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Credit: Jim Marshall

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The Cover Uncovered: The apocalyptic image of Led Zeppelin's 'Houses of the Holy'

1973’s Houses of the Holy by Led Zeppelin is often considered their last great record. On it, we got the same band who appeared on 1971’s untitled album but with an even more grandiose inflexion. This was the point where the band shed off the dark blues edge of their early era and went truly expansive. They’d teased us with this sound in 1971, but now they had fully realised it. 

A stellar mix of hard rock, psychedelia, folk, reggae and even funk, this was the last true hurrah by the band before excess and pretension took over and produced 1975’s utterly terrible, Physical Graffiti. Featuring classics such as ‘The Song Remains the Same’, ‘The Rain Song’ and ‘D’yer Mak’er’, across its 40 minutes run time, Houses of the Holy rarely has a down point. 

For a record so brilliant, it needed an equally as memorable album cover to boot, and it got one. It was the first cover of any Led Zeppelin record to be designed by a member of the ubiquitous London design studio, Hipgnosis. In 1998, guitarist Jimmy Page revealed that the iconic cover image was actually the second to have been submitted by Hipgnosis.

The first came via the era’s premier cover artist, Storm Thorgerson. It featured a vivid green tennis court with a tennis racket on it. The band were incensed by Thorgerson’s sardonic visual pun, implying that their music was a ‘racket’, and quickly fired him. They hired his colleague Aubrey Powell to take his place. 

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The huge decision to fire Thorgerson and opt for Powell proved to be a significant one. Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke’s influential science fiction novel Childhood’s End, he created something as mystical as the record. The 1953 book follows the story of a peaceful alien invasion of Earth by the strange ‘Overlords’ whose arrival on the planet kicks off an age of apparent utopia under their rule.

Although not discernable on first viewing, the cover image is actually a collage of several photographs that Powell took at the area of outstanding natural beauty, The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Memorably, the cover features two blonde, naked children scaling the basalt columns that make up the Causeway. The children were siblings Stefan and Samantha Gates. An interesting side note, Stefan went on to become a well-known TV presenter.

As seems to be the case with anything that’s worthwhile, capturing the right images was no easy task. It took ten days to seize suitable images, and shooting was done first thing in the morning and then again at sunset to capture the differing lights offered at both times. Annoyingly for everyone involved, the desired effect was never achieved due to the weather. The clouds seemingly never cleared, and it was constantly raining. This is Northern Ireland, after all, so we don’t know why they expected anything else. 

Brilliantly, the photos were taken in monochrome and then multi-printed to create that strange, almost hallucinatory effect of the eleven figures that made it onto the final cover. Still, Powell was not convinced with just this, but luckily, some accidental tinting he did in post-production gave him the artwork he had been striving so hard for.

During a 2010 BBC Radio 4 documentary about the cover art, Stefan Gates opined that there’s something very sinister about the image. He also revealed that he’d never actually heard the album or met the band. The documentary ended with Gates returning to Giant’s Causeway and finally listening to the album on an mp3 player (remember them), and after the experience, he said he felt a “great weight” had been lifted from his shoulders.

During another discussion of the album cover on a 2008 episode of The Wright Stuff, Gates expanded on why he found the cover image so “tremendously scary”. He thought that it was a “very apocalyptic image”. That is precisely the cover’s brilliance. Powell managed to capture the sentiment of Childhood’s End perfectly. The implications of this point are manifold, and we certainly suggest you read the classic book.

The cover was also a departure for Led Zeppelin. Houses of the Holy became the first album by the British legends to have a title that did not mention their name like their first three. Like with its predecessor, neither the band’s name nor title was printed on the sleeve. This decision augmented the mystery of the record, a splendid artistic choice.

One of the band’s stand out records, Houses of the Holy is the complete package. Profound in both the audio and visual sense, it is always worth a revisit. 

Listen to Houses of the Holy below.

(Credit: Led Zeppelin)