When Led Zeppelin deviated from their past

When Led Zeppelin deviated from their past

At the time, it was March 28, 1973, the fifth album by Led Zeppelin, “Houses of the Holy” was received by critics and the public with opposing opinions: yet another masterpiece from the band or the first misstep in a discography that until then bordered on perfection? After all these years we are inclined to embrace the first hypothesis and we celebrate the anniversary by publishing the review and listening to the album again, track by track.

For all of us he is part of the classic rock elite and represents the quintessence of the prestigious catalogue. However, from the band's fans and from the critics who experienced the moment of its publication, a polarized opinion emerged at the time on a record that saw the light about a year after it was recorded, i.e. in that 1972 in which…

… in that 1972 in which, having definitively come to terms with the Beatles' absence from the scene and the charts, the Pantheon of rock was occupied by four semi-divine entities: Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Who. “Houses of the Holy” is related to the former because much of its recording took place in Mick Jagger's manor; laps seconds for its cover story; while distancing himself from the hard rock orthodoxy of the third parties, just as he does with respect to his own blues DNA. In any case, in 1972, Led Zeppelin were the biggest band in the world, thanks to the incredible tetralogy made up of four exceptional albums released in just 3 years and (not) titled I to IV.

The recording of “Houses of the Holy” had been completed in the spring of the previous year at Stargroves, a country mansion owned by Mick Jagger located in Hampshire, in East Woodhay, which the group had inhabited while finalizing the majority of sessions (the album also contains recordings made at Headley Grange with the Rolling Stones' mobile studio, at Olympic Studios in London and at Electric Lady Studios in New York). As always, Jimmy Page sat in the production booth; this time he was once again joined by Eddie Kramer, sound engineer and mixer, with whom he had re-established civil relations after an old argument. The reason for the release being delayed by a year? The cover.

The concept and cover art were the work of Hipgnosis, whose reputation had grown when the agency handled Pink Floyd's albums. The first version of the cover was returned to the sender by the group. His first print, then, was rejected because it came out with purple stains. The final artwork eventually provoked censorship from many record shops, outraged by the presence of two naked children climbing the rocks of the Giant's Causeway (volcanic coast of Northern Ireland). We see eleven of them, but in reality they are always the same two, replicated and multiplied in a collage: they are Stefan and Samantha Gates (who would also appear on the back cover of “Presence” in 1976) and in the photo taken in black and white by Aubrey Powell pay homage to Arthur C. Clarke's book “Childhood's End”. As usual, the cover didn't show the name of the band or the title of the album. However, Atlantic Records obtained permission to wrap it in paper packaging that would make the record recognizable.

The opening of the first side is by a piece destined to become a live anthem, “The song remains the same”. It can be considered a studio jam, because Jimmy Page uses his skill by superimposing several layers of guitars, yet the song manages to maintain the fluidity and spontaneity of a live recording. John Bonham supports it like a scaffold, with his robust drumming that betrays no sagging and lets the riffs together with Robert Plant's vocal highs make it so dynamic. Today we know that the piece was conceived as an instrumental and that its original title was “The Overture”, then temporarily changed to “The Campaign”: it was intended as an intro for “The rain song”the second song on the album, which offers the first hint of deviation from the band's traditional groove.

First of all, it's a ballad – partly a response to a criticism from George Harrison, who pointed out to Bonzo that his group never made them. And then it incorporates an orchestra with a wonderful string section, the mellotron (John Paul Jones) and offers an ideal fusion between the sound of electric and acoustic. Finally it contains one of the most beautiful outtros in rock history.

“Over the Hills and Far Away” it seems to want to continue the atmosphere, but instead it's just an illusion: the acoustic start is merely a springboard for the intermediate section of the song, which flows into pure hard rock. When it comes to “dynamic” pieces, but also “folk-metal”, this is THE benchmark, with one of the best rhythm sections of all time in top form and a 12-string riff that makes history.

The first side ends with something you don't expect. That is, with James Brown evoked from beginning to end in “The crunge” What to say? Led Zeppelin evidently can play funk very, very well: Bonham is syncopated and swinging, and we didn't know it at the time; Jones' bass is basically a rubber band; Jimmy Page on rhythm is a surprise, we are so used to his solos and arpeggios.

But starting from the title – which evokes something that gives shivers – and continuing with the lyrics (which also pays homage to Wilson Pickett by mentioning “Mr. Pitiful”) to end with Plant's vocal interpretation and his ostentatious references to Mr Dynamite's concerts with those constant references to the “bridge”, the risk of caricature is around the corner. A misstep?.

The second side begins with what is often cited as the first pop song of the band that had transformed blues into hard rock, making it an art form. “Dancing Days” it's even almost bubblegum in the lyrics, but it contains flashes of genius on the guitar (here too: overdubs in abundance), clearly echoing that India that had entered Page and Plant's heart thanks to their (then) recent trips over there.

Continue with “D'Yer Ma'ker”, that is: if Wales were Jamaica. The guitar is not reggae, the drums much less (it is, in fact, very heavy) and Plant… does Plant. Yet it sounds like reggae. Bonzo starts the song by launching into a doo wop rhythm (placing three microphones in the studio under his drums, but far enough away to create reverb), then Jones makes a transition towards dub and the band follows him. Tasty stuff, starting from the irony of the title (which stands for Jamaica, because pronounced by an Englishman “D'Yer Ma'ker” would sound like “Jamaica”), but this isn't necessarily a successful donut with a hole either.

“No Quarter” It's John Paul Jones' work and it's a compositional masterpiece. It had taken shape at the time of “Led Zeppelin IV” without evolving in the right direction. The annals tend to mark it as the dawn of doom metal, as the natural prodrome of the first sound of bands like Black Sabbath. It is quintessentially metallic, thanks to the deliberate darkness of its atmosphere and the lyrics of the piece which talk about “taking no prisoners” in a mythological war setting, without however being particularly “heavy” in sound. And also for this reason, in its own way, it touches on the prog rock that was making its way.

The album ends with a return to rock: “The Ocean”, whose title refers to the sea of ​​fans who flock to Led Zeppelin concerts, returns to propose the best of the house's riffs and of the past, with an a cappella vocal part after the introduction had proposed the voice of John Bonham (” We've done four already but now we're steady and then they went, one, two, three, four”). The idea, probably, is to end with a bang: energy, speed and boogie.

“Houses of the Holy” disrupted the group's wonderful monotony in more ways than one. For the first time with a real and non-eponymous title – curiously, its title track will belong to another album. But above all with a contamination of genres and styles that were unexpected at the time, if not downright inconceivable. Led Zeppelin had been devoted to a form of primordial blues, tinged it with rock with an energy and adrenaline that rested on stellar musical quality. Time and stadium rock had gradually diluted some of those characteristics, and after the release of their classic of classics, the fourth album, “Houses of the Holy” placed them in the typical uncomfortable position of those who had to prove their worth with the second album. Yes, because their fifth album was a bit like their first, after a magnum opus made up of four coherent albums. No longer being able to compete with their past, they therefore deviate from the main road.

For many it was the pop turning point, which amounted to sacrilege; for others it was the positive restlessness of a band that didn't rest on its laurels; for some it was the lack of ideas that generated a patchwork; for others still it was the best moment of four guys who for the first time really composed together “in retreat” and showed off an extra John Paul Jones in composition. Who was right? Everyone, maybe? “Houses” is a varied album, with a richer mix than in the past, capable of placing “The Lord of the Rings” alongside the blues, using folk to clear some bizarreness, sometimes letting the mystique take over the pure fury.

Despite the critics' doubts, the box office sold 11 million copies. Over time we would hear the album echo in the metal and hard rock of the following two decades, influencing the 90s, touching on Soundgarden's grunge until recently reliving in the sound and style of Greta Van Fleet.