“Over the Hills and Far Away” is the third track from English rock band Led Zeppelin’s 1973 album Houses of the Holy. It was released as a single, with “Dancing Days” as the B-side, in the US.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant originally constructed the song in 1970 at Bron-Yr-Aur, a small cottage in Wales where they stayed after completing a grueling North American concert tour. The song was first called “Many, Many Times”, as shown on a picture of the original master on the Led Zeppelin website.
Page plays a six-string acoustic guitar introduction and repeats the theme with a 12-string acoustic guitar in unison. This leads into section led by electric guitar with the whole of the band.
Through the pre-verse interludes and instrumental bridge, “Over the Hills and Far Away” stands out as an example of Jones and Bonham’s tight interplay. Following the final verse, the rhythm section fades out, gradually replaced by the echo returns from Page’s electric guitar and a few chords played by Jones on Clavinet. In the final 8 bars, Page executes a linearly descending/ascending sequence and then concludes with the idiomatic V-I cadence on synth imitating a pedal steel guitar.
The song was released as Houses of the Holy’s first US single, reaching #51 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, later becoming a staple of the classic rock radio format. Set lists from Led Zeppelin concerts frequently contained “Over the Hills and Far Away”, the song being one that the band introduced on stage well ahead of its studio release. The live recording on How the West Was Won, a combined edit of the concerts on 25 and 27 June 1972, was the second public performance of the song. In his spoken introduction to the song before the performance of 27 June 1972 in Long Beach, California, Robert Plant says “we did this song once before, the night before last at the Forum, and it was too much, really great.” The band continued to play it on the rest of the 1972 concert tour of North America and retained it consistently through 1979, before omitting it from their final tour of Europe in 1980. In singing the song live in 1973 and later concerts, Plant often substituted the opening lyrics of the second verse (“Many have I loved, many times been bitten”) with the opening lyrics of the third verse (“Many times I’ve lied, many times I’ve listened”). He also commonly followed the words “pocket-full of gold” with “Acapulco Gold” (a type of marijuana), as can be heard on the live album How the West Was Won. From 1973 on, he sang the second and the third verses in a lower register because of the growing damaging of his vocals. Also, at concerts guitarist Jimmy Page performed an extended guitar solo, which essentially consisted of the rhythm and lead guitar parts of the album version split into two separate pieces. This extended solo made the live renditions last seven minutes or more.
Archive footage of this track being performed live at Seattle in 1977 and at Knebworth in 1979 was used for an officially distributed video of the song, used to promote the 1990 Led Zeppelin Remasters release. The video accompanied a CD single which was released following the successful “Travelling Riverside Blues” release.
In a contemporary review for Houses of the Holy, Gordon Fletcher of Rolling Stone criticized “Over the Hills and Far Away”, calling the track dull, as well as writing the track is “cut from the same mold as “Stairway To Heaven”, but becomes dull without that song’s torrid guitar solo”.
The song has received greater acclaim in more recent years. Rolling Stone ranked “Over the Hills and Far Away” at No. 16 in its list of “The 40 Greatest Led Zeppelin Songs of All Time” in 2012. Andrew Unterberger of Spin, in 2014, ranked “Over the Hills and Far Away” as Led Zeppelin’s best song, writing that it “best demonstrates just about everything the band does well: the unforgettable and impossible-to-pin-down opening riff, the life-affirming transition from acoustic to electric, the constant switches in tone and dynamic, the piercing solo with double-tracked climax, the impeccable interplay of guitar, bass, and drum, the inimitable Plant shrieking, the gorgeous coda, even the super-oblique title”. Critic Bill Wyman, writing for Vulture.com in 2015, ranked it as Led Zeppelin’s 6th best song.