Looking Back

Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy at 50

A closer look at the rock heroes' fan-favourite fifth album, half a century on

In 1973 rock music was in transition. The Beatles had begun to feel like a distant memory. Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were dead. Many of the hippie rockers of the Woodstock Generation that survived would soon begin to grow up and start writing smooth, adult contemporary pop and soft rock. A fresh-faced punk would make the most of this opening, sticking a big chunky boot in the door to usher in its revolution. Within a year or two, disco would begin filling the dancefloors. The stalwarts of rock ‘n’ roll had got so big as to seem untouchable, flying privately to their huge stadium shows β€” in some cases, no doubt, in the tense and jaded way seen later in on-screen parodies.

Five albums in, one such bastion found themselves at a similar crossroads. In May of that year, Led Zeppelin would break The Beatles’ famous Shea Stadium record as 57, 000 fans filled into the Tampa Stadium in Florida to witness them. Within four years of forming, the prolific English band had released four rock albums so impressive that they didn’t even need titles; their heavy blues rock spoke for itself. By 1973 Zeppelin were probably the most in-demand band in the world. Where the hell could they go from there?

Led Zeppelin - The Song Remains the Same (Madison Square Garden 1973)

The answer was not more of the same. As the needle hit the wax on Houses Of The Holy, and as wide eyes took in the oversaturated hues of its otherworldly cover, the irony of its opener ‘The Song Remains the Same’ hit like a cold smack. As a magazine advert promoting its March release put it: “The effect is shattering”. Out was the moody blues-based rock of previous albums and in was a bright and experimental swirl from which elements of psychedelia, prog, folk, funk and even reggae could be glimpsed.

The songs had certainly not remained the same. Where IV had ended on a tone so trudging stuffy your ears could feel the heat, Houses blew it all away with a pep and lightness, as Jimmy Page’s guitar work felt even more free and angular. It carried a newness that was fun, or a funness that was new, but it was also emotionally dynamic and unpredictable (even intended to be an instrumental).

But nothing showed Led Zeppelin having fun more than ‘The Crunge,’ a divisive but clear homage to James Brown’s school of funk, with Robert Plant gyrating and shaking while searching for the bridge. Even more bizarre was ‘D’yer Mak’er’ β€” pronounced Jamaica because yeah, this was the band giving reggae a go (it was the 70s…). ‘Dancing Days’ channelled their global inspirations more tastefully, a sleazy and serpentine ripper influenced by Page and Plant’s travels in India.

Led Zeppelin - No Quarter (Live at Madison Square Garden 1973)

Houses didn’t lack grit or emotional depth, though. ‘No Quarter’ holds one of the most vengeful and snarling guitar riffs in history, as Plant sang ominously of Thor’s cold blowing winds and howling dogs of doom. ‘The Rain Song’ was supposedly written after friend of the band George Harrison suggested they write more ballads; they responded with truly one of the decade’s best, with its cascading electric guitars and lush reveries from JPJ’s mellotron. John Bonham’s drums modestly lace all these parts together into its whole before building to an expansive climax that, 25 years later, Britpop bands would dream of.

The shattering effect of this record didn’t work for everyone upon its release, not least Rolling Stone’s Gordon Fletcher, who, in his utterly damning review famously called it “the dullest and most confusing album I’ve heard this year”. (It’s worth noting that the publication had some grouchy critics in those years – they hadn’t taken to the band’s debut either – and have since even added the record to their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.)

But the numbers spoke for themselves – Houses Of The Holy topping the charts in the UK, America, Canada and Australia. After its release, Led Zeppelin took the album on a record-breaking North American tour that culminated in nights at Madison Square Garden. Looking out at these crowds, Plant surely felt vindicated as he sang lines from the record’s classic riffing closer: “Singing to an ocean, I can hear the ocean’s roar/ Play for free, I play for me and play a whole lot more, more!”.

Led Zeppelin - The Ocean (Live at Madison Square Garden 1973)