No Quarter: Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy at 50
A look back at the band’s farewell to Atlantic Records
There’s a reason why old farts like me buy those T-shirts that pop up in Facebook ads saying things like, “I may be old, but we had the best music.”
Just imagine what it was like to be in high school in early 1973. Your record collection probably already included Close to the Edge, Exile on Main Street, the first Aerosmith album and Ziggy Stardust. If you were into the harder stuff, you were listening to Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Edgar Winter Group and Blue Oyster Cult’s debut.
And, of course, Led Zeppelin.
What an amazing quartet of albums they released from 1969 to 1971! From the lead track off their first album, “Good Times Bad Times,” they delivered again and again and again: “Dazed and Confused,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll.”
It was a seemingly endless parade of instantly recognizable songs, any one of which could have been a career-maker for any other band. Topped, of course, by the ubiquitous “Stairway to Heaven,” which almost always came in at number one on any FM station’s countdown of rock’s top 50 or 100 or 500 or whatever songs.
Zep’s fifth studio album, Houses of the Holy (released March 28, 1973), came along at a time when the band was firing on all cylinders and could do no wrong. Fans, giddy from the massively successful masterpiece that was Led Zeppelin IV, expected another triumph.
What they got is what Esquire magazine called “the most polarizing of Zeppelin’s six iconic albums.” The eight songs on Houses of the Holy saw Zep add more iconic riffs to their catalog, but it also saw them stretching the boundaries of the Zeppelin sound beyond their heavy metal blues influences.
The record opens with “The Song Remains the Same,” originally an instrumental called “The Overture.” It was, as Jimmy Page told Guitar World in 1993, to have “led into ‘The Rain Song.’ But I guess Robert [Plant] had different ideas. You know, ‘This is pretty good, better get some lyrics – quick!’ ”
“The Rain Song” is pretty good, too, and came about as the result of George Harrison famously complaining that Zep never did any ballads. More than 7-1/2 minutes in length, it’s melodic, orchestral, and (according to a 2005 Rolling Stone interview) includes what Plant considers to be one of his very best vocal performances: “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.”
“Over the Hills and Far Away” comes next, opening with a six-string acoustic guitar, graduating to a 12-string, then kicking in with the full electric band after the first verse. It’s an undisputed classic, a piece of peak Zeppelin that peaked at number 28 on the U.S. charts.
What could have been a perfect album side comes to a screeching halt with “The Crunge.” It’s one of the album’s boundaries-stretching tracks, but Robert Plant comes across as a poor imitation of James Brown, and the lyrics boil down to a lame musical joke (“Ah, excuse me, Oh, will you excuse me? I’m just trying to find the bridge! Has anybody seen the bridge?”). They should have left this one off the album and included the title track, which showed up two years later on Physical Graffiti.
Side two comes back strong: “Dancing Days” kicks things off with a riff that is pure unadulterated Zep. It’s followed up by another boundaries-stretching track, “D’yer Mak’er,” which treads into pseudo-reggae territory. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it track that caught a lot of shade from fans and critics, but nevertheless became a top 20 hit in the U.S.
“No Quarter” is up next. Moody and atmospheric with lots of synth and keyboards, it almost feels like a filler cut. It quickly became a staple of the band’s live performances, though, allowing John Paul Jones to flex his keyboard skills in a big way. Here’s a June 1977 version that runs 35 minutes. Take that, Spinal Tap and your “Jazz Rock Odyssey.”
Drummer John Bonham kicks off the album’s powerful closer, “The Ocean,” with a reference to the previous studio takes of the song: “We’ve done four already but now we’re steady – and then they went, one, two, three, four.” It’s a great song with a great riff, written about the ocean of fans flocking to see the band in packed arenas worldwide: “Singing to an ocean, I can hear the ocean’s roar / Play for free, play for me and play a whole lot more, more!”
Was Esquire right in calling the album polarizing? That’s probably overstating things. But what can’t be overstated is that the band left Atlantic Records on a high note (subsequent Zep albums would be released on their own Swan Song label).
Houses of the Holy is yet another piece of evidence (sorry, kids) that us old farts had the best music.
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