Oh boy, had I waited for this thread.
Houses of the Holy is and will always be my favourite Zeppelin long-player, live or otherwise. But I will admit, I disagree with just how the track list plays out. The record is put together in a very disjointed manner and I feel it’s the reason why people tend to rank it as Zep’s 3rd or 4th best. Pity, that; with just a little reorder of the tracks, it very well would blow any other of their records out of the water as a cohesive piece.
Lets give it a looksee, shall we? The cuts play out thus:
- The Song Remains the Same
- The Rain Song
- Over the Hills and Far Away
- The Crunge
- Dancing Days
- D’yer Mak’er
- No Quarter
- The Ocean
Now to start off, I find that the record starts and ends at two very strong points. “The Song Remains the Same” is a full power ballad that just puts us right into the exhilarating positions of the kings of the rock n roll world by focusing on Jimmy Page’s lightning bolt riffwork. I don’t even really like the song, even contemplating for a long time if the record would be better if the cut was just out-and-out removed. But I can’t deny just how well it works the long-player up to a fever pitch before we’ve even heard the rest of the track list. Works wonderfully there. But what’s even better is that is works insanely well as counterpoint arrangement to the album close, “The Ocean.” The latter does the same trick of putting us in the head of Zeppelin as they ride the Stadium Wave, but with more emphasis on that rhythm section of John Paul Jones and John Bonham. That ying-and-yang effect is the only aspect of the vanilla record’s organization that I hands down would not change and will be further expounded upon by the piece’s end. It’s just that important.
From there it’s all fair game, beginning with the “The Rain Song.” This is a cut I will fight to the death for. Ironic considering it’s such a gentle song, but seriously, it’s the best Zeppelin cut out there. Yeah. Better than “Whole Lotta Love?” Correct. Better than “Dazed and Confused?” Indubitably. Better than “Ramble On?” Yessir. Better than “Stairway?” You bet. Better than “Kashmir?” Without a fucking doubt. The. Best. Why? Because for lack of a better word, it’s a rare moment of sensitivity and sincerity from a band that by all rights should be playing like they do not give a single shit. A band that should immersed, imbued and enveloped in all things vice. Most bands want to engage in sex, drug and rock ‘n’ roll but in 1972, those three swashbuckling musketeers of vice wanted to meet Led Zeppelin. “The Rain Song” both subverts and denies them any close access for roughly six minutes, preferring to dig into something more intoxicating than any some such substance: love.
And the ballad has it in spades. This emotional epic not only showcases Led Zeppelin at a level of soft lyrical eroticism matched only by “Thank You”, but outstrips the latter’s vocal presence while backing it with an instrumental arrangement that is straight summoning melancholy for warm hearths and hearts. You can not tell me that when those first chords strum down from Page’s hands that you do not hear the skies gently cloud over and begin to shower the earth with joy. The guitar line and violin section which further interplay on each other like weather wavering between rain and shine, just adds to a classical sense never present on “Thank You” or “Tangerine” or “Friends.” A true testament to the full integration John Paul Jone’s talents in the band and the opening of the door for the theatrical arrangements of “Kashmir” and, well, the entirety of In Through the Out Door. And then, once Pagey, Planty, and Jonesy have all reached its emotional satisfaction in crafting such an ode to joy, Bonzo bursts forth to power the band like the sun blossoming across the sky. August still has it’s chance to shine. It is a conceptual masterpiece. And yet, it should be the third cut on Side One.
It switches the mood too soon. Instead, I feel this is exactly where the eponymous track “Houses of the Holy” should have been placed and to make room, “The Crunge” receives the boot. If any track on this record fits best on the mega-record of Physical Graffiti, it’s the latter cut. This does mean that the hilarious, albeit confusing line “Where’s that confounded bridge?” no longer plays the send off from Side 1, but in hindsight, I also don’t want to be confused by side’s end. I want to be salivating for more. So “The Rain Song” forecasts those first August rains while “The Song Remains the Same” and “Houses of the Holy” glow with the happy innocence of summer. This means “Over the Hills and Far Away” comes last on the side, and that’s exactly where it should reside. Between the pensive, looking-to-the-horizon mood and that absolutely sweet and succinct coda, it allows for the side to move from manic beginning to elegant horizon watching. It allows the side to still preserve that lovely seasonal tempo transition from the August end of “The Rain Song” into the autumnal sense of “Over the Hills.” And it allows for listeners to salivate at what could possibly come next. And just for arguments sake, it would constitute one of Zeppelin’s best sides. There would not be a single weak point on that record face.
Onward then, to Side Two!
Now, my favourite aspect about a record is when it masters polyphony to keep listeners on their toes in a directed manner. A good record has me wondering what the hell could possibly happen next; a damn good record keeps the question “where are these artists taking us?” consistently on mind and on pulse as it takes me down the track list. LPs and EPs alike grow dull when there is no longer curiosity or even anticipation as to where the route next takes me. Further, because even vanilla Houses started in such blitzing summer fun, a trait that required a seasonal detente, Side Two can debut in the opposite weather space: blistering cold winter. And who better to bring out the darkness then Jones and Page, the two dark horses of Zeppelin; the first by choice, the second by image. On “No Quarter,” Jones breaks out the organ, which in albums preceding, did a fine job at tinting Zeppelin blues in some gospel flavour, but here, Jones decides to hell with the blues! It’s time for Gothic horror, so hear ye, hear ye: bring out your inner terrors, be they vampyrs, be they wolfmen, be they nightriders or be they dogs of doom. Witches and wraiths, cursed curs, goblins and ghouls, this is Zeppelin’s elegy for the necromancer, the occultist and the voodoo man. And Page, ever the Crowley fanatic, is just plain elated to bring the buzzsawing, hacking and attacking, gigantic axing of his Gibson to bear. Between that and Jonesy’s piano solo, the cut is a haunting affair. And a proggy one at that, certainly moreso than any Black Sabbath cuts, which adhere to hard rock mindsets at great effect. But “No Quarter” just has that added oomph factor because of it’s increased scope and range. The expanded space means even the simple things, like Bonzo’s powerhouse drumming, have more space to play and fill without sounding cramped in a dingy dungeon of a troubled manse.
From there, I keep “D’yer Mak’er” at second, but move “Dancing Days” just behind it. Once out of the depths of winter, listeners can look forward to a dynamic duo that moves into that awkward phase of winter into spring. When it’s neither here nor there and everyone is looking for the year to really gather the wind under its wings so the months can fly. Both cuts serve to pick up the beat and subsequently gather speed. The pep of “D’yer Mak’er” serves the overwinter glumness in a fed-up, pepped up manner, allowing for listeners to tap out their haunted blues and begin anew. Once in step, “Dancing Days” turns it up, playing the mirror to the eponymous track (second-to-last and second, respectively) and really putting the fire in the shoes to begin celebrating the oncoming months of Apollo and Artemis with modern Hellenistic fervor hitherto kept behind lock and key since the opening exchange of “The Rain Song.” And from there “The Ocean” end the record in high spirits. Between the opening call to attention from Staff-Sergeant Bonzo to the raucous romp of Page and Jonesy’s guitars to the crowd chant lead of Plant then back again to Bonzo’s pocket stomp, the groove on this track cannot be denied and cannot be substituted as a sendoff. Just as “The Song Remains the Same” and “Houses of the Holy” open the record, so too does the paired “Dancing Days” and “The Ocean” end it in the same place. The record resolves with as much closure as it did before, but also ends on better-execution, too.
After this record redux, my Led Zeppelin album of choice looks like such:
- “The Song Remains the Same”
- “Houses of the Holy”
- “The Rain Song”
- “Over the Hills and Far Away”
- “No Quarter”
- “D’yer Mak’er”
- “Dancing Days”
- “The Ocean”
Aside from the obvious fix of putting the the eponymous track on the right record, I feel I’ve answered Zeppelin’s own qualm of balancing it out with “Dancing Days.” They now work on opposite ends of the record, allowing for listeners and fanatics alike to breath between them and enjoy that scrumptious seasonal cycle. This record works in cohesion, motif and musicality and allows for a more complete listening experience then the vanilla version. Yeah, I know, it sounds absolutely bonkers and pretentious, but just listen for yourself and then decide. You can think I’m wrong, of course, and blather on about the sanctity of the artist’s choice, but just as you disagree with me (a guy who views switching halfway between records as blasphemy), I disagree with Plant, Page, Jones and Bonzo on their choice of ordering the LP. This redux is a result of experimentation and of theorycrafting my own idea of the perfect Houses record, an album grievously plagued by switchbacking sentiments and indecisive ordering. At the very least, I think this order allows for a discussion on what we prefer in records: thematic and narrative straightforwardness or mixed and off-kilter story-telling. Both approaches work—it’s sort of a discussion of merits between The Godfather Part I and Pulp Fiction. But in my case, I’ll take The Godfather Part I and my rework of Houses of the Holy.
Every. Single. Time.