Led Zeppelin's 'Houses of the Holy': Things You Didn't Know - Rolling Stone
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Led Zeppelin’s ‘Houses of the Holy’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

A tip from George Harrison, a parody of James Brown and other lore surrounding the band’s brilliant, transitional 1973 LP

“The key to Led Zeppelin‘s longevity has always been change,” Jimmy Page proclaimed in 1975. This restless sprit enthralled some fans and infuriated others, specifically the type who preferred that the band remain on one sonic plane. Moving past the high-octane thunder of the gods found on their early albums, the folky Celtic mysticism of Led Zeppelin III and the megalithic rock of Led Zeppelin IV, 1973’s Houses of the Holy sounds very much like a band gleefully pondering limitless possibilities. 

Refusing to be cowed by global success, Zeppelin followed their muse wherever it led them, experimenting with unfamiliar genres – as on the reggae-influenced “D’Yer Mak’er” and the playfully funky “The Crunge” – and even forging a few new ones (see: the unclassifiable “No Quarter”). It’s the first Led Zeppelin album to consist solely of original material, and it documented how their songwriting had graduated far beyond amped-up blues retreads and guitar pyrotechnics. “Houses of the Holy was a very inspired time,” Plant reflected in 1991. “There was a lot of imagination on that record.”

On its 45th anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about Led Zeppelin’s fifth album.

1. “The Song Remains the Same” was originally an instrumental track called “The Overture.”
The album opens with a triumphant, Page-led processional befitting Led Zeppelin’s status as rock royalty. The guitarist structured the song as an intricate mini-suite, contrasting bombastic slashes of suspended chords (reminiscent of his 1967 Yardbirds cut “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor”) with delicate acoustic elements. Presented to the band under the working title of “Worcester And Plumpton Races” – an inside reference to his and Plant’s respective estates – “The Song Remains the Same” was first performed during Zeppelin’s tour of Japan in October 1972, when it was introduced from the stage alternately as “The Campaign,” “The Overture” and sometimes just “Zep.” Its final name would come from Plant’s lyrics, distilling wisdom acquired during the band’s lengthy time on the road. “Every time I sing [‘The Song Remains the Same’], I just picture the fact that I’ve been round and round the world, and at the root of it all there’s a common denominator for everybody,” he told NME in 1973. “The common denominator is what makes it good or bad, whether it’s a Led Zeppelin or an Alice Cooper.”

2. George Harrison provided inspiration for “The Rain Song,” after complaining about the band’s repertoire.
George Harrison was enormously supportive of Led Zeppelin, even putting in a guest appearance at John Bonham’s 25th birthday party in 1973 – where he affectionately flung cake at the man of honor’s head. (Bonzo flung him into the pool for his troubles.) Following one of the band’s marathon three-hour concerts in Los Angeles, a suitably impressed Harrison warmly greeted Zeppelin backstage by exclaiming, “Fuck me! With the Beatles we were on for 25 minutes and could get off in 15!” But for all of his compliments, the so-called quiet Beatle was apparently disappointed by Zep’s dearth of quiet numbers. “George was talking to Bonzo one evening and said, ‘The problem with you guys is that you never do ballads,'” Page told biographer Brad Tolinski. “I said, ‘I’ll give him a ballad,’ and I wrote ‘Rain Song,’ which appears Houses of the Holy. In fact, you’ll notice I even quote ‘Something’ in the song’s first two chords.” He fleshed the out the song in his Plumpton home studio, which was partially comprised of the Pye Mobile Studio unit used for the Who’s Live at Leeds album in 1970. Aware that this new composition didn’t exactly live up to the console’s hard rocking pedigree, he gave it the sarcastic working title of “Slush.”

For Plant, who contributed lyrics, “The Rain Song” was emblematic of the “ethereal” output yielded by his partnership with Page. “Sometimes we have backing tapes of tracks worked out and somebody goes, ‘Well, we got no bloody lyrics,'” Plant told Rolling Stone. “‘The Rain Song’ was just sort of a little infatuation I had. The next morning I’d scribble it out. If I had done it the day after, it would have been no good.” He would retain a fondness for the track throughout the years, citing it as one of his favorites in a 2005 interview. “I’d say that on ‘Rain Song’ I sounded best. I’d reached a point where I knew that to get good I couldn’t repeat myself. The high falsetto screams had become quite a kind of calling card.”

John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin perform in Los Angeles.

3. Eddie Kramer was invited back as Director of Engineering, despite a nasty fight over Indian food.
Though Page is nominally listed as producer on all of the band’s albums, his partnership with virtuoso recording engineer Eddie Kramer on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II helped forge a crucial component of the band’s early sound. But relations became strained after the sessions for Led Zeppelin III the following year. “With Zeppelin, it became a battle, because they started to come into studio with such an attitude,” Kramer recalled in 2003. Things reached a breaking point at Electric Lady – the New York creative lab he had designed with Jimi Hendrix – when Zeppelin trashed the studio in quite possibly the least rock & roll way imaginable. “The band ordered some Indian food and a whole bunch of it spilled on the floor,” Kramer said. “I asked the roadies to please clean it up. The studio was brand new and I had a lot of pride in it. Suddenly [Led Zeppelin] are yelling, ‘You don’t tell our roadies what to do!’ And they pulled out; they left, and I didn’t speak to them for about a year!”

Kramer was not involved in 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV, but as work began on their fifth album, Page decided to bring him back into the fold. According to the engineer, the prior confrontation was water under the bridge: “They called back and asked me to record them again as if nothing had happened.”

4. The foundation of the album was recorded at Mick Jagger’s country home, Stargroves.
Beginning with their third release in 1970, Led Zeppelin sought to escape the drab confines of traditional recording studios by spending a portion of their album sessions holed up at an intimate rural estate. It was an idea borrowed from the Band, who had a communal home near Bob Dylan’s upstate retreat in Woodstock, New York. “I didn’t know exactly how the Band had recorded their Music from Big Pink album or The Basement Tapes, but the rumor was they were done in a house they had rented,” Page explained in Guitar World. “I didn’t know for sure if they had, but I liked the idea. I thought it was definitely worth a shot to actually go someplace and really live it, rather than visiting a studio and going home. I wanted to see what would happen if all we did was have this one thing in sight – making music and just really living the experience of it.”

Page’s getaway of choice had been Headley Grange, a country pile in Hampshire that had served the band well during sessions for Led Zeppelin III and IV. But finding it unavailable in the spring of 1972, the Zeppelin contingent set up house at Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s manor in nearby East Woodhay. Purchased by the singer in 1970 for £55,000 from a local aristocrat, the home had been used by the Rolling Stones to record tracks for Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, and recently rented by the Who during sessions for Who’s Next. When Zep unloaded in May 1972, they aimed to fully utilize the diverse spaces. “It sounded wonderful because you could get this amazing variable acoustic in each room with drums in the conservatory, which is where we put Bonham,” remembered Kramer. “Then, of course, Jimmy’s amp could be stuck in a fireplace and stick a microphone down it, all that sort of thing. It was just the ability to be able to change the sound without going anywhere.”

The engineer oversaw proceedings from his vantage point in the Rolling Stones’ very own mobile recording truck, which was parked in the driveway. Occasionally he would throw open the back doors and treat the band to an alfresco playback. “I can remember, Bonzo, Plant, Page and Jones out on the lawn listening to playbacks of ‘D’yer Mak’er and ‘Dancing Days’ all walking like Groucho Marx in sync, with back steps and forward steps in time to the music, just like kids.” While many of the tracks were completed at Electric Lady and London’s Olympic Studios, the time at Stargroves captured the freewheeling creativity found on the final album. “When we first went down there, we had no set ideas,” Page told biographer Ritchie Yorke. “We just recorded the ideas each one of us had at that particular time. It was simply a matter of getting together and letting it come out.”

5. The title of “D’Yer Mak’er” is derived from an old music-hall joke.

Few songs in the Led Zeppelin canon are as divisive – even within the band itself – as this reggae-esque romp. Equally divisive is the pronunciation of the title, which many of the uninitiated (much to Robert Plant’s amusement) articulate as “Dear Maker,” believing it to have quasi-spiritual overtones. Instead, the playful track takes its name from an old British music-hall joke with a groan-worthy punch line. “My wife’s gone to the West Indies,” begins the exchange. “D’you make her?” (Rendered “Jamaica?” by a thick Cockney accent.) “No, she went of her own accord.” Pause for laughter.

The song formed during a lighthearted moment at the end of the session that produced the album’s opener. “We had just laid down ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ which is a real belter,” Plant told Zig Zag in 1973. “It was about 5 a.m. and I had been hoping for a long time to do something like [‘D’yer Mak’er’]. … It was born then and there.” The original intent had to been to do a reggae pastiche mixed with early-Sixties pop melodrama, but Bonham’s colossal drums steered the song in another direction entirely. “John was interested in everything except jazz and reggae,” Jones explained. “He didn’t hate jazz but he hated playing reggae – he thought it was really boring. When we did ‘D’yer Mak’er’ he wouldn’t play anything but the same shuffle beat all the way through it. He hated it, and so did I. It would have been all right if he had worked at the part – the whole point of reggae is that the drums and bass really have to be very strict about what they play. And he wouldn’t, so it sounded dreadful.”

Despite the rhythm section’s obvious dislike of the song, Plant’s enthusiasm resulted in the decision to release “D’yer Mak’er” as a U.S. single in September 1973, paired with “The Crunge.” Though Page later admitted that it was a “self-indulgent” move to release tracks he described as “send-ups” and “a giggle,” he was wholly unprepared for the outpouring of antipathy towards the tune. Even a liner-note shout-out to Rosie and the Originals, who recorded the slow ballad “Angel Baby” in 1960, failed to point fans in the right stylistic direction. “I didn’t expect people not to get it,” a bemused Page told writer Dave Schulps. “I thought it was pretty obvious. The song itself was a cross between reggae and a Fifties number; ‘Poor Little Fool,’ Ben E. King’s things, stuff like that.”

But Jones’ view of the number failed to improve with time. He tactfully described it as “not my favorite song” in a 1991 interview with Alan di Perna. “It makes me cringe a bit. It started off as a joke, really … but I wasn’t happy with the way it turned out. Robert really liked it, [but] even in a band, people have different opinions about the songs.”

6. “The Crunge” offers a loving parody of James Brown.

Zeppelin’s funky diversion on Houses of the Holy rivals “D’yer Ma’ker” as a top argument-starter among the band’s faithful. The two songs share a similar backstory: Each was born from an impromptu studio jam and kicked into a new direction by Bonham’s distinctive drum patterns. “Bonzo would dictate an unusual time signature when we’d be writing, or in a jam he would come up with something,” Jones told Musician‘s Matt Resnicoff. “Or again, he would start a riff that was strange, unusual, or just interesting. ‘The Crunge’ was like that.” In this case, the drummer chose a far-from-standard 9/8 time signature. “It’s got that extra half beat, which was a brilliant, brilliant thing,” said Page. The syncopated pulse brought to mind a stiffly wound guitar lick that Page had been toying with since 1970. “Bonzo started the groove on ‘The Crunge’, then Jonesy started playing that descending bass line and I just came in on the rhythm,” he told Guitar World. “I played a Strat on that one – I wanted to get that tight James Brown feel.”

When it came time to add the vocals, Plant took a further cue from the Godfather of Soul. Since many of Brown’s sessions were recorded with few rehearsals, his mid-song instructions to the band became something of a trademark. With this in mind, the Zeppelin singer initially sought to do his own distinctly British take on these spoken-word breakdowns. “Bonzo and I were going to go in the studio and talk ‘Black Country’ through the whole thing,” Plant said. “Like, ‘Aah bloody hell, how you doin’ you all right mate?'” The idea was ultimately elbowed, as was a plan to include steps to a non-existent dance (called “The Crunge,” naturally) in the liner notes. The final track still maintained its JB flair, from the loose studio vérité opening (Page can be heard conversing with engineer George Chkiantz) to Plant’s patter. “I love all that James Brown stuff Robert does about taking it to the bridge, because of course there is no bridge in this track,” Kramer tells Team Rock. “Hence the in-joke ending: ‘Where’s that confounded bridge?'”

The band performed a special version of the song during dates at the L.A. Forum in March 1975, coupling it with a cover of Brown’s “Sex Machine.” In contrast to “D’yer Mak’er,” Jones maintains a strong affection for the Houses of the Holy Side One closer. “‘The Crunge’ is brilliant – very tight, really, when you think about it. It’s one of my favorites.”

7. The cover shoot was a 10-day slog for two young siblings.
The striking cover photo for Houses of the Holy depicts a horde of unnaturally hued feral children making their way up an ancient incline of geometric stones, evoking the band’s fascination with the supernatural and science fiction in equal measure. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey author Arthur C. Clarke’s book Childhood’s End, in which children climb off the edge of the world, the surreal image was created by the design team Hipgnosis, whose instantly memorable art for the likes of Pink Floyd, T. Rex and ELO made them a favorite among the early Seventies rock elite.

“One day, the phone rang, and it’s Jimmy Page,” Hipgnosis cofounder Aubrey “Po” Powell told Rolling Stone in 2017. “He said, ‘I’ve seen an album cover that you’ve done for a band called Wishbone Ash,’ which was Argus. ‘Would you like to do something for Led Zeppelin?'” The guitarist would not make it easy on them, refusing to offer a proposed title, a hint of their music, or even a glimpse of a lyric. “Very Jimmy – very esoteric and weird. He said, ‘Meet me in three weeks, and come up with some ideas. You know the kind of band we are.'” Unfortunately, the collaboration got off to a bumpy start when Powell’s partner, Storm Thorgerson, accidentally offended Page with one of his cover concepts. “[He] came in carrying this picture of an electric green tennis court with a tennis racquet on it,” Page recalled in Guitar World. “I said, ‘What the hell does that have to do with anything?’ And he said, ‘Racket – don’t you get it?’ I said, ‘Are you trying to imply that our music is a racket? Get out!’ We never saw him again. … That was a total insult – racket. He had some balls!”

Luckily Powell was able to smooth things over and present other ideas. One involved carving the band’s “ZoSo” symbols into the Nazca lines in Peru (“Which I don’t think would have gone down too well with the Peruvian authorities,” Powell would later admit). Instead they opted to shoot at the geological formation known as Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Rather than flying in a crush of children, Hipgnosis brought just two – a pair of young siblings named Samantha and Stefan Gates, aged seven and five respectively. “We stayed in this little guesthouse near the Giant’s Causeway,” remembered Stefan, who grew up to become a popular television personality in the UK. “I’ve heard people saying they put wigs on several children. But there was only me and my sister and that’s our real hair. I used to love being naked when I was that age so I didn’t mind. I’d whip off my clothes at the drop of a hat and run around having a great time, so I was in my element.” His sister’s memories of the 10-day excursion were markedly less sunny. “I remember the shoot really clearly, mainly because it was freezing cold and rained the whole time,” she told The Daily Mail in 2007. “We were naked in a lot of the modeling shoots we did, nothing was thought of it back then. You probably couldn’t get away with that now.”

The inclement weather created more problems than just discomfort. “It poured rain for a week, and I couldn’t shoot the photograph,” Powell explains. “So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to create a collage in black and white, all made out of children.'” The original plan had been for their bodies to be colored gold and silver, but the grey sky made them appear as washed-out white figures, making it necessary to hand tint the photo. The painstaking retouching process took two months, forcing the band to push the album’s release date back from January to March. With Zeppelin’s formidable manager Peter Grant breathing down their neck, Hipgnosis couldn’t afford to delay when the airbrush artist accidentally gave the children a purple tinge. “I first saw it, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ Then we looked at it, and I said, ‘Hang on a minute, this has an otherworldly quality,'” says Powell. “So we left it as it was.” He presented the final product to Page and Grant in the trunk of his car following a Zeppelin concert. “We’re standing there, and Jimmy’s Jimmy, cigarette in his mouth, smoking profusely, long hair everywhere, still dressed in his stage outfit. About 200 people had gathered around the car looking at the artwork. It was surreal. And I got a round of applause from all the people in the station.”

8. A title track was originally recorded, but ultimately bumped from the album.

Bucking the style of their previous albums, Led Zeppelin gave their fifth full-length a name consisting of more than roman numerals and/or cryptic symbols. Houses of the Holy took its title from a song Page had composed, with lyrics that honor both “sacred” places of teenage communion – including movie theaters, drive-ins and even concert arenas – as well as the expanse of the human soul. “It’s about all of us being houses of the Holy Spirit, in a sense,” he revealed in a 2014 interview on Sirius XM. The track had been recorded and mixed during sessions at Electric Lady Studios in June 1972, but ironically it was cut from the album that bore its name. Apparently the group felt the number too closely resembled the mid-tempo strut of “Dancing Days” and instead held the song for their next album, the 1975 double disc Physical Graffiti.

9. The accompanying tour saw the band hiring their famed private jet, the Starship.

Led Zeppelin’s 1973 North American tour smashed attendance records, even besting the Beatles’ legendary Shea Stadium gig after 56,800 fans crammed into Tampa Stadium on May 5th to watch Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham perform selections of their latest work. Now the undisputed conquering heroes of rock, the band needed a ride to match. To avoid the hassle of changing hotels daily, they decided to base themselves in a handful of major cities and charter a plane to ferry them to and from their nightly gigs. Journalist Chris Charlesworth, a member of the touring entourage, recalls watching roadies meet the band with “big red bathrobes ready to wear as they came offstage. They’d scoop ’em up after the encore and whisk them away to the airport while the crowd were still at the stadium cheering for more.” Never the most enthusiastic flyers, Zeppelin found their first craft, a Falcon 20 business jet, cramped and uncomfortable. When a bad bout of turbulence threatened to knock the plane out of the sky following the penultimate show of the tour’s first leg, they decided to jettison the Falcon for good. Peter Grant tasked tour manager Richard Cole with finding a new plane, demanding he spare no expense for opulence and safety – in that order.

The Starship met that brief a thousand times over. A former United Airlines Boeing 720B, the vehicle had been purchased by teen idol Bobby Sherman and his manager Ward Sylvester earlier in the decade, and the pair had spent more than $200,000 transforming the 138-seat passenger jet into what Cole aptly described as “a fucking flying gin palace.” The amenities included an overstuffed couch that ran the length of the plane, a fully-loaded brass bar boasting a built in electric organ, a state of the art Sony U-matic video player stocked with everything from Marx Brothers’ comedies to the latest porn, a separate drawing room with a faux baronial fireplace, and a private master suite complete with shower and a waterbed bedecked in white fur. (“There was a placard saying the bed couldn’t be occupied during takeoff or landing,” Sylvester remembered.)

The dutiful road manager shelled out $30,000 for a three-week lease of the Starship, plus flight costs of $2,500 an hour. After some crucial customizations were made – like having “Led Zeppelin” painted on the fuselage – the craft was presented to the band at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on July 6th. Even Hugh Hefner’s private jet, parked nearby, paled in comparison. “We weren’t the only band that had its own plane,” noted Page, “but we were the only ones that had a grown-up plane.”

While the Starship later played host to Elton John, the Allman Brothers, the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, and Peter Frampton, tales of Zeppelin’s inflight debauchery set the standard. Hanger-ons were content to sprawl on revolving armchairs in the clubroom, sometimes serenaded by Jones playing pub favorites like “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” on the organ, but members of the inner circle were permitted access to the bedroom in the aft-quarters for “horizontal takeoff.” (Plant once claimed his favorite memory of the plane was “oral sex during turbulence.“) Food and booze were served by two young flight attendants, Bianca and Suzee, who took their tips in the form of rolled-up hundred-dollar bills coated in white powder. They certainly deserved a little extra for keeping some of the more rambunctious band members in line. “John Bonham once tried to open the plane’s door over Kansas City because he had to pee,” Suzee told the New York Times in 2003. The drummer also developed a passion for riding in cockpit, where the line between passenger and pilot became blurred. “He flew us all the way from New York to L.A. once,” Grant once related to Charlesworth, “He ain’t got a license, mind …”

10. Rolling Stone was not kind to the album upon its release.
Contemporary critics were unsure what to make of Houses of the Holy when it was issued in March 1973. The album was met with middling reviews, many of which claimed that Zeppelin had strayed too far from the full throttle rock of their earlier albums. “Plant and Page are strangely sluggish and vacant, exploding only occasionally on ‘Dancing Days’ and ‘The Rain Song,'” read an article in the Disc & Echo. “On two or three listens, Houses of the Holy comes over as an inconsistent work.” Even Chris Welch, representing the ordinarily pro-Zep outlet Melody Maker, gave the thumbs down, trumpeting “Zeppelin lose their way.”

However, it was Rolling Stone that delivered some of the most brutal blows. The magazine’s critics were never the most fervent supporters of the band, but Gordon Fletcher’s review in the June 7th, 1973, issue reached new levels of verbal savagery. “Houses of the Holy is one of the dullest and most confusing albums I’ve heard this year,” he declared – a stunning admission from the glory days of prog rock. He then moved on to target each band member individually for their perceived shortcomings. “Jimmy Page’s guitar spits jagged fireballs with John Paul Jones and John Bonham riffing along behind him, but the effect is destroyed by ridiculous backup cooings and an overbearing ‘killer’ coda that’s so blatant it can only be taken as a mock of straight rock & roll.” He reserves special scorn for the pair of “naked imitations” – “The Crunge” and “D’yer Mak’er” – which he dismisses as “easily the worst things this band has ever attempted.” Even the tracks that manage to avoid chasing “rock’s latest fad” serve only to highlight the “songwriting deficiencies” of Page & Co. “Their earliest successes came when they literally stole blues licks note for note, so I guess it should have been expected that there was something drastically wrong with their own material.” In closing, he urges the band to stick to their “blues-rock” roots. “Until they do, Led Zeppelin will remain Limp Blimp.”

Four decades later, Rolling Stone’s Kory Grow had a chance to revisit the album for the deluxe reissue in 2014. He proved more tolerant of the band’s desire to expand their creative palette. “Decades of classic-rock radio saturation have made some of these songs canon,” he writes, “but when put in the context between Led Zeppelin’s fourth record and the double-LP deep dive that was Physical Graffiti, they reveal a band eager for change.”


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