Not Fade Away: Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses Of The Holy’ Turns 40

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In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we take a look at Led Zeppelin‘s 1973 classic “Houses Of The Holy,” which turns 40 today (March 28).

The “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to recording albums can be a dangerous one for rock bands. On one hand, it leaves many possibilities open. On the other, it can result in albums that sound haphazard and unfocused. In 1972 and 1973, Led Zeppelin was one of the most powerful forces popular music had ever known. At the peak of their artistic and commercial powers, they were looking to expand their horizons. After exploring the spectrum of the blues, from the dirt floor acoustic sounds of the Delta to the rave-up electric sound of the Chicago (notably artists from the Chess label, namely Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy), they began looking elsewhere for inspiration while keeping one foot firmly entrenched in blues.

Opening with the rocker “The Song Remains The Same,” Robert Plant sang, “Anything I wanted to know, any place I needed to go,” would become something of a mantra for the singer, who to this day still explores new genres from bluegrass to Egyptian music. The song’s title, which would also end up as the name of their 1976 concert film and live album, set the tone for the album. Although they would try different styles on the album, it was still identifiably Zeppelin.

Rolling Stone revisited the album in 2003, giving it a belated five-star review. In the review, writer Gavin Edwards noted that “The Rain Song” was inspired by George Harrison, who lamented to John Bonham that Zeppelin didn’t have any ballads (apparently he missed “Thank You,” “That’s The Way” “Tangerine” and “Going To California”). Instead of locking Harrison in a room with Zeppelin’s II, III and their untitled fourth album, they locked down and created one of their most tender moments: “The Rain Song.” The song really showed the band’s growth, and Jimmy Page took a quantum leap forward as a producer. Instead of using layers of guitars to create something fearsome (a la “Whole Lotta Love”), this time he created something of beauty and sadness, and one that still feels fresh today. A lot of the credit for that also goes to Robert Plant, who restrained some of his machismo on the song. The “golden god” wasn’t always the easiest singer to relate to and he didn’t attempt to be, but when he sings “Upon us all, a little rain must fall,” he was. It has one of his finest performances ever.

On “The Rain Song,” and on Houses – and really, throughout Zeppelin’s career – John Paul Jones was the secret weapon. Never one to participate in the band’s infamous Hammer Of The Gods-type debauchery, Jones kept a low profile. On Houses, he expanded beyond bass guitar, organ and piano. If you’re wondering what he added to the band, listen to “The Rain Song” and try to imagine it without his mellotron-created sting section.

Later in the album, Zeppelin sailed into alien territory with “The Crunge,” a tribute to James Brown. The Godfather of Soul often shouted instructions to his band members while recording a song; in “Sex Machine,” he asked band members if he should “take it to the bridge.” In a rare on-album display of humor, Plant ends the song with a wink and tongue planted firmly in cheek, ending the song by asking “where’s the confounded bridge?”. The song actually has no bridge.

“D’yer Mak’er,” meanwhile, was their take on reggae, but “Over The Hills And Far Away,” “Dancing Days” and “No Quarter” were more familiar-sounding instant Zeppelin classics. “No Quarter” would go on to influence progressive rock and metal bands for generations, covered by  Tool – the gold standard of prog-metal bands – in 2000.

After the experimentation of the album, they wrapped it up with a rocker (albeit one that incorporated the ’50s doo-wop sounds that Plant loved) that featured one of Page’s greatest riffs, “The Ocean.” Even that takes an unexpected turn: Plant ends with, “Now I’m singing all my songs to the girl who won my heart…” And before you spend too much time wondering who could tame the sex god in his prime, he closes the album by revealing his domestic side: “She is only three years old and it’s a real fine way to start.”

Houses Of The Holy topped the Billboard 200 album chart and has gone on to sell over 11 million copies in the US. Rolling Stone named it one of the top 500 albums of all time while Pitchfork named it one of the best albums of the ’70s. It was a rare case of a band growing personally and artistically while being rewarded for it commercially. Even while trying on funk, reggae, string sections and (gasp!) fatherhood, the song, in fact, remained the same.

Brian Ives, Radio.com

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