History is often not as judicious in granting sympathy to the album that follows a classic. As great as the Beatles’ “White Album” is, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is typically the starting off point for lists about the greatest albums of all time, due in large part to its placement atop Rolling Stone‘s top 500. The mystique behind Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon casts a shadow over the superior Wish You Were Here. Chatrooms dedicated to progressive rock are more likely to have exuberant praise for In the Court of the Crimson King rather than In the Wake of Poseidon. And, perhaps in the greatest case of all, there’s the wake left by 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV, also known as Zoso, also known as “the Led Zeppelin album most people forget is unnamed”. That record, covered in the fall of 2011 in an excellent Between the Grooves series by AJ Ramirez, is certainly a deserved legend; to imagine Zeppelin without “Stairway to Heaven” is damn near impossible. But what came after Zoso was an album that to this day is still a top contender for Zeppelin’s best work: Houses of the Holy.
Debates about what is or isn’t the best in Zeppelin’s oeuvre could go on for days, with many defending obvious choices like Zoso and some going out on a limb to redeem the material typically deemed inferior to the major works, like Presence (1976). The point of this series here is not to engage in such fanboy argumentation; instead, my purpose here is to provide a close listening of an album that faces a lofty obstacle that really any Zeppelin LP faces: comparison to Zoso. For Houses of the Holy it is an especially difficult obstacle, given that it directly followed that incredible record.
But more importantly, few albums demand a track-by-track evaluation as much as Houses of the Holy does. The discography of Led Zeppelin is broad and diverse, and fewer of its works encompass that fact as much as HOTH. Sure, Zep’s career had weirder experiments than anything present here—the hilarious rockabilly jam “Hot Dog” from In Through the Out Door (1979) comes to mind—but no other of its LPs integrate unity and diversity in the way than this record did. The medieval folk for which the band has become legendary is in full force here; it might be said this record finds Zeppelin at its most mystical. At times, Robert Plant sounds like a shaman calling forth the end of days, and when material from Houses of the Holy was performed during Zeppelin’s legendary “Celebration Day” concert in 2007, in his old age he certainly looked the part.
This is plainly evident from the iconic sleeve art, which depicts several naked children—if one could even call them that—ascending an artistic rendering of the basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland to some monument far ahead. When the gatefold of the vinyl LP is opened, a picture of a man lifting a child up to a shining light is revealed; a strange act of sacrifice? Of worship? It’s hard to tell, and the lyrics to Houses of the Holy give no indication as to what this pagan art might indicate. If one looks an album later (1975’s Physical Graffiti) to the delayed title track of Houses of the Holy, no clear signs are given either. Some references to “Satan’s daughter” are made, and if one stretches the lyrics far enough a semi-plausible reading could be made. In the end, however, such an endeavor is moot; the allure of Houses of the Holy’s sleeve art is in its enigmatic nature, and it further shrouds the LP in the mystique that makes it such a tantalizing record to engage with.
This mystique, however, fades for but a moment as “The Song Remains the Same” kicks things off. Jimmy Page introduces a simple, repeated D note on the guitar which is interrupted by staccato chords on alternating beats. Then, when the song picks up with the rest of the band joined in, an undeniably positive mood is created. Plant’s lyrics, however cheesily inspirational they may be, are especially effective in this creation: “People won’t you listen now? / Sing along!” And, given how joyous his delivery is, it’s hard not to join in. “The Song Remains the Same” is the ultimate song to start almost anything off: an album, a road trip, an international expedition—an equally apt title for it would have been “Beginning”. This mood is beautifully expressed by one of Plant’s better couplets: “California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain / Honolulu starbright—the song remains the same”.
That feeling of universality is to be expected on a song like this. Coming off of Zoso, the members of Led Zeppelin had turned into full-blown international stars, something that would become even more true when touring for Houses of the Holy, where they would take in some of their biggest concert receipts. When Plant sings of “City lights oh so bright as we go sliding through”, the image of the band members’ faces painted with streetlights as their bus cruises a major city is immediately evoked. The experiences of the road, of meeting fans on a global scale, are things that undeniably changed Zeppelin’s music. There are probably many reasons why Zeppelin chose to name its first live album after this song, but the lyrics to the song itself are probably reason enough; it’s an incredible testament to the universality of not just Zep’s music, but the experience of music as a whole. “The Song Remains the Same” is a reminder of how Led Zeppelin is the one of the key participants in that experience.
It’s fitting, then, that the song gets a spot both on the live album of the same name (1976), as well as the just-released Celebration Day double LP. As a live track, it’s essential Zeppelin. The energy it possesses is formidable, and though it’s far from the heaviest thing Zeppelin ever wrote, it’s certainly one of the group’s most propulsive efforts. Part of this has to do not just with the lyrics, but also the arrangement. Page lays on guitar track atop guitar track here, mixing both six- and 12-string guitars. In doing so, Page brings an almost symphonic quality to these proceedings: Houses of the Holy’s own overture. And while there’s little else that sounds like “The Song Remains the Same” on Houses of the Holy, it’s nonetheless as fitting an opener as this—or really any—record could ask for.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Houses of the Holy, and after all this time, the song does indeed remain the same. The album remains the same.