The structural base of the Houses of the Holy is made of cobbled-together parts. By the time the listener has made his or her way to “The Ocean”, they’ve endured a host of sonic experiments that few likely envisioned Led Zeppelin doing following the worldwide phenomenon that was Zoso. For four minutes of Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin is a mock-funk band. In another four, the group is splayed out on the sunny Jamaican shores cranking out an easy-breezy reggae jam. At one point they’re Mellotron-drenched balladeers. Then they’re decked out in Norse battle gear, ready to vanquish their opponents without mercy. More than any other LP in the Zeppelin catalog, Houses of the Holy channels nearly every aspect of this ambitious group’s id. Short of a missing classical overture or free jazz jam out in the original analog tapes, it seems that this record is case of no stone being unturned. “The Ocean”, the rockin’ little closer that ties this veritable potpourri of an LP, follows one monster of a track—the doomy war epic “No Quarter”—and given the inherent burden placed upon it by being the grand finale, it has a lot to live up to.
What “The Ocean” has going for it, however, is that given the diversity of the songs that precede it, there’s no real “logical” way to end the record. In a lot of ways, the band could have chosen a 1910 Fruitgum Company-type pop ditty to sew things all up and—considering the strength of the majority of Houses of the Holy—it probably would have worked. That’s one of the real strengths of what Led Zeppelin did here: by providing a nonlinear (and at times nonsensical) organizational structure that benefits from high-quality material, once it’s time for “The Ocean” to rock out, its job is made a hell of a lot easier. The band has thrown out the playbook in favor of a connect-the-dots book that, when traced out, leads to a work of art that’s something like Zeppelin qua Dali. Whatever expectations the listener has for things “to be” by the time this LP’s 40 minutes are up should be entirely foregone. The thrill of Houses of the Holy is the element of the unexpected, the creativity that moved Zeppelin beyond the realm of “the guys that wrote ‘Stairway to Heaven’”.
Still, despite all the gloom, humor, beauty, joviality, and downright funk that “The Ocean” follows, it ends Houses of the Holy on a note that fans of Zeppelin had come to know quite well: straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Despite some other genre traits present here—echoes of the shuffling groove that drove “The Crunge” are still present in John Bonham’s drumming, not to mention the bliss of the a cappella doo-wop coda—“The Ocean” features some of Led Zeppelin’s riff work. The guitar tone bears much similarity to the inferior “Dancing Days”, but rather than repeating on one riff for the course of its runtime, “The Ocean” really lets the music breathe; this is a rock song, undoubtedly, but it’s simultaneously relaxed and energetic. Robert Plant’s repetition of the words “sunshine” and “sun” is key to the capturing of this paradox; while Jimmy Page plays the main riff over Bonham’s impressive drumming, he’s talking about the relaxing, even transcendent, qualities about rock ‘n’ roll. Much like how Houses of the Holy derives its name from the stadiums the group would play in, “The Ocean” refers specifically to the crowds that would fill those stadiums—the ocean that Plant would sing to and get a “roar” back.
This happiness of Plant’s extends beyond the stage. In the last two lines of the song’s lyrics, he addresses his daughter Carmen—three at the time—as the “girl who won [his] heart”. Tangential though this may seem at first, Plant’s personal address here is actually quite beautiful, and even more than that a clever inversion on the “girl” archetype within doo-wop itself, the woman who the charming and, to use today’s parlance, “adorkable” male musicians would whistle and hoot at. Topping the utter beauty of “The Rain Song” is pretty difficult if not impossible, but these two lines of lyrics are a subtle and touching moment, one that throws yet another element of creativity into what could have otherwise been just another Zeppelin rock song.
And, in the end, that’s why “The Ocean” is a perfect closer. People will continue to lob criticisms at Houses of the Holy for as long as fan Internet chatrooms remain a thing. “It’s too uneven.” “There aren’t enough core Zep tracks.” “What the hell is ‘D’Yer Mak’er?’” These are all eternal questions for the Led Zeppelin enthusiast, ones that—like any other question about any other band that has ever existed—will remain unanswered. Yet despite the truth of that fact, all of the tendencies I have, either as someone who gets drawn to particular albums more than other or as a critic who looks for the most “objective” reasons (whatever those are) to prefer one work over another, lead me to the conclusion that Houses of the Holy is the definitive Led Zeppelin record. The four symbols of Zoso and the piper that leads us to reason may be what enshrines Led Zeppelin as rock legendaries, but Houses of the Holy captures what no other work of theirs does, not even the majestic Zoso: this is a band that was always bound to escape the confines of what was the popular conception of a “rock band” back then. Post-Zoso, these British rock legends had the whole world at their fingertips; Houses of the Holy is the sound of them taking in everything they can while still remaining true to themselves. And as its final seconds run out, “The Ocean” reminds us that Led Zeppelin remained at their core one of the greatest rock bands of all time, no matter the amount of strange detours they took along the way. In other words, Houses of the Holy is this group’s resolution of the classic problem of Unity and Diversity in philosophy. In embracing everything they were and everything they could have been, they made the defining work of their career, and what still today remains one of classic rock’s greatest testaments.
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