The commercial and critical success of Led Zeppelin IV changed Led Zeppelin’s fortunes forever. In the early ‘70s, they – and only they – stood alongside The Rolling Stones as the greatest rock and roll band in the world. IV went on to sell 32 million copies worldwide. It sold 23 million in the United States alone, making it the third biggest seller of all time there. Stairway To Heaven, despite never being released as a single in the U.S. (unlike in Australia) was the most played track on FM radio during that decade.
To say that the pressure was on for Led Zeppelin, when they first gathered to start recording the follow up in early 1972, would be a total understatement.
“But we did not let it get in the way,” Jimmy Page recalled. “My main goal was to just keep rolling. It is very dangerous to try and duplicate yourself. I will not name any names, but I am sure you have heard bands that endlessly repeat themselves. After four or five albums they just burn up. With us, you never knew what was coming.”
That explains the abandon and excitement on Houses Of The Holy. They had never made a record like that before. Led Zeppelin’s life was on the road. So it was inevitable that they would sing about the spiritual nature of their shows in ‘houses of the holy’ to their ‘ocean’ of fans. In The Ocean, the three year old girl who won Robert Plant’s heart was his daughter Carmen. Through the years, he would change the lyric onstage to reflect Carmen’s age.
Most of the tracks were designed for their crowd to dance to at shows. The Crunge took a page out of soul man James Brown’s songbook. Page told Guitar World: “I played a Strat on that one – I wanted to get that tight James Brown feel. You have to listen closely, but you can hear me depressing a whammy bar at the end of each phrase. Bonzo started the groove on The Crunge, then Jonesy (John Paul Jones) started playing that descending bass line and I just came in on the rhythm. You can really hear the fun we were having on Houses and Physical Graffiti. And you can also hear the dedication and commitment.”
D’yer Mak’er (a pun on Jamaica from the old English joke “My wife’s on holiday in the West Indies.” “Jamaica?” “No, she went on her own accord”) was a nod to the reggae revolution sweeping the world. Engineer Eddie Kramer recalls that after they finished recording Dancing Days, the four Zeps were out on the lawn dancing along to the first playback on a sunny spring day “celebrating this incredible thing they’d just recorded.”
(This was at Mick Jagger’s country mansion Stargroves where recording began. But they didn’t like the sound they got, so they returned to the cold and primitive Headley Grange as well as Island Studios in London. They spent months working on the mixes at Olympic Studios in London and Electric Lady Studios in New York.)
Despite Zeppelin’s long-time feud with rock critics, they had an amazing sense of their own power and ambitions. Just before an Australian tour, they’d stopped over in India where they did some experimental recording with the Bombay Symphony and taped some street musicians. That visit was evident in the sound of much of Houses Of The Holy.
Another change was that both Page and John Paul Jones had set up studios in their homes. So they could work out many intricate arrangements to some of their compositions. Jones’ No Quarter exhibited his arranging and multi-instrumental prowess, using bass synth, a cocktail piano and jazz guitar. Page’s demos of The Rain Song and Over The Hills And Far Away had complete arrangements. The Song Remains The Same, made up of bits and pieces that Page made on the cassette tape recorder he always kept around and recorded with a Fender 12-string) had begun as an instrumental to open The Rain Song and developed into a song of its own. The Rain Song was written as a response to George Harrison telling Bonzo Bonham that Zeppelin couldn’t write ballads, and embellished with Jones’ newly acquired mellotron.
Houses of the Holy was their first album not to have cover versions. Zeppelin ended with more songs than they could use. Even the title track was dropped, to emerge on Physical Graffiti, as did Black Country Woman and The Rover.
Although intended for release in January 1973, delays in producing the album cover meant that Houses Of The Holy was not released until March, by which time the band had started a European tour. The cover art was designed by Hipgnosis who did Pink Floyd artwork. The company’s first idea, by Storm Thorgerson, featured an electric green tennis court with a tennis racquet on it. Furious that it implied their music was a “racket” they sacked him on the spot (although he later did the sleeve for Presence and In Through the Out Door).
His replacement Aubrey Powell’s design featured scores of naked children climbing up large rocks to a bright orange sky that signified the Apocalypse. It was inspired by the ending of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, which involves several hundred million naked sub-human children. They initially considered Peru for the shoot. But they opted for the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The inner sleeve photo was taken at near-by Dunluce Castle.
A false rumour about the outside cover is that ‘80s pinup girl Samantha Fox is one of the eleven kids. In fact it was just seven year old Samantha Gates and her four year old brother Stefan, courtesy several multiple-exposure shots. Both had done modelling and appeared in ads.
Samantha, now a film screenwriter in South Africa, remembers it was a freezing and raining October day. “I thought it was odd that anyone should expect me to strip off in the cold and climb rocks!” she recalled 37 years later. Stefan, now a celebrity chef with a cooking show on British TV, would for years find the photo, seemingly about kids climbing to their slaughter, disturbing. It was banned in parts of the Deep South of America although it was also nominated for a Grammy in the record packaging division.
The photos of the two children were taken in black and white, and later coloured in, in those pre-digital days. A mistake in the tinting process in post-production made the sky a strikingly bright orange. Page didn’t mind: he always considered the music on Houses Of The Holy orange in colour. No matter what colour, it went to #1 around the world.
Rolling Stone said of it, “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.”
Page himself said: “Houses of the Holy was a very inspired time. There was a lot of imagination on that record. I prefer it much more than the fourth album.”
RIP Storm Thorgerson April 18, 2013 – graphic genius who designed the timeless album covers for Houses Of The Holy and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon.
By Christie Eliezer