DUST IT OFF: Led Zeppelin’s “Houses Of The Holy”…40 years later

Everyone has their music origins, and I definitely remember some of the first records that were in my parents’ collection or in the house of my uncle. Santana’s Abraxas, Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and El Chicano’s Viva Tirado were albums favored by my mom and dad, while Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality was what I craved when I had to stay next door with my Uncle Wayne. These records had a big influence on my outlook of not only music, but album covers and how art and design had a role in how music was interpreted. In my case, I was a three and four year old having to figure out what these images were and what, if anything, they had to do with what was coming out of the speakers. I’ve talked about how John Rowles’ “Cheryl Moana Marie” and Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” also played roles in my life as something that was more than records found within the box of 45’s that were near our stereo in California. Yet looking at everything I’ve ever listened to, there is one album for me that reigns near the top as the monarch of everything.

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Houses Of The Holy was my introduction to Led Zeppelin, and what an introduction. It was a record that was played loud everywhere I went, and when records were played loud, I couldn’t help but to listen. I’d sit in the living room as a three year old, with the album cover in my lap and wondering who these naked kids were. Where are their parents, I’m sure I asked myself. Where are they going? What are these holes they’re coming from, and where is this mysterious place? Who is that man on the inside, and is he going to throw the girl down the mountain? How come everything is orange, yellow, blue, and green? So many questions but no answers were to come upon staring at this cover for 40 minutes at a time.

As I approached the double digits in age, I would have a few more Led Zeppelin records, including Led Zeppelin III and the (untitled 4th album). In my early teens, I had all of their albums on cassette, specifically the Atlantic reissues from the late 70’s. It had come as a shock when I discovered drummer John Bonham died, which meant I could never see them in concert. From what one of my uncles had told me, Led Zeppelin had played in Honolulu a number of times before they were banned for life. That was his story, and for years I believed it. I later discovered that those Honolulu shows were done before and including the (untitled 4th album) but once they reached a certain level of success, they were not to return to Hawai’i for shows ever again. In turn, Led Zeppelin created a mystique which lead to false rumors, until I discovered how to find out the truths of these rumors for myself.

In my teen years, I had a Houses Of The Holy door poster. My first LZ CD was Houses Of The Holy, specifically the West German target pressing. I read Hammer Of The Gods, watched The Song Remains The Same and went through many articles about the band, and how the music on the (untitled 4th album) had become a classic in itself, partly due to the success of “Stairway To Heaven” and how the album was eventually purchased as a single since the U.S. didn’t release the song as a 45. I understood it and respected it, but while I’ve gone through their music many times over, bought and raided bootlegs to hear them go through the motions in many combinations, I found myself always returning to the record that made me a fan in the first place.

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  • Instead of analyzing each song from start to finish, I’m going to start at the end and move backwards to the beginning. “The Ocean” ends the album in a glorious way because the band compared the throng of their audiences to an ocean, as they heard the oceans roar. This is also a song where Robert Plant offers a song to “the girl who won my heart/she is only three years old, and it’s a real fine way to start”, lines which could never exist today without parental groups or someone online tearing Plant, Led Zeppelin, manager Peter Grant, and Atlantic Records apart. Who was this mysterious three year old girl, or was Plant just pulling something out of the air just to see if people would say something? In truth, the three year old girl was Plant’s daughter Carmen, who was three at the time the band were in the studio recording the album. The count-in from Bonham is a nice touch, the vocal overlays from Plant stand out, and the band switching over to doo-wop for the song’s final vamp is perfect as a means to say “we did it, we’re going to rock out for you one more time.”
  • Listening to “No Quarter” was always the trippy and moody part of the album for me due to its tempo, it’s vibe and groove, the tone of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo, John Paul Jones’ organ work, and the eeriness of Plant’s vocals, which came from the entire track being pitched down just a notch for its final mix. I’d always look forward to hearing this, the third song on Side 2, when I played the album because while I grew up with songs on the radio and those “little records” (i.e. 45’s) my parents had, this was a means to explore a song. I’m sure I wondered how anyone could play that long, but I found it to be cool and soothing. It would be awhile before I had a full understanding of the lyrics, some of it direct, some of it left to the interpretation of the listener:

    Walking side by side with death
    The devil mocks their every step
    The snow drives back the foot that’s slow
    The dogs of doom are howling more
    They carry news that must get through
    To build a dream for me and you
    They choose the path that no one goes

    As a kid listening to a Led Zep album that had a lyric sheet, I had no idea what any of this meant or what they were referring to. I just thought that they were going somewhere, they’re walking on some kind of sacred ground, and now they’re going to places unknown. “Oooh, that’s cool”. Mix that up with how the band presented the music itself, and it was a seven-minute joy ride, one that we could always return to from the start at any time.

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  • “D’yer Mak’er” was always one of the few “fun” songs the band had made, one that seemed to sound funny to me as a kid because of its rhythm, even though I had heard similar rhythms before: Paul Simon’s “Mother & Child Reunion” and Nash’s aforementioned “I Can See Clearly Now”. I would not know the term “reggae” until I was nine or ten (maybe 11), but I liked how it sounded different to me. Plant’s lyrics were very lighthearted, one that didn’t involve any interpretation of deciphering, and I think that not only made it easy to listen to, but why radio stations played it back then, and still do to this day.
  • “Dancing Days” opened Side 2 in a glorious way with those guitar riffs from Page that always killed me. As I would eventually get into Indian classical music, I realized that those chords had an Indian or Middle Eastern flavor, especially that swooping drone that made it sound like nothing I had ever before. I think the line “dancing days are here again” are self-explanatory, but what to make of a verse like this:
    You told your mother I’d get you home
    But you didn’t say that I got no car
    I saw a lion, he was standin’ alone
    With a tadpole in a jar

    What kind of innuendo is that? Regardless of what it meant (or doesn’t mean), I always loved Page’s guitar and the Jones/Bonham rhythm section, before the song ends with a slight “spring”-ish feel.

    Houses Of The Holy ad #2 photo LZhoth_Ad2_zpsc0a99efb.jpg

  • “The Crunge” is one of the other fun Led Zep songs, as the band get into a nasty James Brown groove while Plant gets gritty on the vocals. It always amazed me that while Bonham was said to not be able to get a reggae tempo on time (thus the reason why “D’yer Mak’er” sounds the way it does), he was always able to capture the funkiest moments in his drumming, due to him being a huge fan of James Brown’s records. He definitely gets down throughout “The Crunge”, especially the open drum break which has been sampled numerous times over the years. As for the bridge, no one knows where it is.
  • “Over The Hills And Far Away” begins acoustically and it could easily be a nice folk song before Page drives up his acoustic guitar before moving it to the side for electric splendor. Plant gets slightly mystical and mythical in the lyrics, almost as a puzzle or limerick for people to figure out, or at least to think of when the moment arises:
    Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing
    Many many men can’t see the open road.

    Many is a word that only leaves you guessing
    Guessing ’bout a thing you really ought to know

    My favorite part of the song is when the band fades out and all you hear is a guitar and its distant echo, before you hear another guitar and accompanying bass, taking us finally over the hills and towards a new home.

  • “The Rain” Song is one of two 7+ minute tracks on the album, and this comes after the album’s opening bombastic blast (more on this later), so by being positioned as track 2, it is meant to be a calming effect of sorts. According to Wikipedia, George Harrison had questioned Bonham on why they have never recorded any ballads. This was what they offered, and it is said that the opening two chords in “The Rain Song” were borrowed from The Beatles’ “Something”, as an ode to their Beatle friend.

    Even though this is their ballad, a very mellow one at that, there are a lot of things to get out of this. Wikipedia also states that the band used “Slush” as a working title for this song due to it having an easy listening arrangement, which also makes sense considering Jones’ piano work (specifically around the part of the song where Plant says “talk, talk, talk, talk”) sounds like something from either an easy listening album or a country record. It comes out of nowhere and almost doesn’t fit at first, but due to the tone of the lyrics and that rise in mood, it seems to fit in a unique manner. It then leads to the band wrapping up the song until that powerful echo closes Page’s guitar solo.

    Then the album begins.

  • Each time I would enter my uncle’s house, it would always lead to music. I’m sure there was a hello or “want to eat some food?” but my greatest joy was to be able to sit next to my uncle’s stereo and hear the record he had to offer. For a good year, it was Houses Of The Holy that was played first, and of course it always started with Side One. Those opening chords sounded like a calling of sorts, a welcome to the music that is about to be played. Bring in the bass and drums that collide during the guitar, and after six seconds, the band are one. Page’s guitar work is perfect here before Jones walks down a slightly different path, and eventually Page digs nastily as if he’s crawling in dirt, looking for some soil to create something new, followed by another brilliant solo. This eventually leads into some furious Jones bass swoops and Page jingle/jangling his guitar, all anchored by the weight of Bonham’s drums before Plant is finally heard almost 90 seconds into the song:
    I had a dream, oh man
    Crazy dream, oh…
    Anything I wanted to know
    Any place I needed to go

    Hear my song, now, people won’t you listen now
    Sing along, oh… you don’t know what you’re missing now
    Any little song that you know
    Everything that’s small has to grow
    and it always grows

    The band soon rise once again as Plant sings “push, push it… aaaaah!” and as a kid, I had no idea what was going on but it sounded great. As I got older and would listen to “Whole Lotta Love” and other songs, was this one of Plant’s many orgasmic moments in song? The band went back into the groove that started the song, but with a different guitar solo from Page. Jones went higher with his bass notes, all while Bonham is pounding the hell out of his kit, but this is nothing. All of a sudden, Plant yells out a “nah nah nah nah naaaah” and he offers up the song’s core, the centerpiece of everything:
    California sunlight
    sweet Calcutta rain
    Honolulu star bright
    The song remains the same

    I was born and initially raised in California, and for the longest time I could never figure out the other words. It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 that I realized that he was saying “Honolulu star bright” and I thought oh, that’s where I live. I loved the reference to Calcutta rain, and as I was getting into Indian classical music for the first time through The Beatles, I found the reference to be one of mystery but one I thought could be soothing in the right frame of mind. By the end of those four lines, it seemed that no matter where you were, there you are. Fair and simple, you make do with things and live and love.

    The band get into yet another groove, and as someone who was raised near a beach and the ocean, hearing the way this song goes into valleys and reaches peaks is like someone surfing. There’s a bit of calm waters before you catch yourself waiting for the ocean to rise again and you’re in the tube, waiting for a hopefully powerful ride. It gets that way after the 3:40 mark, as Page seems to dance around a bit, before things get incredibly bombastic in strength and volume after the four minute mark. Plant lets out a quick moan (another thrust?) before the band get ready for the swell of another wave. All of a sudden, that wave rises again and the band are once again on top as Plant sings something that sounds like “oh, are we gonna do it now?” before he unleashes his final statement:
    Sing out Hare Hare
    Dance the Hoochie Koo
    City lights are oh so bright
    as we go sliding…

    Do these lines really mean anything in the grand scheme of things? I know Plant was known for coming up with random lyrics, often from other songs, during live performances, but did he actually write these words down and said “I’m going to sing this with all of my heart”? Yet referring to California, Calcutta, and Honolulu earlier in the song, somehow these lyrics make a small bit of sense, as he is revamping what was established before ending the song with a ride towards the ocean shore. Also, who exactly is this “we” and what are they sliding down on? The answer, like the location of the bridge, remains unknown.

  • For me, the excitement of “The Song Remains The Same” and the thrills heard within make it my favorite Led Zeppelin song of all time, which associates itself with the seven other songs on Houses Of The Holy that make it an album I can and will never live without. It begins with Plant wondering about a dream and ending with a dance with his daughter. Can these songs be the houses, and are Led Zeppelin the holy ones? Or do the holes refer to the houses where the naked brother and sister on the cover live? Or is the “holy” reference meant to be something secretly sexual? What does it mean? What does it not mean? Regardless, the color tones on the cover design help to create the auras heard in the music, which in turn helps the listener look at the world in a very different way, perhaps more powerful, more glorious, more elegant. With a smile.

    Oddly enough, while the band did record a title track for the album, it was not used until the group put together Physical Graffiti two years later for their first album on their own label, Swan Song. Perhaps its lyrics tell the tale of what they tried to accomplish with the album:

    From the houses of the holy, we can watch the white doves go
    From the door comes Satan’s daughter, and it only goes to show
    You know.

    There’s an angel on my shoulder, In my hand a sword of gold
    Let me wander in your garden and the seeds of love I’ll sow
    You know

    Or maybe not.

    Even though it could easily be placed within the album’s eight song line-up, the world now knows that it will never fit. It may fit perfectly to separate the sides (i.e. between “The Crunge” and “Dancing Days”) but someone who has grown up with this album will never fiddle with the sanctity of this album, with these eight songs, in the exact order. For me, the holiness of Led Zeppelin will always and forever be found here, at Giant’s Causeway, climbing naked as children until our youth ends as we all grow up to climb over to explore the great unknown.

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    Giants Causeway photo GiantsCauseway_zps31ae3d79.jpg

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