It always used to confuse me why Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” would be on Physical Graffiti and not the Houses of the Holy album. . . or at least I had trouble remembering that it was. To me its sound is very much like the rest of Houses of the Holy, and in fact it turns out that it was recorded for that 1973 album but was held off of it. Why? Because the band felt that it didn’t fit in with the other songs (but nonetheless kept the song title as the album title). Odd, because I could easily see it being part of that album, and in fact it stands out as not fitting in all that well stylistically on 1975’s Physical Graffiti. That’s probably because the song had been mixed for Houses but was then used as-is (or should I say “as-was”?) for Graffiti, therefore resulting in a different sound than the other songs that were recorded later.
Of course, it’s such a great song, and Physical Graffiti and Houses of the Holy such great albums, that it’s a moot point — it would have sounded great no matter when it came out, or on which album. I think that of all the periods of Led Zeppelin — and I’m a fan of most of them — the Houses of the Holy sound is my favorite. It works best at highlighting what made all of them so great individually and how they all worked those talents so well together as a group. The cool guitar effect/tone that Jimmy Page, at the peak of Guitar God-liness, starts the song with still sounds completely modern — more so than any other ’70s guitarists I can think of. And then the ease with which he tosses off guitar licks throughout the song is simply mindboggling. John Bonham and John Paul Jones kick in the stomping rhythm, and Plant sings his bell-bottoms off, as always. The production suits the song perfectly; Jimmy Page is one of the few musicians who really knew how to self-produce, doing whatever suited the song best with an objective efficiency that most other artists were incapable of. Too many others have ruined otherwise good albums by trying to do it on their own, without really knowing how to edit themselves. But Page was apparently a production god as well as a guitar god — probably thanks to his many pre-Zep years as a studio session musician giving him a great ear for it — and the rest of the gang was wise to let him have his way.