Something Else! Throwdown: Led Zeppelin vs. the Beatles

When the New Year rolls around, it’s customary for reporters, columnists, reviewers and critics of all sorts to summarize the year that was by coming up with their annual Top Ten lists. As far as music writers are concerned, that usually takes the form of Top Ten Albums or Top Ten Artists lists of one sort or another. Basically, it’s a good idea. It’s a nice way a) to separate all that is the best from all of the rest; and b) to dismiss the dull if only to prove there’s still life left in the ol’ rock ‘n’ roll machine.

However, this past year saw the release of a lot of deluxe remastered/repackaged versions of old albums, or new albums by old groups whose popularity peaked decades ago. For instance: the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat triple CD reissue, the Fleetwood Mac Rumours super-duper deluxe set, the new Deep Purple album, the new Sabbath — you get the picture. Very little of that has any connection to the Gagas and Kanyes and Beyonces of the current musical world.

There are others who do a much better job of keeping their fingers on the pulse of rock’s aging carcass, so I’ll leave that job to them. For my part, I have decided to aim high and wax philosophical by tackling some of the music world’s big questions before there are no classic rock fans or their delinquent hippie chil’en offspring left to care.

So, let’s start with the biggest question first: all things considered, what band is the greatest band of all time, in the whole world, EVER?

Well, even within one’s own head that question can go down many different paths, so there needs to be couple of ground rules. First: we’re not talking favorite group here; that’s just subjective personal preference. One can try to some up with some sort of objective criteria, but even then, one has to realize that the selection of which criteria to use is a personal choice anyway — so be it. Second: in an attempt to stay on point, we’ll use the old boxing judges’ round-by-round scorecard analysis which gives ten (10) points to the winner of each round and less to the loser. Third: there are lot of bands who could complete for this title, but let’s assume this imaginary tournament has neared its logical end, eliminating such competitors as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Aerosmith, to name just a few.

And so we start (in the traditional way): “Ladies and gentlemen! In this corner: four mop-haired, suit-and-tie performers soon to become suit-yourself cultural trendsetters — from Liverpool, England … THE BEATLES! And in the other corner: again, count ’em, four — four shaggy-haired lads who have worked hard to earn their reputations for brilliant studio performances, mesmerizing live shows and questionable offstage road antics — again from England … LED ZEPPELIN!”

Let’s get right to the scorecard:

ROUND ONE: BAND NAME. The Beatles originally named their band in tribute to Buddy Holly and the Crickets. But changing the spelling of Beetles to Beatles was a great pun and a stroke of genius (and got them away from any greebly insect connotations). Led Zeppelin was named after a self-deprecating joke amongst English musicians of describing a bad gig as “we went over like a lead zeppelin.” But like The Beatles, the name also took a change of spelling, so that American audiences wouldn’t pronounce it as “Leed Zeppelin.” Hmmm … art vs. marketing makes this round: The Beatles – 10; Led Zeppelin – 9.

ROUND TWO: BASS Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones was a studio player and arranger; the Beatles’ Paul McCartney started out unable to read music. But he picked up the bass when Stuart Sutcliffe quit, and frankly, came up with some incredible bass lines that gave the Beatles’ musical muscle. Jones was good, but Macca was a secret weapon: a better bassist than anyone ever suspected. So, as far as bass goes, it’s Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 9.

ROUND THREE: DRUMS. John Bonham was always a powerhouse who could drive a drum kit harder and faster than Ringo Starr ever would. But Ringo was the final link in the Beatles’ puzzle, and instinctively knew when to keep the drums out of the way in any arrangement. Still, he takes a hard shot from his own team here, as legend has it that John Lennon said in an interview: “[You ask] is Ringo the best drummer in the world? He’s not even the best drummer in the band.” Behind the drum kit, it’s Beatles – 9; Zeppelin – 10.

ROUND FOUR: GUITAR. Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is acknowledged to be one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest guitar players ever. The Beatles’ George Harrison had a good economy of style, Lennon was competent, and McCartney even took an occasional guitar break, but the three added together still don’t come close to Page. The six-string score: The Beatles – 8; Zeppelin – 10.

ROUND FIVE: VOCALS. Robert Plant has the superior blues wail, but the Beatles’ tight and tricky harmony parts are in a class all their own. Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 8.

ROUND SIX: MUSIC. The Beatles wrote interesting songs from the get go, full of harmonic twists and turns yet still catchy and radio ready. Zeppelin had some good moments as well, but it’s those standard blues variations that weigh down chunks of their catalog. Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 9.

ROUND SEVEN: LYRICS. The Beatles went from standard moon/June subject material to an expanded palette of fresh ideas including: death, taxes, drugs, walruses, novel writing, childhood memories, and meditations on aging. Zeppelin, unfortunately, will be remembered as one of the most successful bands ever with the least valuable lyrical content. If it isn’t standard blues idioms, it’s cornball flights of fantasy steeped in Tolkien imagery and the occasional Viking war chant. Really — other than “Stairway to Heaven,” does anyone know the complete lyrics to any other Zeppelin songs? Sure, but probably only a few hard-core fans here and there; meanwhile, a good percentage of the Western world can sing a good percentage of the Beatles’ catalog. Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 9.

ROUND EIGHT: STEALS Lennon got in trouble when he took a chunck of Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” for “Come Together,” and Harrison nicked the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” for his solo hit “My Sweet Lord,” but at least they fessed up to it and tried to make it right. On the other hand, Zeppelin lifted the works of more than a few American bluesmen and had to get sued before they would even admit it. The Beatles get a higher mark here for their honesty. Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 9.

ROUND NINE: ALBUM QUALITY. The Beatles arrived just in time to be part of the mono vs. stereo argument, which meant different versions of songs and albums existed in different markets. Led Zeppelin albums were all in stereo and consistent worldwide. As well, the Beatles had to deal with releases keyed for either the singles’ charts or the albums’ charts. This meant some great tunes made it as singles — but can you imagine how much better Sgt. Pepper would have been with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” on it? Zeppelin was an album band. They got so good at producing albums, their fourth album (informally known as ZOSO) didn’t even have any writing on the cover. And don’t start the stereo vs. mono argument here — if mono was so good, why didn’t everyone go back to it? Beatles – 9; Zeppelin – 10.

ROUND TEN: ALBUM QUANTITY. During their existence, the Beatles had 13 albums (including three or four with movie tie-ins) and a bunch of singles which were eventually collected onto two CDs. Led Zeppelin had 9 albums and one live concert film soundtrack. The Beatles had shorter songs but more albums; Zeppelin had longer songs but fewer albums. ZOSO has sold more copies than any single Beatles’ album, but collectively, some estimates suggest Zeppelin have about 300 million sales worldwide, whereas (depending on who’s counting) the Beatles might have up to 600 million. Tough call here, but let’s go Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 9.

ROUND ELEVEN: LIVE. This one is easy. The Beatles packed it in early; Zeppelin didn’t. Beatles – 8; Zeppelin – 10.

ROUND TWELVE: CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE: Now that both bands have been theoretically broken up for 30 or 40 years, time allows a bit of distance and perspective to see how their respective absences affected the world. The Beatles meant a lot not only to their original audience, but to subsequent generations; they continue to make more fans, especially among young people and are a cultural reference in many novels, TV shows and films. For Zeppelin, it’s similar, but on a smaller scale, and mostly involves fans of hard rock or metal. The final round: Beatles – 10; Zeppelin – 9.

Well, the total appears to be 114-111 in favor of the Beatles. That wasn’t so hard, was it? A little absurd, perhaps — I suspect most people could have guessed that outcome anyway. Still, if anyone ever asks, you can now tell them that you read online that even though Led Zeppelin ran a close second, the Beatles were clearly determined to deserve the title of The Greatest Band of All Time.

Just don’t tell any fans of the Rolling Stones.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
JC Mosquito
  • Michael K

    Guys…I’d have thought you were a little more up to date with your research than this. During 2013, Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn definitively established that the Ringo-dissing quote came not from John Lennon but from a popular UK comedian Jasper Carrot.

  • JC Mosquito

    Research? When I get a budget for research, I’ll go out and prove or disprove global warming. So, yes, it appears Lewisjohn attributes the quote to UK standup comic Jasper Carrott from about 1983. However, since Lennon had already been dead for years, I’m going to attribute it to Carrott channeling Lennon from beyond the grave. Besides, it’s the kind of thing Lennon would have said if he’d have thought of it first, isn’t it?

    BTW – did you know at the time of John Lennon’s death (1980) and the time of the Ringo quote (1983), Carrott’s manager was a fellow with the last name of Starkey? Surely there’s some kind of angle to work here – send $$$ for more research!

  • Bobby

    Disagree with most of the categories. I know very few rock lovers that would pick any band (including The Beatles) over Led Zeppelin. As much as I appreciate and still love The Beatles, Led Zeppelin remain unequaled. Can’t see that changing.

  • John Skelly

    Led Zeppelin is way better than the Beatles. Although the Beatles were great, they were the most over rated band in the history of music. The only member of the Beatles that is in the same league with Led Zeppelin is John Lennon.

    • Say it ain’t so

      The beatles were, are & always will be the reason other bands got started. Their influence is second to none.

      • Snappyjojoy

        Zeppelin was far more influence then the Beatles. There was not a band after 1970 that in some way had not been influenced by Led Zeppelin. The Beatles were great, but more about the girls going crazy for them then anything else at that time, it was not their music.

  • Lyndsay Harrison

    I think Led Zep are overrated. Still fucking great, but of a very distinctive style which most people have to be in the right mood to appreciate. Whereas Beatles were so diverse, you can enjoy one of their songs at any times. Plus they were more influential. Plus they were more experimental. We owe so much too the Beatles it really grates me when people call them overrated.

    • Snappyjojoy

      Overrated? Just by what you wrote I can tell to have spent very little time really listening to Led Zeppelin. LZ’s music was the most diverse/distinctive in rock history. Stairway, Whole lotta love, Rock and Roll, Going to California, Babe since I’ve been Loving you, Kashmir, Communication breakdown, Over the Hills and far away. I could go on all day how diverse Led Zeppelin was, but you have had to listen to them before I can talk to you.

      • Say it ain’t so

        I don’t think LZ were overrated. They were an amazing band with diverse styles in music. Very experimental and not afraid to take musical risks but they were ,along with many other bands of that era, just another great band. Like cream, the Jimi Hendrix experience, deep purple, Black Sabbath and others of that time, they helped push music to the next frontier: hard rock and heavy metal. I’d like to think of it as (& I’ve actually heard this before) the Beatles were the Big Bang in terms of music while all the other bands were galaxies that formed in the wake of the explosion created by the Beatles which is why they are regarded as the greatest rock band of all time. We can all have our opinions but we can’t change history.

  • Tom

    One man’s subjective review while he tries to decide which band he likes more. McCartney over JPJ? Give me a break.

    • JC Mosquito

      No problem – I have plenty of breaks, so you can have one of mine. Two things: first, rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be fun, at least sometimes. Second, of course all reviews have an element of subjectivity; that’s what this review is really about at heart. Unless you’re measuring the tempo, or loudness or retail sales (or anything else to which you can assign numbers), you can never objectively pick one artist over another, even to yourself. It’s like judging figure skating, or boxing.

      Maybe on day someone will try Bob Dylan vs. Nickelback; I wonder how that would turn out? 🙂

  • sansured

    Being the reason other bands get started does not make better than those you inspired. I happen to like The Beatles but much of their music grows thin over time. On the other hand, Led Zeppelin’s music, remains as dynamically vital, fresh, and powerful as the day it was released. Led Zeppelin are the superior band.

  • Kamau Hooligan As-Salaam

    Ehhh…Led Zeppelin doesn’t get old like the beatles does. You can listen to a Beatles song 50 times and get sick of it. But overtime you hear a Led Zeppelin song you discover something new. And if anything their blues style is a strength not a weakness, those were some of their most heartfelt songs.

  • Atheist ???? Pappu ???? chan

    The Who is better than Led Zeppelin. Period.

  • James Rockford

    Boham 10 ringo 9?
    ringo is maybe .9

    • Snappyjojoy

      You can not even mention Ringo in the same sentence with John Bonham. Bonham, was and is the greatest drummer who ever lived. Ringo was a nice guy who played the drums for a famous band, nothing more or less.

      • Say it ain’t so

        I’d say Bonham is the greatest rock drummer, maybe yes. Although it’s a toss up between him moon the loon and Neil Peart with many drummers I know and even music fans saying Neil’s the greatest rock drummer. That said, the greatest drummer I’d say is without a doubt is buddy rich. The things the man did in the 30’s and 40’s were light years ahead of anything rock drummers did until maybe the 90’s if not the 2000’s. Even bonham was a bit green with envy when he heard praise from a lot of people about a show buddy did circa 1971. This prompted him to say “let’s see if that buddy can play drums with four sticks” which resulted in him recording “four sticks”. Still didn’t make him better than buddy but it was a fun track.

        • Snappyjojoy

          Bonham invented, and changed drumming like no other drummer ever has. Buddy Rich was great, but did not change music as we know it as Bonham did.

          • Say it ain’t so

            Ok opinions I understand and as such I get it but to say bonham is better than buddy rich is crazy talk. I like zep’s music more ,obviously, but I’m not biased or too blind to see that buddy rich is a superior drummer than bonham. There’s nothing wrong with that statement. Like i said, I’d rather listen to LZ than buddy rich’s music but facts are facts, buddy is better than bonham hands down.

            • Snappyjojoy

              Yours I as much an opinion as mine but mine is filled with a fact that Bonham along with Led Zeppelin changed music as much as any group in history of modern music. Buddy was great but had little affect on music as compared to what Bonham did and Zeppelin did as a group.

              • Say it ain’t so

                Mine is not an opinion, it’s a fact that is shared by most in the industry. Even bonham knew buddy rich was better. John bonham was a trailblazer, no one’s arguing that, but to say he was a better drummer is ridiculous. That being said I’m not going to convince you otherwise, That’s your truth. If you want to believe bonham was better hey by all means but keep that to yourself cos in the real world it doesn’t hold much weight cos it’s not true. Just like there are people who say Justin bienber is better than Led Zeppelin, if they want to believe that then it’s on them, but, it’s not true. Or people saying Led Zeppelin was the greatest rock band, no they weren’t, they were a great band in fact an excellent band but they were just another band amongst their peers cos everybody knows that the greatest rock band are the Beatles. As I’ve heard before, they should be asking who’s the second greatest rock band of all time and let the others duke it out: queen, led zep, sabbath, deep purple, The Rolling Stones, The Who etc cos first place has been taken and it’s the Beatles.

              • 1deplorablesob

                I value your opinion as much as I value used toilet paper

          • 1deplorablesob

            I heard you play the male organ

  • dgolvach

    I liked the Beatles but Led Zepplin are without peers.