Certain Songs #906: Led Zeppelin – “The Ocean”

Album: Houses of The Holy
Year: 1973

Led Zeppelin closed out Houses of The Holy with one of the most purely fun songs in their entire canon, the incredibly weird “The Ocean,” which somehow welds an impossible drumbeat, an acapella bridge and a 50’s pastiche closing into a seamless whole.

Let’s start with that drumbeat: in order to match the riff that Page & Jones are playing, John Bonham has to lay off on the snare beat every fourth measure, giving the whole song a stuttering feeling, like it’s drunk as fuck and is just about to fall over at any second.

But of course, it never does, making it one of Bonzo’s most iconic beats, and probably something that every drummer has tried to play at least once. Decades after first hearing it, I still enjoy attempting to air drum this one and marveling at how seemlessly it transitions into a more traditional 4/4 beat as Robert Plant sings about life on the road, and the ocean of fans he’s seeing every night.

But sorry fans, Robert is barely paying attention to you, instead he’s thinking about an upcoming date that he has. Rude!

And here comes Jimmy Page’s first solo, over that drunken stumbling beat, and then for no discernible reason whatsoever the whole song comes to stop, and they’re all singing.

La, la, la, la, la, la, la, na, na, na, la, la
La, la, la, la, la, la, na, na, na, la, la, la
La, la, la, la, la, la, na, na, na, la, la, la
La, la, la, la, la, la, na, na, na, la, la la

It makes no damn sense, of course, but it doesn’t even matter as John Bonham hits that sweet high harmony just before the song kicks back into one more verse:

Sitting round singing songs
Til the night turns into day
Used to sing about the mountains
But the mountains washed away
Now I’m singing all my songs
To the girl who won my heart
She is only three years old
And it’s a real fine way to start

Oh, the girl who stole his heart is his daughter? Awwww. And as you’re processing that, they suddenly stumble into the Wayback Machine, set it for the 1950s and come out swinging with a straight blusey rock ‘n’ roll groove. And that’s how “The Ocean” ends: Page is soloing like the guitarists that influenced him — and laughing at his mistakes — while Bonham & Jones are singing “doo-wop, da-doo-doo-doo” over and over and the sense of joy in the whole song is palpable.

I mean, that’s thing about Led Zeppelin. They’ve always been seen as this dour band of musical marauders — and certainly their relative inaccessibility to the press combined with their overpowering anthemic sense contributed to their darker image — but with the added hindsight of decades of listening to their music, what I hear the most is just how much they loved doing what they did.

BTW, for whatever reason, Houses of The Holy was also the album that my friends in Fresno bands chose to cover songs from, and so Pure Death often stuck their pretty spectacular version of “The Ocean” in their sets so the rest of us could revel in its eternal hooky weirdness, even if we were drunk as fuck and about to fall over at any second.

“The Ocean”

“The Ocean” Performed live in New York, 1973

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