Led Zeppelin's 'Houses of the Holy' Turns 40

Veiled blues, shimmering acoustic guitars, James Brown funk, quasi-reggae, a little jazz -- Zeppelin's first post-"Stairway" LP, released March 29, 1973, captured the band at its most playful and soulful.

When you’ve ascended the stairway to heaven and the whole world is bowing at your feet, what do you do for an encore?

That was the challenge confronting Led Zeppelin at the beginning of 1972 as the band began work on Houses of the Holy, the follow-up to its massively successful fourth album -- variously known as IV and ZOSO after the glyphs on the cover -- which had put the group right alongside The Rolling Stones in the competition for the mantle of the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band.

After a couple of false starts at Olympic Studios in London and New York’s Electric Lady, the band made a quick side trip to India en route to an Australian tour, doing some experimental recording with the Bombay Symphony and taping the city’s street musicians. When they met up with engineer Eddie Kramer at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s estate in the English countryside, it was springtime, and the pressure soon was forgotten. The recording sessions during the following weeks were extremely productive; all four band members were in high spirits and were consistently inspired as they worked. Indeed, at that point, work was play for them, perhaps more so than at any time before or since, with “the ethereal Page and Plant,” Robert Plant’s words, very much in evidence throughout Led Zeppelin’s spring idyll.

As Led Zeppelin’s producer, Jimmy Page tended to be extremely demanding, but during the Stargroves sessions he was relatively laid back, perhaps experiencing a bout of spring fever himself. Kramer recorded the sessions from The Rolling Stones’ mobile studio, a truck with a 16-track recording setup, which had been used the previous year for Exile on Main Street. The engineer moved the truck around the palatial estate in order to make use of its array of natural acoustic settings, with strikingly vivid results.

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Covering a wide stylistic and textural expanse, Houses of the Holy is a radical change of pace from the previous four -- so much so that the critics didn’t know what to make of it at first. Opener “The Song Remains the Same” moves from a regal fanfare into Byrds-y jangle and Townshend-esque windmill chords in what adds up to a squadron of interwoven overdubbed guitars, while Plant lets loose with some trance-scatting like a mullah on steroids.

One of a handful of Led Zep songs that legitimately could be called a ballad, the duskily evocative “The Rain Song” glides along at a measured pace, with Page’s slurred, bluesy guitar motif doubled by John Paul Jones’ Mellotron strings. It leads seamlessly into the shimmering 12-string acoustic opening of “Over the Hills and Far Away,” setting up a signature Zeppelin soft/loud transition from the pastoral reverie into a crushing but springy/tensile phalanx of guitars, the acoustic skipping through the heaviness like a wood nymph over boulders.

The spirit of those joyful weeks at Stargroves permeates “The Crunge” and “D’yer Mak'er,” the first appearing out of nowhere during a quick jaunt to Headley Grange, the second arising out of a lighthearted attempt to play a reggae groove -- the results of which can be likened to a brontosaurus on its tiptoes. Seemingly impromptu, "The Crunge" captures Led Zeppelin at its most playful and soulful, with John Bonham working the refracted James Brown tempo, while Plant’s bluesy vocal slides mimic Page’s Stratocaster licks.

These two literally offbeat tracks sandwich the ecstatic “Dancing Days,” powered by Page’s cobra dance riff, the snarling inhales of his Les Paul matched by the hiss of Bonham’s hi-hat. Kramer recalled the sight from his vantage point in the mobile with the doors wide open during the first playback of “Dancing Days”: "It was Robert, Bonzo, Jonesy and Jimmy dancing in a line on a green lawn, celebrating this incredible thing they’d just recorded.”

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The out-there epic “No Quarter” (the lone Houses track recorded in an actual studio) is loaded up by Jones with such unconventional elements as bass synth, Therein, heavily treated vocals, cocktail piano and a jazz guitar interlude. And finally, “The Ocean,” turning on another iconic Page riff, with the twist that it’s in 7/8 time, before the band makes an abrupt shift into a boogie tempo carrying Allman Brothers-style harmony-riffing.

While the Stargroves sessions went down quickly and smoothly, the rest of the project was arduous, as Page continued to overdub, mix and remix the tracks over a period of months.

There also was the matter of the album cover. The provocative final image, a multiple-exposure photographic collage depicting naked towheaded children clambering over a desolate landscape, came together following a drawn-out, painstaking process in those pre-digital days. Inspired by a snapshot taken by Plant in 1970 while on holiday in Cardigan Bay, the piece was designed by Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis, perhaps best known for their Pink Floyd artwork.

Rather than simply slapping a V on the LP, Plant dreamed up the enigmatic title, which referred to the packed arenas where they held sway in front of thousands of euphoric fans, rituals of sound and fury that he viewed as essentially spiritual in nature. He further alluded to the masses of humanity who gathered to worship them every night in the title of “The Ocean.” Nonetheless -- and even with its monumental bookends -- this was Led Zeppelin at its most disarmingly human.

Houses of the Holy was a very inspired time,” Plant stated nearly two decades after the album’s release. “There was a lot of imagination on that record. I prefer it much more than the fourth album.”

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