I just finished reading the definitive rock classic book, Hammer of the Gods, covering the history of Led Zeppelin from start to finish. Ironically, I finished it around the same time as the 50th anniversary of their first album and the day Led Zeppelin was born. In reading the tales of their debauchery and excess, I thought it would be appropriate to throw down a claim equally bombastic to their legend:
“Led Zeppelin is the Greatest Band of All-Time.”
In staking this claim, I mean it in the most literal sense. Pound for pound, best band. Most committed. 4 equally matched band members, aligned to the goal of rocking as hard as possible, at risk of having your eardrums bleed. Committed to turning whatever city they were touring upside down by the time they left town. And if any of the band members had been different, it literally could not be Zep. And to prove the point, when their 1st member died (Bonham, from having 40 drinks in a 24 hour period), the band ended. Bonham died. Zep is over.
From Day 1 in January 1968, from Track 1- “Good Times Bad Times”, and with their first album, Led Zeppelin 1– was a band on a mission. They entertained other fellow journeymen that shifted from band-to-band as often as I change my socks. They considered other members to be in Zep, like Moon and Entwhistle from the Who, and Steve Winwood as lead singer. But that magic moment on August 12, 1968 in the west end of London when Page Plant Jones Bonham first jammed, they knew this was it. This was the band they would commit to until they would crash and burn.
And they had plenty of naysayers and critics, but in my opinion- this was their greatest blessing. While The Beatles and Stones were critic faves, for a long time Zep could only appeal to teenage kids, while the critics would pan them. But this is what provided Zep with the mission of proving them wrong. After Led Zeppelin III hit rock bottom with the critics, it provided the fuel to create their masterpiece- Led Zeppelin 4, “Zoso”. Without the challengers, LZ4 may have never been created.
So what makes Led Zeppelin the greatest so-called band of all time? One characteristic is the distinctiveness of their sound. Could you ever mistake them for another band (“who does ‘Black Dog’ again- is that The Doors?”, I think not.) While true that they were taking from blues and folk influences, they always made them their own. Take “You Shook Me” from LZ1- a classic blues track, yes. But could you ever mistake Bonham’s pounding for another? Or how about at 4:20, when Page launches a grenade via Les Paul and explodes this blues tune in between your 2 earbuds? Would these songs sound the same if you were to remove one of the essential ingredients? The answer is no.
What if you replaced Page with Clapton? No Zep- that’s more like The Yardbirds.
What if you replaced Bonham with Phil Collins? They tried that at Live Aid, it bombed.
Or what if you replaced Plant with David Coverdale from Whitesnake? Page tried that, the bastard. Truly sacreligious.
To drive it home further- I’ll compare Led Zeppelin with what many might consider the top contenders for ‘greatest band of all-time’:
The Beatles– Not the greatest band of all time. I’d categorize them as the greatest assemblage of 4 songwriters of all time. These chaps created some of the most timeless songs, bar none. But as we all know- we don’t label their tunes by the band, we label most by the songwriter. “I Am the Walrus”- Lennon’s song. “Yesterday”- McCartney. “Here Comes the Sun”- Harrison. “Octopus’s Garden”- Ringo. And when you compare each member pound for pound with Zep, it’s no contest. Starr/Bonham, Harrison/Page, come on. Were the Beatles amazing, yes of course. Were they committed to taking over the world as one, single unit. Not as much as Zep.
The Stones– This band’s gone through 7 members over time, so they just don’t have the pure core that Zep had. When I think of the Rolling Stones, while they’re chock-full of great songs and albums, I actually think of them more as a business. For decades, they’ve been filling stadiums, selling their brand and trying to prove that they can be the world’s biggest band longer than any other. But they didn’t invent a genre (heavy metal) like Zep did. When they re-create the blues and soul, they’re just not as inventive. One of the greatest, for sure- but not the best of all-time.
Some of you may agree, some may not. But after reading 360 pages of Led Zeppelin’s legend, and now going through and listening to their entire recorded catalog song-by-song, I have to give them the credit their due. Led Zeppelin is the Greatest Band of All-Time.