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How Led Zeppelin’s album 'Houses of the Holy' ripped up the rulebook

What makes Houses of the Holy one of Led Zeppelin’s best, if not, the best album, is how ‘un-Led Zeppelin’ it is. Although having said, quite a few numbers on the album have become household epics, and are the most likely ones to be heard on any classic rock radio station. The truth is, Houses of the Holy operates in a sphere that perpetuates both dualities at once. It is both unusual and formulaic, classic and experimental, sweet and sour — the light and the dark.

By the time Led Zeppelin had completed their fourth record, it was unclear how the legendary rock n’ roll band was going to continue. Their previous records were all linked in musical style, and it seemed that they had truly hammered it home — heavy rock was here to stay. Could the band have possibly made a Led Zeppelin V and continued in the same vein? The worst that can be said about Zeppelin leading up to Houses of The Holy, is that the previous four albums were really just one album done four different ways. Although, trying to deliver something entirely unique seemed to evade every pther act of the time too.

Houses of the Holy was both inevitable and miraculous. The band were most likely expected to blow it with their fifth effort; one can almost hear the music press at the time, thinking to themselves: ‘this is where they fall flat on their faces’. Not only did Zeppelin create something very different from that, but they exceeded expectations and created something that was distinct from their original musical DNA of blues-rock.

Houses of the Holy proved to the world that Led Zeppelin had combined all their elements: blues, mystics, science-fiction, fantasy, and general other-worldliness into a compact package of refined solipsism. The band on this record possessed progressive rock elements that entailed non-standard signatures; with their sustained success, Led Zeppelin had nowhere else to go but to dive even deeper within themselves.

One key ingredient to the success of this formula was a newly found chemistry of writing together. Whereas on their prior records, Jimmy Page did the bulk of the writing with Robert Plant providing his ethereal crooning melodies and Lord of The Rings-inspired lyrics; with their fifth record, there was a newfound sense of cohesiveness. “When we first went down there, we had no set ideas,” Jimmy Page noted to biographer Ritchie Yorke. “We just recorded the ideas each one of us had at that particular time. It was simply a matter of getting together and letting it come out,” Page added.

John Paul Jones played a significantly larger role on the album as well. John Paul Jones, the band’s bass player, organ player/keys, was their secret weapon in many regards. His sense of composition, arrangement, and overall technical proficiency was paid more attention to and utilised. Jimmy Page was the black magician who dabbled in deep mysticism to unlock the sub-conscious and provide the spark for many of their songs. Robert Plant was the fairy leader with a gorgeous voice and an incredible magnetic presence. John Bonham was the loose cannon and the rocker who provided powerhouse percussion, and John Paul Jones was the technician, the loner nerd who works in the proverbial IT department of Led Zeppelin. 

When they were looking to start the recording process for Houses of the Holy, as they did with their last records, Jimmy Page wanted to really inhabit the album; he didn’t want the band to go to a recording studio for a few hours and then return home; he wanted the band to live within the process itself. As their usual choice of location, Headley Grange had been unavailable in the Spring of 1972, they chose, instead, Stargroves; none other than Mick Jagger’s manor in a place called East Woodhay.

It had a certain je ne sais quoi about the energy — this is where The Rolling Stones recorded Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers. The Who also recorded Who’s Next here. This idea of living within the recording studio was initially inspired by Music From Big Pink from The Band, in which they employed this strategy. 

“I didn’t know for sure if they had, but I liked the idea. I thought it was definitely worth a shot to actually go someplace and really live it, rather than visiting a studio and going home. I wanted to see what would happen if all we did was have this one thing in sight – making music and just really living the experience of it,” Jimmy Page said in an interview with Guitar World.

Jagger’s manor, Stargroves, as is usually the case, played a significant role in how Houses of the Holy sounds. For two of their records, Led Zeppelin II and III, studio engineer and producer Eddie Kramer helped Jimmy Page, who mostly took the producer’s role for all their records, perfect the sound. According to The Rolling Stone, the two parties had a falling out due to an accident involving ‘spilt curry’ after recording Led Zeppelin III. The two got over their petty grievances, and Kramer returned to work on Zeppelin’s fifth record. Kramer recalled in an interview with The Rolling Stone: “It sounded wonderful because you could get this amazing variable acoustic in each room with drums in the conservatory, which is where we put Bonham. Then, of course, Jimmy’s amp could be stuck in a fireplace and stick a microphone down it, all that sort of thing. It was just the ability to be able to change the sound without going anywhere.” 

One of the most important aspects of Houses of the Holy is that the record is entirely their own material, whereas, on their previous records, they had borrowed a lot from classic blues songs. The album also features Zeppelin’s first real ballad, which as fate would have it, was spurred on by The Beatle, George Harrison. “George was talking to Bonzo one evening and said, ‘The problem with you guys is that you never do ballads,’” Jimmy Page remarked once to the biographer, Brad Tolinski. “I said, ‘I’ll give him a ballad,’ and I wrote ‘Rain Song’.” If you listen carefully enough, you’ll hear that the opening sequence of ‘Rain Song’ bears a very uncanny resemblance to Harrison’s ‘Something’.

A point of contention arose with their single, ‘D’yer Maker’. The song is a good representation of the fluidity and genre-bending nature of the album. Led Zeppelin explored other genres; ‘Dy’er Maker’ saw the band make a foray into reggae. In an interview with Zig Zag in 1973, Robert Plant described the details surrounding the single: “We had just laid down ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ which is a real belter. It was about 5 a.m. and I had been hoping for a long time to do something like ‘D’yer Mak’er. It was born then and there.” 

Not everyone in the group shared Plant’s enthusiasm, however. There are two genres that John Bonham couldn’t stand — jazz and reggae. Especially the latter; Bonham couldn’t stand playing reggae. It makes me cringe a bit. It started off as a joke, really, but I wasn’t happy with the way it turned out. Robert really liked it, but even in a band, people have different opinions about the songs,” Bonham explained. As for how the members felt about Houses of the Holy in general, John Paul Jones remains an avid fan of the first side of the record: “‘The Crunge’ is brilliant – very tight, really, when you think about it. It’s one of my favourites.” The side one closer, ‘The Crunge’, is a brilliant ode to James Brown and his brand of funk, with a 5/4 time signature, no less.

Ironically, during their heyday at the height of their success, while Led Zeppelin were adored by countless fans, not every music publication shared this affection. Quite a few publications, including The Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, and Disc & Echo, proclaimed that “Led Zeppelin had lost their way” with Houses of the Holy. Any plain Zeppelin fan expecting the same old, same old from Zeppelin’s fifth record will surely be disappointed. This unexpected delineation from their blues roots is a good symptom of a band breaking out of their mould. Houses of the Holy remains the most exceptional Zeppelin record.