Used to Sing on the Mountains But the Mountains Washed Away

Monday morning seems like a good time for Zeppelin appreciation.

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?

posted 31 January 2011 in Reviews and tagged , . 7 comments

7 Comments on Used to Sing on the Mountains But the Mountains Washed Away

  1. Chris M. Says:

    The old “Rolling Stone slammed Zeppelin!” meme has calcified into cliché, especially given how fulsomely the magazine revised that opinion starting in the late ’70s and ’80s. But it will never die, mostly because (as you show here) those early-’70s reviews were so fabulously wrong-headed.

    For example, RS‘s now-embarrassing three-star review of Nevermind in 1991 will never loom as large in the anti-Stone mythos. Because as wrong as that one was, it was a tepid pan, nowhere near the thundering belly-flop of reviews like Fletcher’s.

  2. Gavin Says:

    The more mythic review of Nevermind ended up being Spin placing it at #2 in their “best albums of the year” at the end of 1991. It was mildly perverse at the time–not in a way that got a lot of attention then–but a decade later, the EIC of Spin told me they still got a monthly flow of letters about that decision.

  3. Chris M. Says:

    I can believe that. I mean, Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque is a fine album, but talk about going overboard to make a point…

  4. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    I copy-edited that Nevermind review. Those were the days.

  5. Gavin Says:

    De gus and all that, but I can’t imagine liking rock ‘n’ roll and having your initial response to Nevermind be “eh.”

    Similarly, while I enjoy “The Crunge” and “D’Yer Maker,” you could rationally argue that Zep don’t pull them off. But disdainfully smack away “The Ocean” and “Over the Hills and Far Away” (as Fletcher does), and I wonder if your ears work.

  6. Chris M. Says:

    Word. How anyone can miss the brilliance and aura of “Over the Hills and Far Away” is frankly beyond me.

  7. Robert Heck Dentistry Says:

    Great write up….they don’t make music like the good ole days….

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