Perhaps the most dynamic of Led Zeppelin's "light and shade" songs, "Over the Hills and Far Away" appeared on the band's fifth album, Houses of the Holy. Like the other songs off that album, this was a further progression away from the band's original heavy blues into a more diverse and arrangement-rich brand of hard rock. Although released as a single on May 24, 1973, in the United States, it only peaked at number 51. It didn't matter: Zeppelin broke the Beatles' concert attendance record that same month in Tampa and continued to sell millions of records, and influence future musicians, without the aid of hit singles.
The acoustic introduction is a variation of Jimmy Page's own "White Summer," which was itself a complete lift of Davey Graham's "She Moved Thro' the Fair." Like most Page riffs, this one is instantly memorable as it seamlessly flows from its more pastoral beginning into the crunchy and beguiling main theme. Robert Plant's vocals were still impossibly high at this point, but this would fade quickly as Plant's voice permanently lowered in late 1972. The lyrics aren't exactly poetry but are clever in their own coyly aphoristic way. They outline a typical theme for the band: an epic quest. While ostensibly a search for elusive freedom or knowledge, it turns out Plant is just as content this time merely finding a girl and having "...a pocketful full of (Acapulco) gold..." As usual, John Paul Jones and John Bonham provide a flawless rhythmic backing for the piece.
The song was previewed live during the band's eighth American tour in the summer of 1972 in a version very similar to the album one. By the next year's concerts, the solo had lengthened, but Plant couldn't hit the high notes anymore. An almost spoken vocal arrangement became the singer's norm for "Over the Hills" from this point forward.
Less plodding and bombastic than similar hard-folk amalgams by groups such as Jethro Tull, "Over the Hills and Far Away" has an eye for detail (check out Jones' nifty harpsichord outro) and a ton of finesse, elements that Led Zeppelin's followers seemingly couldn't grasp, despite their much ballyhooed lip service to the band.