“We have passed several musical milestones from 1973 already this year, including the releases of Dark Side of the Moon and Houses of the Holy. Let other bloggers write about those.”
– Jim Bartlett
You got it, mate.
In my rabid high-school Zep phase, I repeatedly proclaimed Houses to be the finest of the band’s albums.
Most of what I said back then was nonsense, but I think this particular statement might have had some truth to it. Zeppelin’s fifth album found the band stepping away from overwrought and/or plagiarized power-blues, developing a more melodic sound that still hits hard when it wants to. I still think it stands as a balance of the best the band had to offer.
(By contrast, I listened some months ago to Zep II — a classic 16-year-old-boy album — for the first time in years and was pretty well underwhelmed. It still sounds good, but there’s no brain, heart, or sense of humor behind the blitzkrieg.)
I don’t play Zep of any stripe very often nowadays, as the musical world is much wider than it was when I was 16.
But in honor of Houses’ anniversary-ending-in-five, here’s my ranking of the album’s eight songs, from worst to best.
8. “The Rain Song.” Pretty, but dreary and overlong — especially given the galloping exuberance of the song that comes directly before it. Pacing is an art, and I think another fast one in the second slot might have worked better; “The Rain Song” feels mainly like something you have to endure to get to the really good stuff. This is the mystery of the quotient, as the man says.
7. “No Quarter.” Yeah, both the murky slow songs come in at the bottom of my list. Another song that’s not bad, perfectly OK, but just takes up too much real estate. To its credit, it does summon up images of guys in cloaked hoods doing battle with broadswords on foggy moors of Olde Albion, which is all part of the Zep mystique. (Better that than squeezed lemons, anyway.)
6. “D’yer Mak’er.” This song drove me nuts when I was 16, especially Jimmy Page’s limp excuse for a solo. I enjoy it somewhat more now, if only because it’s fun to hear the ham-fisted Zep work a groove; and if left to my own devices nowadays, I let it play all the way through. But in the end, this one joins “Hot Dog” on the list of genre exercises that were funnier to the band than they were to anybody else. (This one stumbled into the U.S. Top 40, where its name gave DJs fits.)
5. “Dancing Days.” In which Page integrates his Middle Eastern/Indian jawn into a power-rock context without beating the listener over the head with it. (The widescreen epic that was “Kashmir” has its place, but you can also incorporate your influences more subtly.) A solid album track that doesn’t overstay its welcome and packs a little bit of earworminess.
(FYI, if they’d actually put the song “Houses of the Holy” on the album that bears its name instead of holding it for the next one, it would rank here.)
4. “The Ocean.” My cadre of high-school buddies with guitars and drums used to jam the hell out of the odd-tempo main lick here. In fact, I believe I even played this at a high school talent show once, in the company of a very good guitarist and drummer and a pretty good singer. We came in second to a bunch of guys from the football team doing some sort of mass rap, an injustice that still rankles mightily.
This is a good example of Zep doing music that’s heavy without being misogynistic or totally brain-dead. And while the Fifties revivalism of “D’yer Mak’er” do’es’n’t d’o i’t for me, the last minute or so of this tune — what an old friend of mine used to call “the Elvis section” — carries the album to its close in spirited fashion. For the first time in Zep’s recorded history, when Robert Plant exclaims, “Awwwww, it’s so good!,” it doesn’t sound like heavy-handed double-entendre; one suspects he’s honestly having a good time.
3. “Over the Hills And Far Away.” When I was 16, I would have put this at least at No. 2, and it’s probably still a coin flip. The only thing that keeps this at No. 3 is the extended harpsichord coda — one of the few points on Houses where the group seems to paste in something diverse and unexpected just for the sake of having something diverse and unexpected. Plant’s lyrics are endlessly quotable, while the interplay of Page’s electric and acoustic guitars is about as good as anyone’s ever done it.
2. “The Song Remains The Same.” Starts the album with a pure adrenaline jolt, then deftly alternates fast and slow throughout in an unforced way. Plant is on pretty good form again; plus, you can’t beat the title for sloganeering. When I listen to this it makes me think of some indefatigable world traveler, scarf flying, on a jet to Saudi Arabia or Tangiers or Stockholm or someplace. Zep had a history at the time of opening their records with overheated brain-beating machismo — “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog” — and it was high time they broke out and did something that added a little thought to their raw power.
1. “The Crunge.” Yup. This is my list, and on my list, this bizarre and completely unexpected send-up of the James Brown sound is the best song on Houses.
I have never gotten tired of it. In fact, John Paul Jones’s cheesy synth motif, Page’s grinding, off-kilter rhythm guitar, and Plant’s tossed-off, punch-drunk vocal (“IaintgonnatellyounothinIaintgonnatellyounomoooooore, no!”) retain the capacity to make me laugh out loud after all these years.
While it’s commonly described as a “piss-take” or somesuch, I’ve never interpreted it as open mockery of James Brown. Instead, it sounds like Page started playing a funk riff after everybody’d had a couple of lagers, and a few hours later, something crazed and unique and hilarious occupied a space in the universe that was waiting to be filled.
If Wiki is to be believed, this is one of Jones’s favourite Zeppelin songs, which is endorsement enough for me, since he was and is Zep’s coolest member.
(The song has a little bit of music-geek credibility, too: “The Crunge”‘s deceptively simple exterior masks an absurd number of time-signature shifts. Try counting it.)