"Better than The Beatles?"

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.


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11 Comments

  1. To say one act is better than another is simply sloppy talk. It would be more accurate to say "I like this act better".

    I've been in music and in love with music my entire life, and what I've found is that there is no "greatest". But there are artists and acts of which I can say there's no one better. And I'd say that of both the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.

  2. I notice when they made "It Might Get Loud" they had the lead guitarist from Zeppelin, and not the lead guitarist from the Beatles. Must be proof, that. Oh; wait; George was dead by then.

    I'm a HUGE Zeppelin fan, but I'd be hard pressed to make any claim about Zep being anything-er than the Beatles, except more frequently louder.

    Not that I have the remotest interest in what comes out of Jack Black's face, but I do know that I'm much given to chucking rocks into the bushes, verbally, to see what flies out. It's fun, often educational.

  3. I think you're both telling me that talking about who's better/greater is chucking rocks into bushes. But I love to explore people's criteria for what makes a band "better."

    One of the most fascinating aspects of listening to The Beatles over the years is discovering the MANY ways they excelled—and changed the rules of the game. And I am of the opinion that most folks still don't appreciate their total mastery of the songwriting craft.

    1. Oh yeah; "better" is subjective without a qualifier.

      Antecedents are interesting. I agree, no Beatles, no Zep, but what about all the acts the John and Paul revered? We can take it all the way back to Rocket 88, and then go back some more.

      Not saying that "without music, there'd be no music" because I assume y'all can sort that without MY help. I think it'd be fascinating to point at something I love today, and follow it all the way back. My analytical grey mush; er, matter, would enjoy tracing the connection from Moby back to whichever classical compose he descended from, whether by thesis or antithesis.

      1. Certainly true, Joel, that without Elvis (and probably without Chuck or Richard or Buddy) there would be no Beatles. Kinda scary to think there would be no Elvis, Chuck, Beatles, etc. without Ike Turner, but that might well be the case. "Sensitive dependence on initial conditions."

  4. Well Jack Black is an obvious idiot, too easy a target. But all this obsequious fawning over Jack White leaves me appalled. I just heard part of one of his concerts on TV and it was nothing but faux Metal noise. It was as if he figured there's more money to be made in pandering to that death metal crowd so he dropped blues and roots rock just makes silly noises and sings tuneless, nonsensical, shrieking rage ditties tailored to braindead Millennial Morons who sniff glue off socks. Perhaps from a business standponit he's making a wise move. But from a musical perspective, as an artist he's jumped the shark.

  5. Well said, Slideguy.

    Here's my take. There's music I love, music I simply don't get and a whole heap of stuff in between. Plus it's a moving feast: songs, albums, artists move along the scale as my taste changes. It doesn't make my likes and dislikes "right" or "wrong" or any better or worse than yours and it certainly doesn't make the music I happen to like at the moment any better or worse than anything else.

    I happen to agree with John G. O'Leary (you need to update the website, John!) that in the overall scheme of things The Beatles were important than Led Zep. Better? Tell us how you define it and we can discuss it.

  6. All good thoughts...I was there with Jack Black and felt him say that Led Zepp spoke to him personally more than The Beatles, and he obviously knew he was using hyperbole that would serve him that evening. For me, bands like KISS and April Wine and Queensryche transported me to a different place, but I cannot deny the importance and quality of the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, as well as dozens of other geniuses who remain relevant so many years later.

    And I LOVE the web site John!!

  7. Hey John!! If it weren't for The Beatles, there would have been no Led Zeppelin or many other bands for that matter!! Jack Black needs musical re-education, as he seems to have been brainwashed.
    Have a great day!!
    :-)

  8. Ken, I think you should tell us how you really feel.

    Mark, re what is "better," my post attempts to illuminate just that. (Thanks for the reminder about my name change.)

    David, I'd be surprised if Black was aware of his hyperbole, but if you want to cut some slack to Black, Jack, I'm ok with that.

    Nick, no Beatles, no Zeppelin. Nuf said.

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