant relives his teenage years (which may have included a lion with a tadpole in a jar?) with a voice as controlled yet muscular as ever.

The band still hasn’t played a typical arena-rock, riff-centered, macho song yet. But they finish the album with an all-time great, one of the most distinctive riffs in rock history, on “The Ocean.”

It’s another classic Bonham song, who introduces the song with a little rhyme, then powers ahead with a 4/4 beat, with 3/4 thrown in every fourth measure. I imagine Page coming up with this riff, and whereas most drummers would ask him to hold the last note an extra beat to keep the entire thing 4/4, Bonham instead rose to the challenge and just incorporated it. Plant is at his upper register, wailing in his best blues style about heading out of town. Page’s solo at 1:35 is subtly cool. I wrote about transitions earlier, and check out what the band does just before 2:13, throwing in a measure to ease into Plant’s “na na.” Later, at 3:17 they transition into a sort of 50s rock-and-roll style coda to bring the song and album to a close. It’s a great ending, in the show-biz tradition of big bands or stage extravaganzas, and I have to agree with Plant when he exclaims, “Oh, it’s so good!”

Led Zeppelin were so good indeed. They had a sound of their own that could be applied to any style, I’d say. I don’t dislike their blues, and I love their folk-rock, but I love when they’re borrowing entire styles from elsewhere instead of borrowing songs. Houses of the Holy has everything I love about the band.

Track Listing:
“The Song Remains the Same”
“The Rain Song”
“Over the Hills and Far Away”
“The Crunge”
“Dancing Days”
“D’yer Mak’er”
“No Quarter”
“The Ocean”

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