Pete Townshend Was Upset That Led Zeppelin Sold More Records Than The Who

Pete Townshend and Jimmy Page go way back. In fact, they go all the way back to The Who’s first recording session. It took place in November 1964, long before the idea of Led Zeppelin existed. On that day, Townshend and his band had gathered in the studio to record “I Can’t Explain.”

Shel Talmy, the producer who’d been working with The Kinks, brought in Page to do his thing (i.e., play as a session guitarist). As Page recalled in a Rolling Stone interview, he didn’t need to be at that Who session. “I’m playing the riff, in the background,” he said. “You can barely hear me.”

But Page recalled the “magical” feeling of being in the control room. “You can’t be more privileged than that,” he said of the session with The Who. By 1968, after countless session gigs and a stint in The Yardbirds, Page started Led Zeppelin, which became the biggest selling band of the ’70s.

Townshend, of course, found great fame and fortune of his own with The Who, a band that’s still functioning (sort of) in 2020. But even with that success Townshend has rarely had a kind word for Led Zeppelin. In one interview, Townshend said Zep’s success might very well be a part of that.

Pete Townshend ‘never liked a single thing’ Led Zeppelin did and hated being compared to Zep

The Who in 1971
The Who pose for a group portrait in July 1971. The band was promoting the ‘Who’s Next’ album. |Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

If you’re a guitarist and bandleader who sees someone turn up at your session to play guitar, it’s only natural to feel suspicious — even resentful — about the hired gun’s presence. So you couldn’t blame Townshend for feeling some type of animosity toward Page in the early days.

However, that didn’t seem to be the case. There’s no evidence of a personal beef between Page and Townshend in the ’60s. Townshend did speak about his dislike for Led Zeppelin as a band, though. In an interview from the ’90s available on YouTube, Townshend described it as a matter of taste.

“I haven’t liked a single thing that they’ve done,” Townshend said. “I hate the fact that I’m ever even slightly compared to them. I just never, ever liked them. It’s a real problem for me because as people they’re all really, really great guys. I just never liked the band.”

Townshend said he might have ‘a block’ because Zeppelin ‘became so much bigger than The Who’

Led Zeppelin holding gold records
Led Zeppelin holds gold records at a press conference in Tokyo, September 1972. | Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Why Led Zeppelin’s ‘Celebration Day’ Featured Such an Unusual Beginning

While The Who have sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million records over the decades, they didn’t have the immediate and overwhelming success Led Zeppelin enjoyed. In the high range, some estimate Zep album sales at 300 million units.

Zeppelin also set box-office records for concerts in the ’70s. Compared to almost anyone, the Zep was the sort of juggernaut that was difficult to compete with. Since Townshend didn’t like the band’s music, he found that hard to stomach.

“I don’t know if I’ve got a problem, a block, because they became so much bigger than The Who in so many ways,” he said, while rubbing his eyes, in the ’90s interview. “But I never liked them.” Townshend’s conundrum is a fun one to consider: Why was Led Zeppelin so much bigger than The Who?

Since Keith Moon and John Entwistle made up a spectacular rhythm section, maybe it came down to Page on lead guitar. Or maybe rock fans decided they like Page’s songwriting better than Townshend’s rock operas. Whatever it was, Townshend is right that Zeppelin always was — and probably always will be — a more popular band than The Who.