Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (1973)
Led Zeppelin’s self-titled 1969 debut album cover featured a stark black-and-white mezzotint of the burning Hindenburg airship, a dark pun on the band’s name. It was a brutally striking image to introduce the heaviest rock band of their time, perhaps the greatest of all time. Their eight original studio albums boasted covers that were elaborate and mysterious, often with a vein of teasing humour (what did the symbols on 1971’s Zeppelin IV represent? What was the black object at the centre of 1976’s Presence?). The band themselves tended to have little involvement other than arbitrating ideas. Their strangest and ultimately most controversial cover was arrived at as much by accident as design.
What is it?
Houses of The Holy was Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, released in 1973. Already superstars, Zeppelin were confident enough to put neither band name nor album title on the cover. It was a gatefold sleeve, depicting a strange, tinted shot of naked children climbing a mystical rock formation towards a glowing light, beneath an orange sky. Balanced cryptically between the innocent and sinister, it has an air of both faery fantasy and apocalypse cult. On the inner sleeve, a naked adult holds a child overhead beneath the ruins of a castle, as if in sacrifice or exultation.
What could it all possibly mean?
For answers, it certainly wouldn’t help to ask the band. In the view of guitarist Jimmy Page, covers were “something for other people to savour rather than for me to spell out”. Or, as singer Robert Plant once put it: “People read too much into these things.”
The story behind the cover
The cover was designed by Hipgnosis, the London studio whose work with Pink Floyd, Genesis and other progressive rockers made them the most influential sleeve designers of the era. Their first job with Zeppelin didn’t get off to a good start, when the band declined to let them hear new songs or even provide a working title. But they were intrigued by photographer Aubrey Powell’s idea to create a tableau inspired by Arthur C Clarke’s 1953 science fiction novel Childhood’s End, in which earth’s children are transported into space in a beam of light. When Hipgnosis explained that the shoot would be expensive, it only provided further encouragement. “We don’t f—ing care about money!” declared bullish manager Peter Grant. “Just f—ing do it!”
The shoot was a near disaster, however. “It was freezing cold and rained the whole time,” says Samantha. The light was gloomy, and they ran out of makeup after five days, resorting to car spray paint. Eventually, Powell decided to simplify the concept by shooting in black and white using just the child models. “I realised we could collage the cover together due to the octagonal shaped rocks,” he says. He shot it all “one miserable morning, in the pouring rain”.
Back in London, Powell created a composite image, which artist Phillip Crennel hand-tinted using water-soluble dyes and airbrushes. It was a painstaking process, and Zeppelin had to delay the release of their album by two months to accommodate it. Robert Plant has spoken of “a kind of Spinal Tap thing where you can’t put the record out, even though you’ve finished it, because you haven’t got the artwork right”.
So what is the music actually like?
After the sledgehammer brilliance of Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy is lighter, looser and more expansive. Amid the scorched-earth riffing, there’s James Brown-inspired funk rock and a foray into reggae. The musicianship is extraordinary on cinematic odyssey The Song Remains the Same, languorously atmospheric ballad The Rain Song and darkly dramatic No Quarter. Cover and title combine to create an occult aura, yet the album displays Zeppelin at their most playful. According to Plant, Houses of the Holy is actually an innocent reference to concert venues. A title song was left off and reused on the follow up, Physical Graffiti, in 1975.
And what is its legacy?
During 1989 cult comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the time travellers arrive in 470BC, described by Ted, narrating, as “a time when much of the world looked like the cover of the Led Zeppelin album Houses of the Holy”. It is an extraordinary painterly image, the naked children presented no more salaciously than cherubs of the Renaissance or nymphs of Pre-Raphelite art. Yet it would be unlikely that any artist now would want to be associated with such a cover.
Even on first release, the American record company added a wraparound band obscuring the children’s buttocks. In 2019, Facebook briefly banned the cover before rescinding on the basis that it was “a culturally significant image”. In 2010, the adult Stefan Gates made a BBC Radio 4 documentary, in which he returned to the Giant’s Causeway to listen to the album. “I am a bit scared of it,” he has admitted. “There’s this big bad thing out there and it’s got me on it. I just feel I’m in the middle of some hellish scene. The one thing [my sister Sam and I] agree on is we would never let our kids do the same thing.”