Once the hills of far away are but bumps and ridges on the rearview mirror of the listener taking the voyage to the Houses of the Holy, things start to get eccentric. Whereas the opening three tracks of the album include Zeppelin standards (“The Song Remains the Same” and “Over the Hills and Far Away”) and underrated gems (“The Rain Song”), the three songs that make up the middle—“The Crunge”, “Dancing Days”, and “D’Yer Mak’er”—are some of the most divisive cuts in the entire Zeppelin discography, especially the latter of the three. To borrow Eric Stoltz’s sly quip from Kicking and Screaming, many these songs “aim for the stars and hit the roof”. Every now and then, critics will throw out the “prog” label when describing these guys, and not without reason; the suite-like composition of epics like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Achilles Last Stand” are still aped by many a Berkelee grad still today.
When shorter, compositionally simpler tracks like “The Crunge” are viewed as small pieces in an overall career arc, they can however be seen as units of progression. The members of Led Zeppelin had already solidified their stance as the golden gods of rock by the time Houses of the Holy was released; not surprisingly, the thought of branching out came to their minds. Progression for progression’s sake is no virtue, but that’s not what is going on in tracks like “The Crunge”, nor is it the sound of a band drunk on the idea of playing the wild card. The James Brown-inspired funk of “The Crunge” isn’t miles off the sonic the group had established for themselves post-Zoso; rather, it’s a creative variation on a theme.
In fact, at the very beginning, “The Crunge” bears a clear similarity to a track that came not but an album before it: “When the Levee Breaks”. That song, the closing chapter of Zoso, has become famous not for its merits as a song—although it is one hell of a closer—but rather for the sampleability of its beat. When John Bonham’s drums kick in on “The Crunge”, one wouldn’t be wrong in wondering why it is that hasn’t made as many appearances as “When the Levee Breaks”. The 9/8 meter is trickier to match to other songs, yes, but it’s easily one of Bonham’s best beats, and when played in tandem with the swagger of John Paul Jones’ shuffling bassline, it’s as good a base for a stream of whip-snap lyricism as anything else out there.
Now, “The Crunge” isn’t a bad song. It’s actually great fun, and alongside “D’Yer Mak’er”, it’s one of the key examples of the use of humor in Led Zeppelin’s music. For all the heavy-handed macabre imagery and medieval lore that so defines some of the group’s well-known compositions, these guys are a still a rock band underneath it all, the same one that sang “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid (She’s Just a Woman)”. Even the spring clean for the may queen must come to an end.
Once the swagger of “The Crunge” has been established by Bonham’s drum beat, however, things quickly turn sub-par. Robert Plant’s lyrics are pretty rote, with heavy usage of the word “baby” (even by rock n’ roll’s standards) to describe how much he’s fallen in love with a nameless woman. In attempting to pastiche funk, which at the time of Houses of the Holy‘s release was still largely dominated by black musicians, the band wisely avoid anything overtly racist. Still, this is a group of fairly pasty white Brits trying to come off as James Brown enthusiasts, which, if not racist, at minimum comes off as incredibly (and comically) out-of-place. If you keep an ear out for it, you’ll find moments of funk and groove scattered amongst the many songs penned by Led Zeppelin, but a single moment of funk or an individual groove won’t always grow into a full-blown jam, especially one like “The Crunge” that’s a through-and-through genre exercise. Musically speaking, the members of Zeppelin have done much better in terms of trying to expand their reach as songwriters.
Fortunately, though, the mediocre music doesn’t condemn “The Crunge” to failure. In a brilliant, almost meta turn, the band takes the time to wink at the listener with the song’s conclusion. Leading into the end, Plant keeps saying he’s looking for a bridge; in context, it seems as if the bridge refers to a distance between him and her. As things abruptly end, and Plant asks, “Where’s that confounded bridge?”, all of a sudden it is exactly clear what he’s talking about: the band didn’t write a bridge into the music. A song like “The Crunge” would ordinarily contain a bridge, but songwriters Plant, Bonham, Page, and Jones playfully left it out, self-deprecatingly accepting their inability to play any genre they like. For the majority of this short piece, Zeppelin are comfortable to play funk in their own undercooked way; had the track ended with this still being the mood, it could very well have been a throwaway experiment. But with one gag—and a single four-word question—“The Crunge” becomes a minor comedic classic, a tongue-in-cheek rumination on a group’s limitations.