When rock fans start debating who was the best band, it won’t be long before The Beatles and Led Zeppelin enter the picture. Given the runaway success of both bands in their respective decades, that won’t come as a surprise to many.
It did come as a surprise, however, when Led Zeppelin topped The Beatles in a 1970 Melody Maker poll. Prior to that, the Fab Four had been on an eight-year run as Britain’s favorite band. But the Zep changed that around the time Led Zeppelin II bumped Abbey Road from atop the charts. Suddenly, Zep heads outnumbered Fab fans.
Maybe the Beatles’ recent breakup had something to do with that. However, on the day Led Zeppelin received their Melody Maker awards, drummer John Bonham spoke about the differences between his band and groups like The Beatles. For Bonham, one big thing was how people approached the two bands’ music.
John Bonham said fans came to Led Zeppelin for the music rather than an image
The day Melody Maker presented Led Zeppelin with their awards, Bonham and Robert Plant spoke with the BBC in an interview available on YouTube. On that occasion, the story was about Zep’s dethroning of the Fab Four after their extended run.
The interviewer began by contrasting the two bands’ music. “One thinks of a song of theirs, ‘Yesterday,’ which had all sorts of variations played upon it,” the BBC’s man began. “The thing about being able to whistle a tune — I don’t know if I can hum any of your stuff.”
Bonham picked up that idea. “No, but I think it’s changing,” he said. “That’s why the awards are changing. Because the kids are changing, for a start, and so is the music. And, well, there’s a single out of ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ an orchestra playing it. Which is quite interesting.”
When the interviewer asked if kids were more sophisticated, or weren’t interested in whistling Zep tunes, Bonham approached it another way. “These days, let’s say the public — let’s not just say ‘kids’ because we’ve had all sorts of people at our concerts,” Bonham began. “They’re coming to listen to what you’re playing and not just to look at you and see what you are.”
Bonham said the draw of The Beatles was often about the band’s image
While the frontmen of Led Zeppelin eventually settled into their rock-god roles, the band was scruffy across the board in 1970. You can see that in the photos of the group with full beards as they accepted their Melody Maker awards. They weren’t posing for innocent photos like a boy-band.
Bonham drove that point home in the BBC interview. “Let’s go back a few years,” he said. “I remember when I went to see The Beatles. It was to look at them, you know. You didn’t really bother with what you were listening to. Now, it’s not what you are; it’s what you’re playing.”
Fifty years later, thankfully, most people debating “Led Zep vs. The Beatles” focus on the music. Obviously, they were the products of different decades, and they had very different goals as musicians and songwriters. Whichever way you lean, just make sure you play it loud.