When Led Zeppelin was recently feted at the 35th Kennedy Center Honors by President Obama himself, I thought it was a fitting tribute to a mega-talented band. But I was surprised when actor Jack Black introduced them as “the greatest rock and roll band of all time, better than the Beatles.” Hmmm, I thought. By WHAT criteria?
If we start by comparing the musical, cultural, and commercial impact of Zeppelin and The Beatles, it’s nolo contendere. The Beatles reinvented the sound and look of rock & roll, ravaged the pop music hit parade, spearheaded the “British Invasion” of America in the mid-60s (that made the subsequent existence of bands like Led Zeppelin possible), upended fashion, and—even with poor financial management—became so fabulously wealthy overnight that they inspired thousands to consider rock & roll AS A CAREER!
It’s no surprise that there have been thousands of books written about the Fab Four and hundreds of college courses devoted exclusively to The Beatles and their music. They have been listed as the Greatest Artist of All Time by Rolling Stone and VH1, been hailed as the Best Rock Band Ever by MSNBC.com, and had four of their albums (none for Zeppelin) listed in the top 10 of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone—who based their picks on a poll of selected rock musicians, critics, and industry figures. I’ve seen dozens of similar lists by music critics, almost all of whom have chosen The Beatles first in categories of best artist, best band, or best album.
But I suspect Jack Black—and a handful of other musicians who have made the same claim about Zeppelin—were talking about more narrow musical criteria.
So, let’s break it down further. We can concede that Zeppelin were more dynamic performers and more accomplished instrumental virtuosi, but The Beatles had an overwhelming edge as songwriters (the most successful ever?), vocalists, and arrangers—with a total command of the art of record production. And the public response to the records of each? While Led Zeppelin has sold a very respectable three hundred million units, The Beatles have sold over a billion units, more than any other musical act in history.
Nothing the matter with Zeppelin though. They were excellent hard rock players and performers (Jimmy Page ranks with the best), who crafted boldly imaginative songs and arrangements that showcased dazzling proto-metal wizardry. Give them their props for influencing generations of head-banging heavy metal bands right up to the present—for better or worse.