Houses of the Holy
As Dave Lewis (see the www.tbl.com website and Record Collector magazine feature) reminds us, this week saw the 40th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin’s fifth album. Having numbered their first three LPs and titled the fourth with four symbols, they more conventionally gave the fifth a title: Houses of the Holy (a reference to their audiences and concert halls). The Zeppelin mystique was assuaged by the fact that the title was not printed on the sleeve but came as a paper wrap-around. The sleeve itself was a strikingly tinted photo montage of the Giant’s Causeway. Nor did the album contain the song ‘Houses of the Holy’, which was eventually released in 1975 on Physical Grafitti.
Houses of the Holy was a hugely-anticipated album, following the band’s elevation to international fame during the preceding two years, and the fourth album which contained ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Many were hoping for another ‘Stairway’ on the new album, and Robert Plant revealed in one interview that the band did indeed have a song metaphorically fired from the same cannon. This was ‘The Rain Song’, a very attractive altered-tuning ballad with rising and falling dynamics. The remaining seven songs included the uptempo rollercoaster ‘The Song Remains The Same’, the delightful acoustic / electric mix of ‘Over The Hills and Far Away’, the heavy rock winter nocturne of ‘No Quarter’, the unbuttoned and joyful rifferama of ‘The Ocean’ (its opening riff combing a bar of 4/4 with one of 7/8), and the two controversial tracks ‘D’Yer Mak’er’ and ‘The Crunge’.
These were received by the more prog-rock ‘hairy’ part of Zep’s audience as ideological crimes: the first for being reggae and the other for being James Brown funk, and both for being apparently Not Serious. How dare Zep waste several inches of vinyl bandwidth on musical jokes! was the cry. What happened to the Viking-horde-clamouring-for-Valhalla head-banging which was what the World’s Official Heaviest Band were supposed to deliver?
The answer was that the World’s Official Heaviest Band fancied a bit of variety and to let their hair down a bit. They also wanted to not merely churn out ‘Black Dog’ Parts 2,3,4,5,6 … (They made a similar gesture in 1970 when III turned out to have quite a lot of acoustic music on it). I’ve always found both tracks perfectly entertaining in a light-hearted way, and contributing to the sparkle and variety of the album as a whole. ‘D’yer Mak’er”s title (an old joke: ‘My wife’s gone on holiday’, ‘Jamaica?’, ‘No, she went of her own accord’) is misleading because the song bears little relationship to reggae and owes much more to doo-wop – as is evident from the chord sequence, Plant’s lyric, and the album sleeve’s allusion to Rosie and the Originals. What I’ve always found hugely entertaining about this track is Bonham’s drumming, which is wildly too heavy for the song, but by that reason becomes a spectacle – as if a production of Swan Lake were gatecrashed by a squaddie in size 10 boots.
And talking about production, the drum sound on ‘D’yer Mak’er’ is amazingly vibrant, whereas the overall production lacks the monolithic crunch of the fourth album. But the arrangements show the band at the height of their powers. The amount of musical colour and detail in ‘No Quarter’ is astonishing, and, contrary to the indulgences of their live sets, nothing is present in excess.
The one track I haven’t mentioned is ‘Dancing Days’. This has to be one of the most harmonically inventive hard rock tracks ever recorded. It is built on a sinewy semi-tone riff moving between C# and D over a G chord, punctuated by a blues flat 3rd Bb and rude sixths that poke their tongue out every couple of bars. This has a definite Lydian mode flavour to me. It’s a good example of how a dissonant augmented fourth can have an erotic charge rather than the usual satanic / dark edge of the flat 5. In the verse the band settle into what initially seems like a Stones groove on C, but any comparison with ‘Honky Tonk Women’ goes out the window with the second chord which is based on C# with a tritonal colour. The progression of the verse also uses Bb and A with other odd notes added so the rock rhythm riff is given a Crowleyesque twist. Short and sweet, it is one of those tracks that has the quintessential Zep vibe.
Houses of the Holy remains an unconventional but good way into Led Zeppelin’s music.