Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy (1973)
When George Harrison met John Bonham, the Beatle told Led Zeppelin’s drummer, “The problem with your band is you don’t do any ballads.” Singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page could have taken umbrage–they had written the gorgeous “Going to California” two years earlier, for God’s sake. Instead, they rose to the challenge. “The Rain Song” is seven minutes of exquisite heartache, complete with Mellotron strings from John Paul Jones. And in tribute to Harrison, the opening two notes are recognizably borrowed from his ballad “Something.”
Led Zeppelin took the title of Houses of the Holy from their term for the oversized arenas and stadia where they played live. After five years together, they were ambitious and confident enough to believe they could meet any musical challenge; this album even includes a swinging take on reggae, “D’yer Maker.” “Over the Hills and Far Away” builds in intensity just as relentlessly as “Stairway to Heaven.” And “The Ocean,” the love song for Plant’s baby daughter that closes the album, is a mighty stomp that could rattle the teeth of fans in the last row of Madison Square Garden. The epic scale suited Zeppelin: they had the largest crowds, the loudest rock songs, the most groupies, the fullest manes of hair. Eventually excess would turn into bombast, but on Houses, it still provided inspiration.
(By Gavin Edwards. Originally published in Rolling Stone 929 (August 21, 2003).)
When I was writing the “Hall of Fame” entries for Rolling Stone, I thought of them as opportunities to chew on some favorite albums, not correctives for the magazine’s past mistakes. But it’s entertaining now to read the original review. Take, for example, Gordon Fletcher’s pan of Houses of the Holy, written thirty years before my five-star squib and headlined “A limp blimp”: His basic opinion was that he likes Zep when they stick to the blues, and that “had they started with Led Zeppelin III I’m convinced they wouldn’t be here today.” Fletcher posits, “In the same way that the Rolling Stones evolved into a senior, ‘safe’ bizarre-perversion band, Led Zeppelin has become a senior, ‘safe’ heavy-metal band.” (An opinion I’ve seen before–I just didn’t realize that people were saying it the year after Exile on Main St.) Or: “there are so many other groups today that don’t bullshit around with inferior tripe like ‘Stairway to Heaven.” Beck, Bogart & Appice, Black Sabbath, the Groundhogs, Robin Trower–the list is long and they all fare musically better than the Zep because they stick to what they do best.” Robin Trower?