By Adam Waldman
On March 28, 1973, Led Zeppelin released their fifth studio album, Houses Of The Holy. This is the first Zeppelin album that featured exclusively original songs, and more importantly, a shift to more layered sounds and production techniques. Comprised entirely of songs that even casual Zeppelin fans are familiar with, it’s no surprise that Houses Of The Holy was a massive commercial success, peaking at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and selling well over 10 million copies.
Interestingly, the song “Houses Of The Holy” was originally slated to be on this album, but it was delayed to be included on the band’s epic follow-up double album, 1975’s Physical Graffiti. Despite the title, in retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine the song being included in this brilliant collection of songs because it’s such a perfect fit on Physical Graffiti.
These days, home studios are commonplace, but back in the day, most recording took place in major recording studios (especially for legendary acts like Led Zeppelin). While the album was recorded using Rolling Stones Mobile Studio at an estate in England, at Olympic Studios in London and at Electric Lady Studios in NYC, a number of the songs started out as demos from the home studios of Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Having access to their own studios allowed each to enhance the arrangements of songs like “The Rain Song,” “Over The Hills And Far Away” and “No Quarter.”
When you think of Led Zeppelin’s music, it tends to be as a collective body of work looking backwards. It’s as if we’ve all read the book of their history several times and we know how it ends. However, if you think of each phase of their career as a chapter, Houses Of The Holy represents a major turning point in the story. After four albums of heavy blues influence, this is the album where the band really started to spread their wings and leave their comfort zone. This is also the album where Robert Plant began to veer away from fantasy and mysticism with his lyrics, focusing instead on themes that were more relatable to the masses.
You have to imagine the reason that Led Zeppelin was able to put together an album with such varied styles (and have it achieve great commercial success) is because of the foundation that they laid with their previous releases. Who else could get away with album featuring a psychedelic influence (“No Quarter”), a funk influence (“The Crunge”), a reggae influence (“D’yer Mak’er” – prounounced “Jamaica”) and an a cappella break that seems to come out of nowhere, but blends seamlessly into the intensity of the song (“The Ocean”)?
The controlled chaos of “The Song Remains The Same,” the melancholic beauty of “The Rain Song,” the joyful exuberance of “Dancing Days” and textured nuance of the acoustic/electric classic “Over The Hills And Far Away” all contribute something different to the brilliance that is Houses Of The Holy.
It seems poetic that an album with such musical complexities would also have an intricate backstory for the creation of the artwork for the cover. The iconic cover art was inspired by the ending of a novel entitled Childhood’s End. Although it appears to be a number of children, it is actually a collage of several photographs taken of two children (a brother and sister) at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
The photo shoot took ten days, as constant rain and clouds made it challenging to capture the desired lighting effect. Taken in black and white, the photos were multi-printed to create the effect of 11 children. The colorization of the photo is actually the result of accidental tinting during the post-production process.
Like the album cover for Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (referred to as “IV” or “Zoso”), neither the band name nor the album title are printed on the sleeve. The band’s manager, Peter Grant, allowed Atlantic Records to add a wraparound paper title to the U.S. and UK copies. Even though it was strategically placed to hide the children’s buttocks from general display, the album was either banned or unavailable in some parts of the southern U.S.
Listening to Houses Of The Holy these days brings back the memories of when I first discovered the album in my youth. It is, without question, a timeless masterpiece that is so diverse that your favorite song can change from day to day depending on your mood. Rather than try to pick one to reflect my current mood, I’ve chosen the track that I was obsessed with in my youth to share…