The Who’s guitarist and principal songwriter, Pete Townshend, has never been shy about making his opinions known to whoever happens to be in the vicinity. The guitarist could be discussing how much his bandmate Roger Daltrey irritates the life out of him, or being on record as stating why he doesn’t rate The Beatles’ music as anything other than “lousy”. The reality is, the guitarist is one of rock music’s toughest critics.
Over the years, Townshend’s opinions on music became famous for the vicious edge and ambivalence to prestige. Yet, somehow, his opinion on Led Zeppelin captures Townshend at his most brutally scathing. It sees the powerhouse performer take aim at the heavy rock pioneers.
Townshend has seen the quartet, largely regarded as one of the finest rock acts to have ever existed, be an ever-present thorn in his side. The guitar-smashing hero previously slated Led Zeppelin for ripping off his band and trying to palm it off as their own sound. He has also been vocal in his dislike for Robert Plant and Co. for almost the entirety of their career. Let’s just say, they won’t be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon.
The Who’s guitarist often sees things in black and white. Townshend’s staunch views on one of the greatest bands of all time has always seen the guitarist come under fire from Zepheads everywhere, as well as lovers of the heavy rock sound. Still, this isn’t something that he regrets speaking so strongly about in the past and, in the press run for their most recent record WHO, he couldn’t help himself from having another swipe at Led Zeppelin, for old time’s sake.
The Who guitarist and songwriter general was speaking to the Toronto Sun last December when he was asked about the deviation from the band’s early sound to the new sonic nature of their most recent effort. Instead of answering the question straight, as one might expect, Townshend saw this as the perfect opportunity to squeeze in a jab at Zeppelin and he landed flush on their nose.
Offered the chance to reflect on his band’s new sound, his response to the question was simple and scathing: “It doesn’t sound like The Who from those early heavy metal years. We sort of invented heavy metal with (our first live album) Live at Leeds (1970). We were copied by so many bands, principally by Led Zeppelin, you know heavy drums, heavy bass, heavy lead guitar,” said Townshend, aiming at the iconic quartet.
But in the same interview, Townshend did concede: “Some of those bands, like Jimi Hendrix for example, did it far better than we did. Cream, with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.” Townshend then continued his analysis: “They came along in ’67, same year as Jimi Hendrix, and they kind of stole our mantle in a sense. So people who want to hear that old heavy metal sound there are plenty of bands that can provide it. So it’s not really what we can actually do today. Even if we wanted to, it was never high on my list of wishes.”
The words aren’t anything new either; the guitarist was a scattergun of criticisms. In 1995, Townshend made a vicious comment, showing that underneath the clever digs was some serious pent up anger. The guitarist showed his fury at the fact that Zeppelin and The Who are so often compared to one another: “I don’t like a single thing that they have done, I hate the fact that I’m ever even slightly compared to them.”
He continued, through gritted teeth and an angered perspective: “I just never ever liked them. It’s a real problem to me cause as people, I think they are really, really great guys. Just never liked the band. And I don’t know if I have a problem, block too, because they, well that became so much bigger than The Who in so many ways, in their chosen field, I’ve never liked them.”
When he delivered the inaugural John Peel Lecture in 2011, Townshend saw this as yet another perfect opportunity to throw Zeppelin under the bus with his words and highlight his perception of their ineptitude: “Did he [Peel] really give Led Zeppelin their big break? I can’t see it myself. I don’t give a shit about making money. I think rock music is junk. I am a genius! The Who were OK but without me, they would have all ended up working in the flower market, or worse – in Led Zeppelin.”
That’s not to say that his opinion hasn’t softened from time to time. In 2015, when he spoke with Rolling Stone, he was incredibly candid and respectful about Led Zeppelin. Though he shied away from praising the principal pair of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page directly but did make this poignant remark nonetheless: “The person that I’ve thought a lot about since John Bonham’s death is John Paul Jones. He’s a beautiful looking man and a beautiful musician. He’s a fantastic experimenter in modern electronic music and other things, and he’s sort of been sitting there.”
He went on to add: “It would be interesting to see what he could bring to a new Led Zeppelin project. I think he was much more in the front line of Led Zeppelin music on keyboard work because nobody else in the band played it. It was a prog-rock era in respect to him.”
It seems that, overall, Townshend has no ill feelings towards the individual members of Zeppelin as people but the music they created is something which he despises greatly, largely because it feels so familiar to him. The Who man carefully chooses to use the band as an example of everything he hated when quizzed about music in the 1970s, which undoubtedly also has something to do with them becoming astronomically bigger than The Who.
Townshend wasn’t ever shy about his feelings on another iconic group either, The Beatles. The guitarist. in 1966, referred to the band as lacking “musical quality” after listening to Revolver. Later, speaking with Rolling Stone in 1982, Townshend was asked about McCartney’s recent record Tug of War. Kurt Loder, who is interviewing Townshend, suggested it had “virtually nothing to do with rock & roll,” the guitarist replied by asking if McCartney “ever really had anything to do with rock.” He answered his own question. “No, he never did,” he said. “You know, I could sit down and have a conversation with Paul about rock & roll, and we’d be talking about two different things.”
It seems that the only band Pete Townshend’s truly liked was his own one, The Who. But, looking back, he never really liked any of them either.