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.