The worlds of Led Zeppelin and The Beatles operated within the same space for only a few short years. By the time Jimmy Page, John Bonham, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones began to assert themselves on the airwaves, the Fab Four of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr had already begun to turn their attention towards solo stardom.
Even considering this, thanks to both bands’ rapid rise to the top and their chart dominance thereafter, Led Zeppelin and The Beatles have been constantly compared. It culminated in 1970 when, as The Beatles were disbanding, Led Zeppelin topped a Melody Maker poll which put Led Zeppelin as the “greatest band in the world.” Even in the 21st-century, you could score the internet and find at least one corner of it pitting Britain’s two most successful quartets off against each other. But, according to the late, great John Bonham, Zeppelin’s illustrious drummer, there was only really one thing that separated them.
For Bonham, the two sets of fans were enticed by different things. While Led Zeppelin fans followed the band for the wild and wonderful sonics, championing the music above all else, The Beatles fans were following the band for their image. This revelation came the day of the Melody Maker award, as the BBC rushed to the side of the new biggest band in the world for their take.
Bonham and singer Robert Plant were descended upon by the broadcaster and naturally, they were full of comparisons. “One thinks of a song of theirs, ‘Yesterday,’ which had all sorts of variations played upon it,” the interview began. “The thing about being able to whistle a tune — I don’t know if I can hum any of your stuff.” It’s the kind of obtuse behaviour that typified the BBC at the time. Yet Bonham meets the criticism head-on, “No, but I think it’s changing,” he said. “That’s why the awards are changing. Because the kids are changing, for a start, and so is the music. And, well, there’s a single out of ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ an orchestra playing it. Which is quite interesting.”
The drummer continued to illustrate the differences between Zeppelin and the Fab Four: “These days, let’s say the public — let’s not just say ‘kids’ because we’ve had all sorts of people at our concerts. They’re coming to listen to what you’re playing and not just to look at you and see what you are.”
The drummer compounds his point using his own experience of witnessing the band. He continued: “Let’s go back a few years, I remember when I went to see The Beatles. It was to look at them, you know. You didn’t really bother with what you were listening to.
Now, it’s not what you are; it’s what you’re playing.”
Led Zeppelin’s career would come close to eclipsing that of The Beatles. Both bands had careers far shorter than they could have handled. While The Beatles proved to be as vital separated as they were together, following Bonham’s own tragic death, Led Zeppelin shut-up shop and ensured that the band stayed in the history books. Thankfully, any debates about who was the better band are now solely rooted in the sounds they made.
Watch John Bonham and Robert Plant discussing the difference between Led Zeppelin and The Beatles back in 1970 below.