"Dancing Days" is proof that no matter how great a band or an album might be, there's always a moment where a slip-up happens.
Whenever I’m forced to turn over the LP of Houses of the Holy to the second side, I’m reminded that all albums—no matter how perfect I may view them—have their weak links. In this case, it’s “Dancing Days”, undoubtedly the low point of Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album. After the conclusion of “The Crunge”, where one is left chuckling at the meta wankery of that James Brown-inspired funk jam, the tonally off riff of “Dancing Days” comes somewhat out of left field. It’s both the most unexceptional track of Houses of the Holy and the safest choice for lead single, an interesting tension given the excellence of Zeppelin’s FM radio work prior to this LP, “Black Dog” being a good example. This paradox is (un)surprising; given that a good deal of the material on Houses of the Holy likely differed from the public’s expectations of the band—few probably imagined the Bob Marley funk of “D’Yer Maker” following the pagan epic “Stairway to Heaven”—the masterminds deciding which track would be a good single were likely thinking, at least for a bit, to opt to the lowest common denominator. And while “Over the Hills and Far Away” was chosen as Houses of the Holy’s lead single, “Dancing Days” stood alongside it as its b-side, a clear indicator that some record exec saw this song’s radio potential.
The majority of “Dancing Days” is dominated by a single riff, one that’s as unsettling as it is insidiously hooky. Jimmy Page’s guitar work is more diverse on Houses of the Holy than it is on any other Zeppelin LP, and “Dancing Days” is evidence that while he wasn’t throwing whatever he could against the recording studio walls in hoping something would stick, he was at the very minimum experimenting in sounds that he didn’t have a particularly good grasp on. The off-key string bending of the riff is intriguing at first, suggesting some sort of Eastern influence, but by the time the 3:43 of “Dancing Days” is up, it’s run out of whatever momentum was there in the first place. The song is notable for carrying in the LP’s trend of bright-sounding guitars in otherwise morose downtunings (“Dancing Days” is tuned to an irregular DBGDGE), but it fails to draw much else out of that beyond one interesting riff.
Robert Plant’s lyrics aren’t of much help here either. He deals largely here in generalities—“It’s alright” is repeated, and talk of an anonymous, underdescribed “woman who knows” abounds—and while it’s exactly the type of fodder that fits well on an FM radio classic rock station, it certainly isn’t up to the standard set by the other seven songs on Houses of the Holy. As a song it’s only memorable for its hook, and even there the hook factor lasts for about the first 30 seconds.
Yet for its forgetability in the grand scheme of Houses of the Holy, at the same time it feels like an irreplaceable part of the album. Few bands in the great pantheon of all things rock 'n' roll were able to churn out a legacy-establishing masterpiece with every single track they wrote, and Led Zeppelin are no exception. Short of the single-loaded Led Zeppelin II, none of the band's other records are without a blemish. But my experience of Houses of the Holy—an experience I imagine others have shared in one way or another—is one that has “Dancing Days” in it. It may be the bastard child of this exceptional litter, but for all of its strengths and blemishes it nonetheless feels like part of the family.