After a first listen-through of Houses of the Holy, one isn’t likely to arrive at the conclusion that “Over the Hills and Far Away” would later go on to be the most remembered track from the album. Other songs immediately come off as better choices for a single: “The Ocean” or even “Dancing Days” have a better immediate FM radio appeal. During the record’s 1973 release, the lack of such singles was likely a disappointment to fans who were anticipating a bigger emphasis on rock after the titanic impact of Zoso. Many were no doubt surprised by the lack of blatantly rockist fare like “Black Dog” or “Rock and Roll”. The blues rock influence, while not absent fromHouses of the Holy, is certainly diminished, with folk elements rising to the forefront. “The Ocean” can be retrospectively (and cynically) read as the one cut on Houses of the Holy to assuage those who disliked the change in direction the album signaled. The diversity found on this LP, while a key fact of its success for those who count it amongst Zeppelin’s best, is often just as easily labeled one of the reasons why it’s sub-par to works like Physical Graffiti or Zoso.
But regardless if one prefers Led Zeppelin with the distortion pedal turned on or off, “Over the Hills and Far Away” has a single quality that makes it an instant classic: warmth. Few other songs in Zeppelin’s catalog possess such an immediate friendliness; both lyrically and musically—especially the former—it’s as welcoming a song as the band ever wrote. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is the spiritual companion to the world music tribute “The Song Remains the Same”, but its embrace of universality spans even wider. Though at first the song begins with Robert Plant serenading a nameless woman (“Hey lady / You got the love I need?”), after the first stanza, his language becomes about human experience on the broad scale. It’s as if in his act of wooing a particular individual, he has come to realize his love for all people: “Many have I loved / Many times been bitten / Many times I’ve gazed along the open road”. By the end of the song, Plant’s mind has seemed to drift completely away from the woman he addressed at the beginning; he’s instead become engrossed with the human experience—nebulous though the phrase may be, it’s true of this song—in its perplexing totality.
“Many times I’ve lied / Many times I’ve listened / Many times I’ve wondered how much it is to know”, Plant muses. The question of the limitations of human knowledge—an important discussion in the field of epistemology—extends far beyond than the five minutes that “Over the Hills and Far Away” affords, but in the few lines of lyrics Plant does sing, he says a great deal. More importantly, though, he says it honestly: “I live for my dream”, he professes, not before adding the self-deprecating “and a pocketful of gold”. With the stature afforded to Plant and the rest of Led Zeppelin after the four-album succession between their 1969 self-titled LP and Zoso, it’s a wonder he manages to keep talk of money brief. Refreshingly, Plant slips into the role of the wizened philosopher, sitting next to a new friend with whom he has begun sharing his life experiences. Led Zeppelin would finish its studio output four albums later (three if Coda is viewed as a B-sides collection instead of a studio LP), but the refinement that comes with age is at its most evident on Houses of the Holy.
And while it is Plant’s genial grace that is the crux of “Over the Hills and Far Away”, his bandmates do splendidly as well. Keeping in line with “The Song Remains the Same” and “The Rain Song” before it, “Over the Hills and Far Away” showcases Jimmy Page’s six-string and 12-string guitar interplay, an arrangement style that is one of the defining elements of Houses of the Holy. While Guitar Center stores are more commonly plagued with youngsters attempting the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven”, Page’s guitar playing here is some of the best for aspiring guitarists to mimic. The hammered and pulled-off notes (see the opening guitar melody) are a hallmark of his style of guitar playing. His transition from the lead guitar melody to the power chords in the chorus is wonderful, elevating the song from folksy storytelling to road-trip radio jam, with a measure of funk thrown in—after each of Plant’s verses, the band plays a near danceable couple of bars that’s a microcosm of how well these four musicians played off of each other.
To borrow a phrase from the pseudo-philosopher Walter Sobchack, the beauty of “Over the Hills and Far Away’s” composition is in its simplicity. Much like the aphoristic quality of Plant’s lyrics, Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones don’t overstuff this song with layers overdubs or lush orchestrations; since this track has to follow Houses of the Holy’s most beautiful moment—“The Rain Song”—the band wisely decided to rein in the arrangements. The music here is usually about a single riff or a single groove that happens at a particular time; when the shift happens from the folk guitar of the opening to the sunny rock of the later verses and chorus, it doesn’t feel anything like the suite-like transitions of the group’s great epics. The stylistic changes here aren’t fancy or complex, but they’re perfect in expressing the pensive mindset Plant sings from.
So while “Over the Hills and Far Away” may not pack the punch that the core of Zeppelin’s fan favorites do, to this day it remains a track that anyone who wants to experience Zeppelin for the first time should consider as a starting-off point. For all of the doom, gloom, and quasi-Paganism of its lyrical matter, Zeppelin was always a band about inclusivity and the inherent transcendence of the musical experience, an ethos distilled in its purest form in “Over the Hills and Far Away”. It may not be the cut that insists upon itself during the first listen, but the strength of its philosophical effervescence is such that it’s no wonder it has remained in the memory of Zeppelin fans worldwide more than any other track on Houses of the Holy.