A downright spooky number from Led Zeppelin's excellent Houses of the Holy LP (1973), "No Quarter" is a jazzy blues, a funky fusion jam, or all of the above. Slithering in on John Paul Jones' watery Rhodes electric piano, the mood set is similar to the moody vibe of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm," but also invokes Miles Davis' use of the instrument on his landmark jazz-rock fusion record Bitches Brew (1969). The music seeps in slowly, a lulling effect, until the piano gets to the chord changes, when the rhythm section jarringly punches though, propelled by John Bonham's drums. This leads to guitarist Jimmy Page's blues-rock riff, backed by raunchy analog synthesizer, and eventually an eerie theremin. Then the band drops out again, down to just Jones' piano theme, and the vocals enter. The dense and low register of the music, a pre-cursor to the 1990s "grunge" sound, as well as Plant's slow-motion voice can apparently be attributed to the fact that the music and vocals were recorded without the drums, then the tapes were slowed down and Bonham was recorded at normal speed over the slowed take.
Plant's usual powerful high-register voice is purposely reduced to a nasally, Ozzy Osbourne-like pinch, filtered through a flange effect. His voice and lyrics, like the music, are dense and surreal, drifting in half-consciously, the slow-tape effect adding to an overall labored feel: "Close the door, put out the light/No, they won't be home tonight/The snow falls hard and don't you know?/The winds of Thor are blowing cold/They're wearing steel that's bright and true/They carry news that must get through, oooh/They choose the path where no-one goes/They hold no quarter, they hold no quarter." Well OK, the lyrics ultimately get a little silly, as Plant's were wont to do. Here he dramatizes his band, likening himself and his mates as warrior Vikings battling Thor's winds. This sense of self-drama, a band out on the road as modern-day warriors, gypsies, or cowboys is a tradition that Jon Bon "On a steel horse I ride" Jovi would continue years later.
But Plant's images are inspired, and for a while genuinely chilling, especially if one chooses to ignore the metaphor for the band and tries to figure out who else "they" could be in relation to the listeners own experience -- out there on a dark, cold, lonely road, with nowhere to stop. The word "quarter" has multiple layers of meaning and is probably intended to evoke all of them: lodging; a source for news; and, importantly, mercy. But, of course, the heavy-handed allusions to Norse mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien's work are just too obvious, and the lyrics are tainted for some listeners, contributing to Zeppelin's reputation as sometimes-gnome-rockers. In a famous exchange documented by Cameron Crowe, Peter Grant, Zeppelin's manager, introduced himself at a party to Bob Dylan by saying "I'm Peter Grant, manager of Led Zeppelin," to which Dylan replied "I don't come to you with my problems, do I?" Though such reactions to the band stemmed in part from their decadent wild-boy reputation, some of the widely held critical disdain for the group came in part from their lyrics and over-the-top arrangements. Nevertheless, "No Quarter" stands as an ambitious high point in the band's recording career.