Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #19

Led Zeppelin – Houses of the Holy

What kind of band, exactly, was Led Zeppelin?

To call them heavy metal, as many have, doesn’t meet my personal smell test for the genre. Blues rock is a better fit, and their acknowledged debt to Muddy Waters led me to listen to two of his albums, so that I am now unreservedly in love with his sound. They are certainly hard rock, but I’ve also seen them classed as folk rock, and I can hear that, too, in some songs.

They might also be the coolest progressive rock band in the world – read the lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” and then try to convince me there isn’t a prog-rock masterpiece lurking somewhere in there. Some of the songs on this record – mainly “No Quarter”, with a surreal opening and acid guitar, plus the space-aged guitar, twinking keys and helium vocal of “The Song Remains the Same” – also have that feel.

But has anyone ever called them a dance band?

I loved Led Zeppelin in my teens, but not the way a lot of young guys did. I was familiar with the band’s history, of course, but that lumbering dinosaur sound of the songs I had been initially exposed to did nothing for me. My love bloomed with the 1979 release of “In Through the Out Door”, which is very much the picture of a band stepping away from its past to try and evolve a new sound. Unfortunately, it ended there. A year later, drummer John Bonham was dead, and the remaining threesome dissolved the band rather than go on without him. The next stage in Led Zeppelin’s evolution became a giant “what if..?”.

“Houses of the Holy” seems to me to have been an early effort to change what they were doing, and while longtime fans were not taken with it in 1973 (nor did they much care for “In Through the Out Door” six years later), I love it in 2022. And, in places, it is crazy danceable.

Once the sweet acoustic opening of the third song, “Over the Hills and Far Away”, passes, it turns into a thumping, very bassy record that led me to write down “there’s a great dance tune buried in here”. They completely embrace this with a full-on James Brown knockoff on the next track, “The Crunge”. It’s followed by an amazing opening pop guitar hook in “Dancing Days” that, frankly, should have been the prelude to a massive hit single: that it was only a B side was a colossal misstep by their label. “D’yer Mak’er” also has a great hook, and the closer, “The Ocean”, while more of a straightforward rocker, still gets you moving. This album changed my perception of what Led Zeppelin was. Even “The Song Remains the Same”, while not danceable, will get your blood pumping a bit harder, so it sort of counts as cardio.

My two favourite tracks are very different. “The Rain Song” is melancholy, with gently strummed guitar, faux strings, and an overall orchestral effect that is well paired with Robert Plant’s heartfelt vocal. But it is topped by the reggae-lite “D’yer Mak’er”. With a great backbeat from Bonham, and a bit of a Del Shannon feel, it could have been an overwrought 1950s ballad sung by four White guys with crewcuts and wearing ties under their letterman cardigans. It is no surprise that the guy singing this ended up fronting The Honeydrippers a decade later.

We tend to be attracted to the type of music that we first fell in love with, and especially the things we loved when we were young. “Houses of the Holy” matches, more than any of their older records, what Led Zeppelin was to me when I was a teenager, so it had an unfair edge before I even hit play. Which is fine – I am happy to do the work it can take to properly appreciate a record, but it’s nice to have the artist make it easy for me sometimes, too.

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