Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Houses of the Holy: The backstory to the famous Led Zeppelin album cover


Houses of the Holy: The backstory to the famous Led Zeppelin album cover
Richard Metzger

One of the most iconic record covers of the 1970s is Led Zeppelin’s fifth album, 1973’s Houses of the Holy and it’s also one of the most mysterious. Fans have long speculated about the “meaning” of this cryptic image of naked, golden-haired children crawling around an apocalyptic landscape towards… what? Was it a reference to the creepy 50s sci-fi film Village of the Damned? Or was there some “occult significance” to Jimmy Page there? I’m sure there must have been quite a lot of stoned, meandering conversations back then about this one.

The cover, produced by the legendary London-based design firm, Hipgnosis, was shot on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Aubrey Powell, the Hipgnosis partner who actually designed the cover, told Q magazine in 2003 that the concept was based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, where hundreds of millions of Earth’s children gather together to be taken off into space.

But there’s an odd factoid or two about the Houses of the Holy album cover that might surprise you: First off, it was not a small army of naked children with wigs on, it was only two kids, a brother and sister, who were photographed over the course of ten days at dawn and at dusk. One of them went on to become a world famous TV presenter, Stefan Gates of the BBC’s popular Cooking in the Danger Zone show.

Gates said of the shoot, which he did at the age of five with his older sister Samantha:

“We only got a few quid for the modelling and the chance to travel to places we had never been before. Our family wasn’t well off, we certainly couldn’t afford holidays, so it worked out great for us.

“For the Zeppelin cover we went to Ireland during the Troubles. I remember arriving at the airport and seeing all these people with guns. We stayed in this little guest house near the Giant’s Causeway and to capture the so-called magic light of dawn and dusk we’d shoot first thing in the morning and at night.

I’ve heard people saying they put wigs on several children. But there was only me and my sister and that’s our real hair. I used to love being naked when I was that age so I didn’t mind. I’d whip off my clothes at the drop of a hat and run around having a great time, so I was in my element. My sister was older so she was probably a bit more self-conscious.”

Aubrey Powell said of the shoot: “It promptly rained for ten days straight. I shot the whole thing in black and white on a totally miserable morning pouring with rain. Originally, I’d intended the children to be gold and silver. Because I shot in black and white and it was a gray day, the children turned out very white. So when we hand-tinted it, the airbrush artist, by accident, put a kind of purple tinge onto them. When I first saw it, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ Then we looked at it, and I said, ‘Hang on a minute, this has an otherworldly quality.’ So we left it as it was. Everybody was so cold, and so freaked out because it wasn’t working, that the only thing I could keep everybody together with was a bottle of Mandrax and a lot of whiskey.”

Oddly, in 2007 Stefan Gates claimed to have never listened to the album and that he felt there was something perhaps sinister about the cover image. “It carries too much significance for me,” he said at the time. “A part of me wants to go out to the Giant’s Causeway with a big pair of speakers, strip naked and play it just to see if I have some kind of great epiphany.”

The February 2010 BBC 4 radio show Stefan Gates’s Cover Story saw him return to the Giant’s Causeway to experience the album there for the first time, played on a boom box (but presumably clothed).

Samantha Gates, now living in South Africa, recalls “I remember the shoot really clearly, mainly because it was freezing cold and rained the whole time.

“We were naked in a lot of the modelling shoots we did, nothing was thought of it back then. You probably couldn’t get away with that now.”

Stefan Gates believes shooting the album at the age of five has a huge, but mostly subconscious, role in his life. “Although it’s just my naked behind you can see, perhaps being a part of something like that at a young age made me seek out more ambitious and adventurous experiences.”

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