"D'Yer Mak'er" concludes the controversial middle section of Houses of the Holy in an uproarious fashion. With this song Led Zeppelin proves that for every Tolkien reference, there's a corresponding joke—and a pretty damn good one at that.
Two installments ago, in my analysis of the funk jam “The Crunge”, I noted that the three songs that make up the midsection of Houses of the Holy are often where the album faces its biggest critical bashings. “Dancing Days”, the serviceable but relatively unmemorable single sandwiched between “The Crunge” and “D’Yer Mak’er”, softens the blow posed by the two aforementioned tracks. While the shuffling groove of “The Crunge” doesn't differ radically from Led Zeppelin’s classic singles, “D’Yer Mak’er” seems to throw a major wrench into Houses of the Holy. Creativity is the defining hallmark of this LP—for myself and many others, it’s what makes it the strongest in the Zeppelin catalog—but not unreasonably for some, “D’Yer Mak’er” is where the band’s experimentation goes too far. Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic found that though “D’Yer Mak’er” contributed to the diversity of the record, it “suggest[ed] the band was searching for material.” In a stronger opinion, Gordon Fletcher wrote in the original 1973 Rolling Stone review that the song would likely “get the Zep laughed off the island if they bothered playing it in Jamaica”, calling it “a naked imitation” that was “easily the worst [thing] this band has ever done.” (In a revised 2003 review, Gavin Edwards relaxed the magazine’s initial criticism, calling it a “swinging take on reggae.”)
These reactions, while simplistic, aren’t to be entirely unexpected. Even on an LP as varied as Houses of the Holy, “D’Yer Mak’er” is an oddity. If there’s one thing that could be more bizarre than a group of internationally renowned white British musicians attempting an authentic take on funk—as in “The Crunge”—it’s those same musicians pretending they’re on a Jamaican vacation for four and a half minutes. The image of Robert Plant getting dreadlocks while the rest of the band lets their pasty British skin burn up in the sun comes to my mind every time I hear “D’Yer Mak’er”, and every time it happens I laugh aloud. It’s a reaction I rarely get when listening to Zeppelin—“Hot Dog” and “The Crunge” excepted—and for that reason the song is one of the tracks on Houses of the Holy that easily lingers in the memory. Though it’s unlikely to be placed in any canon of the iconic Zeppelin works (it was never played in full live), “D’Yer Mak’er” nonetheless a shining moment on the band’s best album; as such, the notion of it as an inferior one-off experiment is certainly unjustified. Following the comparatively weaker "Dancing Days", it's in fact the humorous boost the record needs.
Like the two tracks before it, “D’Yer Mak’er” is far from a lyrical gem. A good 50 percent of the lyrics are vocal filler: “oh”, “ah”, and “ay” are examples of the loquaciousness not present. The song's name itself, an intentionally botched phonetic attempt to say "Jamaica", seems to suggest the lyrics themselves are nothing more than contributions to a single joke. But if one pays close attention to the lyrics rather than getting caught up in the overall hilarity of things, they'll discover a pretty standard lament of unrequited love. Led Zeppelin's oeuvre does contain some breakup-worthy material ("Tangerine" and "Heartbreaker" especially) but compared to the rest of its eight-to-ten minute epics and straightforward rockers, these type of lyrical pinings are few and far between. That the group would take one of the most ubiquitous song types in pop music—the unrequited love ballad—and perform it via a mock take on reggae is gutsy, to say the least.
Much like the James Brown inspiration of "The Crunge", one gets the sense that there is a little Bob Marley worship in "D'Yer Mak'er", and while the thought of the four members of Led Zeppelin in rasta beanies is more comical than genuine, the sense that they're aware of their limitations is definitely present. Both this song and "The Crunge", while operating in different genres, are great corollaries in this regard; both are clear genre exercises, a fact the band is well aware of. Rather than trying to be "a funk band" or "a reggae band" for a little part of the album, however, these rascally Brits opt to variate on a theme they know they'll never quite be able to grasp. This is evident in the music itself, which is incredibly simple and at times nondescript; the guitar wah-wahs just like it should, the bass lays down a decent groove, and the cymbals splash like the waves the song is meant to evoke. Yet underneath all these boilerplate composite parts lies a tongue-in-cheek energy that's admirable, and in the grand scheme of Houses of the Holy necessary given the doom and gloom of the track immediately following "D'Yer Mak'er", the Norse death chant "No Quarter".
This energy isn't surprising, though. The same source of the conviviality that invigorated "The Song Remains the Same" is also present in "D'Yer Mak'er". This LP followed Zeppelin's stratospheric rise to the top of rock following Zoso; undoubtedly, island vacations (to Jamaica or otherwise) became much more of a reality for the group. This somewhat silly effervescence is what elevates "D'Yer Mak'er" from the genre exercise that it is to something greater, namely a musical interpretation of the joys of international stardom. This is where the title Houses of the Holy comes from: it's the name given to the concert venues where the group performed, a name rooted in the appreciation of the Zeppelin fanbase. Zep understandably ditched "D'Yer Mak'er" in favor of more pertinent album material in its live shows, but in a lot of ways it's a shame they did; few tracks are as expressive of its love to play live than this one.
This, of course, is but one of many interpretations. A satiric reading of the track, one where the Zep is an out-of-place gaggle of tourists, is certainly plausible. Either way, I would suggest that rather than the blight on Houses of the Holy that many make it out to be, "D'Yer Mak'er" concludes an eclectic album midsection that makes this the most vibrant of Zeppelin LPs—not to mention the best.