When Led Zeppelin beat The Beatles: John Bonham and Robert Plant react to ‘Number One Group’ acclaim in 1970
A question as old as time remains the biggest debate in rock music: who is the better group out of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones? There is a definitive answer, of course. However, personal opinion didn’t stop Led Zeppelin taking home the much-coveted ‘Number One Group’ according to Melody Maker of 1970, toppling The Beatles’ long reign. To celebrate their victory, John Bonham and Robert Plant were even invited on primetime British television to talk about the accolade—it resulted in glorious viewing for all the wrong reasons.
The segment began with the TV host welcoming the band by playing a snippet of their music then, in a painfully cringe-worthy moment, stating in the Queen’s English: “It’s cool. It’s groovy. It’s number one. The Led Zeppelin.” Despite the crowning moment simply originating from a poll in a music magazine, the victory did actually hold some cultural significance as The Beatles had held the same title for the past eight years. Led Zeppelin topping the list, however, showed a changing of the seasons of youth culture.
The first question fired to the band was, somewhat predictably, a loaded one with mention of The Beatles. Could Led Zep last eight years like the Fab Four? Could they “be inventive enough?” and, somewhat belittling, could we “hum any of your stuff”? John Bonham politely put the interviewer in his place with his candid response: “I think it’s changing that, which is the main thing you see, I think that’s why the awards have changed because the kids are changing for a start and so is the music changing,” he said.
Bonzo then continued his calm takedown of the claim that Zeppelin lack inventiveness: “I think there’s already a single out of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ with an orchestra playing it, which is quite interesting really, a flute plays what the lead vocal would do,” he added.
The interviewer then attempts to put words in Bonham’s mouth and asks if he believes that the current crop of music lovers are more sophisticated than “his generation” — a topic that Bonham once again refutes with the utmost composure. The drummer replied: “No, not in that sense. I think these days let’s say the public, not just the kids because we’ve had all sorts of people at concerts. I think they are coming to listen and not just look at you and see what you are. This is going back a few years but when I first went to see The Beatles, it was to look at them, you weren’t really bothered what you were listening to and today it’s not what you are, it’s what you’re playing.”
With the conversation seemingly on the verge of turning sour, the interview tries to bring Robert Plant into the debate at long last. However, instead of speaking about his illustrious music career which has gripped the nation, he opts to ask him what it’s like to “now have money” to which the Zeppelin pair start visibly laughing at the absurdity of the situation they have found themselves in.
Plant then says in a jovial spirit: “John’s laughing because I think I must spend a good £5 a week and that’s in goat and chicken food. I think it all boils down to, in our position we have spent years and years on the road sort of playing in little church halls and being beaten up and bricks being thrown through the band windows and everything.”
He then poignantly adds: “To have money, at last, is just another figure in my mind of mass acceptance which is what we all work for. Everybody, no matter how much they may like to deny the fact, really wants to be accepted in the end by the majority of people for either being a talent or a commodity. I think we’ve reached that stage now and it’s left to us to keep on coming up with something good.”
By the end of the interview, the host is seemingly won around by Plant and Bonham’s polite charm, the pair put in a dignified performance on what could have easily turned hostile given the patronising nature of some of the questions.