Today in 1973 Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, Houses of the Holy, was released. The first Zeppelin album to have a complete title, it’s a dedication to the many fans that came to the various venues Zep played, which they dubbed the “houses of the holy”. It had been recorded almost a year earlier, and by release time much of the material had already been tested on audiences across the US, UK, Japan and Europe during their 1972-1973 tours. It was first set for release in January, when it was known as Led Zeppelin V, and then again in February, but sleeve design delays pushed it back to March, by which time the band had settled on a real title.
Despite being panned a bit by critics (Rolling Stone called it “a dose of pabulum”), it certainly seemed a hit with the fans: On May 4 in Atlanta the band attracted 49,000 people at a concert at Braves Stadium, while the next day in Tampa they drew 56,800 into Tampa Stadium, giving them the distinction of attracting the largest audience ever for a single-act performance, beating the previous record held by the Beatles for their 1965 Shea Stadium show. It was a record that Zeppelin themselves would top four years later in the Pontiac Silverdome.
The gatefold sleeve was designed by Hipgnosis, who had long provided striking album sleeve designs for Pink Floyd and others. The initial design concept involved recreating the “zoso” logo on the Nazca plains of Peru, but that idea was scrapped for one based on the ending of the 1953 science fiction novel Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. The ending involves all the children of the earth climbing towards a special pinnacle, from which to depart for another world.
The concept was photographed at a natural basalt rock column formation in Northern Ireland called the Giant’s Causeway. Hipgnosis shot two children (real-life brother and sister Stefan and Samantha Gates) climbing naked up the rocks. Originally intended to be shot in color, 10 solid days of rain forced them to ultimately go with all black & white photos on the 11th day, and then hand-tint them later in the studio.
When finally finished, Jimmy Page still had to fight with his Atlantic Records label for release, as this album, like the fourth, had no cover identification of the band or record label. They settled for a paper band around the midsection, stating the name of the group and the album title. Some early versions also had a sticker on the shrinkwrap. The paper band served a dual purpose in the US, as it was also designed to cover Samantha’s naked rear end. Even with the paper band though, the album was still banned in some Bible-belt areas of the country for a few years…
Houses of the Holy ushered in “the golden middle period of Zeppelin supremacy”; at its release, Zep were the most popular live band in the world. Houses is the only Zep album to include the entire lyric set (printed on its inner sleeve), but the title track itself did not appear on vinyl until 1975’s Physical Graffiti. Initial recording took place in 1972 at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves mansion in Berkshire, using the Stones’ mobile recording studio. Overdubs were added in May that year at Olympic Studios (London) and Electric Lady Studios (New York). This then became the first Zep album to employ more overdubs than ensemble recording, giving it an orchestrated, progressive rock feel. It was also the first Zep album to contain no material with a source from outside the band itself.
The Song Remains the Same – Originally an instrumental titled “The Overture”, Robert Plant added lyrics to Page’s 12-string electric riffs to give it a more dynamic feel. This is also the title of their 1976 concert film, and the song plays there during Plant’s fantasy sequence in the film.
The Rain Song – The “strings” on this song are actually John Paul Jones playing a Mellotron. The opening two chords are similar to those in the first line of George Harrison’s “Something”, allegedly in tribute to him. Indeed, the song was supposedly inspired by Harrison, who had recently told John Bonham “The problem with your band is that you don’t do any ballads”. Plant has said he considers this to be his best overall vocal performance.
Over the Hills and Far Away – Originally titled “Many Many Times”, Page and Plant wrote this during the Led Zeppelin III album recording sessions at Bron-Yr-Aur in 1970. It was released in the US as the first single from Houses, with “Dancing Days” as the B-side. In live performances Plant frequently followed the lyrics “pocketful of gold” with “Acapulco Gold” (a type of marijuana). This can be heard on the live DVD How the West Was Won.
The Crunge – The title is a British expression meaning “the groove”. Credited to all four band members, this one evolved out of a jam session at Stargroves. Page uncharacteristically plays a Fender Strat here, supposedly to give a lighter, less-distorted sound. Plant pays homage to James Brown at the end when he asks “Has anybody seen the bridge?”, referencing the song where Brown tells his band to “take it to the bridge”.
Dancing Days – One of Zep’s more traditional rock songs, this track was inspired by an Indian tune that Page and Plant heard while traveling in Bombay. Features slide guitar from Page, Jones on organ and solid drumming from Bonham. For Stone Temple Pilots fans (you know who you are): STP did a cover of this song, found on the 1995 album Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin.
D’yer Mak’er – Pronounced roughly like “Jamaica”, all four band members share composer credit on this mock reggae-style track. Page has described this one as a cross between reggae and the 1958 number “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson. Plant wanted this issued as a single in the UK, and Atlantic went so far as to distribute promotional copies to DJs there (collector’s items now), but it was ultimately never officially released in the UK.
No Quarter – Jones said in a 1997 interview that he created this while sitting at the piano and using various effects. He also plays synth piano and synth bass on it. In production Page slowed the tape down by a quarter-tone to give it a thicker, more intense mood. It became a centerpiece onstage, evolving into a showcase for Jones; one version in Seattle in 1977 lasted 36 minutes.
The Ocean – Refers to the sea of fans seen from the stage at Led Zeppelin concerts. The count-off at the beginning is Bonham, referring to the previous takes: “We’ve done four already but now we’re steady, and then they went: 1, 2, 3, 4”. The song also includes an a-cappella section, where Plant harmonizes with himself.
Four tracks are known to have been leftover from the recording sessions. The title track itself and “Black Country Woman” would later emerge on 1975’s Physical Graffiti. A number called “Walter’s Walk” would later appear on 1982’s Coda. The last number, an instrumental known as “Slush”, supposedly still remains in the can. However many Zeppelin authorities now believe this track became “The Rain Song”.
Certified Gold April 10, 1973
Certified Platinum December 12, 1990
Certified Diamond (11 million) November 15, 1999