Sunday, July 31, 2022

Battle of the Bands, Championship Match: Led Zeppelin vs. Ramones

Earlier this year, The Rock Universe whisked me away to a mysterious time and place to witness a battle of the bands of unparalleled greatness. I documented the experience, and now I'm sharing the battles here on the blog. And today we've reached the championship match: Led Zeppelin vs. The Ramones. Here's how it went.

And here we are. It was good to have a week off after what was without a doubt the heaviest concert I'd ever attended. The one bit of lineup news that had been circulating over the past few days is that the Ramones were sticking with Marky on the drums. They'd gone with him ever since Tommy had tapped out during their first-round match against KISS, and the decision was to keep playing the hot hand. Aside from that, however, both bands had remained quiet about set lists or strategies for this final match.

There was plenty of talk among the crowd, though as an impartial viewer I tried to ignore as much of it as I could. Ultimately, Zeppelin was the overwhelming favorite, and there was no dancing around it. I mean, if you put both bands on the street and challenged them to a good old-fashioned fistfight, I think I'd take the four guys from New York wearing ripped jeans and leather jackets. But this wasn't a fistfight. 
I stood on top of my seat, as almost everyone else was doing, and waited in the dark arena for one of the stages to be lit up. After a restless chant of "Let Them Play!" resonated through the arena for a full three minutes, the lights flashed on. 
Zeppelin was up first, and an unmistakable drum introduction from John Bonham signaled their choice of song: "When the Levee Breaks".
It was a crowd favorite to be sure. It was also a 7-minute song. The Ramones listened as long as they could, but began to grow restless with the long, drawn out ending, and before it finished they broke into "Blitzkrieg Bop". 

The wall of sound made Robert Plant turn away, bracing against his microphone stand. Jones and Page, too, were caught off guard as the sound filled the arena. And in typical Ramones style, as soon as the song ended, they jumped right into another one. This time, it was "Sheena is a Punk Rocker", and it was just as loud and fast. The crowd hopped up and down to the speed of it all, nodding their heads in excitement to the beat. Jones, Page, and Plant were still trying to acclimate. 
The whole thing was reminiscent of a hockey playoff game, where one team comes out absolutely flying and the opponent just has to weather the storm for the first few minutes. It was a pretty good plan, but John Bonham was ahead of the game. He wasn't just weathering the storm. He was actually getting into the speed and fury of it all, tapping his foot and nodding his head to each eighth note. And I think that was an even better plan.
All the while, the Ramones kept bashing out their second song. They were revving up the crowd and taking good command of the battle until Robert Plant figured out a way to counter. Thinking that the Ramones would want to continue right into a third song, he waited for that one brief moment between the ending of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" and the beginning of the next song, and suddenly yelled out HEY HEY MAMA SAID THE WAY YOU MOVE, GONNA MAKE YOU SWEAT, GONNA MAKE YOU GROOVE...
And his band exploded into "Black Dog", stopping the Ramones in their tracks. The crowd roared. And that's when the Ramones made a mistake. 
Not only did they stop playing, but they also started watching Page, Plant, Bonham, and Jones do their thing. And that broke a cardinal rule of competition: Never get caught admiring your opponent.
Zeppelin continued, unaware. But the Ramones were enamored, so much so that during one round of the chorus of "Black Dog", Dee Dee began playing the bass line right along with John Paul Jones. Marky , too, began following along on the drums. Plant, crafty as ever, heard what was happening, made quick eye contact with his bandmates, and instructed them to loop the chorus around one more time. Dee Dee and Marky kept following.
Joey and Johnny also saw what was happening, however, and they were incensed. Still grabbing his mic stand, Joey yelled out at his two mesmerized bandmates to no avail. Zeppelin was playing so hard and with such enthusiasm that simple shouting wasn't having any effect. But during a quieter moment in the song, as Plant sung out "Ah, Ah" and held his microphone to the crowd so they could reply "Ah, Ah" in turn, Joey had an idea. 
Before Zeppelin could pounce back into the song, Joey yelled out as loud as he could, TAKE IT DEE DEE!
Instinctively, Dee Dee ran up to his microphone and shouted out ONE TWO THREE FOUR! and the Ramones struck right back, interrupting Zeppelin's song with "Commando" and starting into "Havana Affair" immediately after
John Paul Jones took both hands off his bass, put them on his hips, and shook his head. Plant lowered his microphone in disbelief. Bonham, upset, tried to pound out eighth notes to match Marky. It did nothing.
The Ramones had taken the crowd back. But the thing is, all four songs they had played thus far were songs they'd played in previous rounds of the tournament. Nothing wrong with that, but they'd probably have to play some new songs too if they wanted to win it all. I wondered if their strategy was to try and play an entire show's worth of songs—a dozen or more—one after the other, not even letting their opponent get a sniff at performing. There was nothing in the rule book against it. In fact, it reminded me that there was no rule book at all.

On the other stage, Zeppelin waited patiently again and rode out the surge of energy put forth by the Ramones. "Havana Affair" was coming to a close, and finally sensing another opening, Zeppelin punched back with "The Ocean".

If Plant, Page, and company had underestimated the straightforward power of the Ramones at the start of this battle, they sure weren't anymore. Zeppelin had plenty of ammunition and counterpunching ability, and their second and third song choices proved that without a doubt. They finished up "The Ocean" to raucous applause.
Not wanting to lose the crowd at such a pivotal moment, they jumped right into their fourth song, skipping the long, slow blues introduction to "Bring it on Home" and going right into the opening guitar riff.

The strategy worked. That opening guitar line, followed by the rest of the band joining in, was such a triumph of energy and rock and roll that for the first time in the tournament it was the Ramones who were knocked back. Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham ripped through the song with renewed vigor, and even added another two verses on the fly, playing off the crowd's
joyful cheers.
Finally, the song wound down to a slow, bluesy finish, and as Plant played the final notes on his harmonica, the crowd roared feverishly.
With their four songs—each showcasing a different combination of power, skill, and musical merit—Zeppelin had decidedly taken over, just as they'd done in their previous rounds of the tournament. And what's more, both bands had now played four songs. It seemed the choice for champion was clear. Sensing defeat, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone unplugged their guitars. The crowd had made their choice. The Rock Universe agreed. Zeppelin couldn't be stopped. 
But then something fascinating happened.

Hundreds of people started rushing up to the front of the Ramones' stage, and began chanting "More! More! More! More!"

Thousands more around the arena joined in. Even the members of Led Zeppelin began clapping their hands and joining in on the chant. Confused, but not about to miss out on an opportunity to blast out some more music for the fans regardless of their defeat, Johnny and Dee Dee plugged back in, Joey stood up to his microphone, and with a cue from Marky they rattled off "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue".

Then they went straight into "Cretin Hop", and immediately after that, "I Wanna Be Sedated". 

It was a bonus set for the ages. Afterward, Led Zeppelin, the crowd, and The Rock Universe all spent minute after minute cheering for the four guys from Queens, New York, and acknowledging just how much they rocked. 
But Led Zeppelin, with their staggering combination of musical talent, stage presence, energy, and range of styles were chosen as the champions of this Battle of the Bands.

Here are the set lists:
Blitzkrieg Bop
Sheena is a Punk Rocker
Havana Affair
Bonus set:
Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
Cretin Hop
I Wanna Be Sedated
Led Zeppelin
When the Levee Breaks
Black Dog
The Ocean
Bring it on Home

And here's the final bracket. 

Thanks so much for all of you who followed along and commented on the various battles. I hope you enjoyed it!
Stay tuned next Sunday for a special Battle of the Bands custom card announcement.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Battle of the Bands, UK Final: Led Zeppelin vs. Black Sabbath

Earlier this year, The Rock Universe whisked me away to a mysterious time and place to witness a battle of the bands of unparalleled greatness. I documented the experience, and now I'm sharing the battles here on the blog. Today we've got the UK finals: Led Zeppelin vs. Black Sabbath. Here's how it went.

You know how people say that animals seem to know when an earthquake or heavy storm is going to come before humans do? And how those animals flee the area ahead of the danger? That's the thought that went through my mind as I started walking over to the arena today. Things felt a little strange outside.

As for the humans, well, I saw the largest amount of them so far in the tournament standing around and heading into the building as I got closer to it. This matchup had all the makings of a heavyweight fantasy bout between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, and people were going to watch it however they could.

I took a minute to think about how Zeppelin made it to this round. As much as they rocked, I'm not quite sure they put everything into their first-round show. It's not that they underestimated The Who or anything, but I think maybe they were saving some effort and some of their heavier hits for the next round, anticipating that they'd move on in the tournament. That strategy could have come back to bite them, but I don't know. They never looked concerned. In fact, they made some cheeky song choices against The Who. Today, however, they might have had reason to be concerned.
Black Sabbath won their first-round match pretty handily against Queen, thanks in part to some unwise provocation from Freddie Mercury and crew. And you'd have to imagine they'd come out hard against Led Zeppelin here.
Inside the arena, fans were using some flexibility with the "standing room only" rule, but eventually, after some use of shoulders and elbows, I made it to my seat. The house lights were off, and we all waited and wondered which band would be up first. With a few quick hi-hat checks and one thundering guitar chord, we found out.

The lights had come up on Black Sabbath's stage, and they'd started in on "War Pigs".

The introduction brought everyone to their feet, and the crowd applauded in rhythm as Ozbourne prepared to set in on the first verse. His voice filled the arena, to the delight of the many fans in attendance, and Bill Ward's drumming was heavy enough to feel in the bones. It was a fierce 7 minutes to open the match.

A long cheer rang through the arena after the song finally ended. On the opposite stage, Robert Plant signaled the rest of his band to wait patiently for the right moment, and then the familiar guitar introduction to "Communication Breakdown" began. 
It was another burst of heavy rock. The song was only half as long as "War Pigs", but the tempo made it feel five times as fast. Zeppelin was fighting back with speed and power, and although the crowd didn't have much time to understand exactly what they were just hit with, they loved it.

We were all ready for a little break after these first two hard blows, but Black Sabbath wouldn't allow it. They immediately began the churning, grinding introduction to "Into the Void". And as slowly as it began, we all knew that the song would pick up, and that just like their first song, another 7 heavy minutes were ahead of us. Osbourne's voice, Ward's pounding percussion, Iommi's signature guitar sound, and Butler's bass—they were all connecting with every punch, and the crowd couldn't get enough.

Zeppelin again waited for the cheers to subside, and then countered with "Achilles Last Stand". After the pace this song brought for 10 whole minutes, after the constant galloping of drums and bass, after the dynamic vocals and guitar, whatever exhaustion we all thought we felt to that point was gone, replaced with what seemed like everlasting energy.

Sabbath countered smartly with an energetic song of their own, "Supernaut". And something stunning happened right from the start. John Bonham recognized the drum intro and yelled out "Yeah! Supernaut!" and began playing it right along with Bill Ward. The crowd shouted with excitement. Hearing both drummers play simultaneously was such a treat. And the thing is, it didn't seem like Bonham's actions were borne from a desire to dominate or show up Ward. It seemed much more that Bonham just loved the song and the beat, and was playing along out of sheer enjoyment. He followed along through one full verse, and the arena shook from the percussion. Ward took over from there, and while Bonham put down his sticks to watch, Plant clapped his hands along to the beat. Page nodded his head up and down. We all followed Plant's lead and clapped along for the rest of the song, and as it finished a wild cheer filled the arena. 
It was now Zeppelin's turn. Showing that they were more than capable of controlling the room, they caught us all off balance with "Immigrant Song". That drum and bass hit to introduce the song was like no other. The statement? 
Playtime is over
No mind games. No aloofness. Just pure power and energy. Could the song have been even faster and harder than "Achilles Last Stand"? Could Sabbath possibly have a response? After what might have been the heaviest 4 minutes of the battle, we'd find out.

Sabbath started in on "N.I.B."
The band rocked hard. The guitar line was classic Black Sabbath. Bill Ward pounded the drums harder than ever. Ozzy's voice pierced the heavy air like no one else's. The song finished to a drawn out roar from the audience. The four giants of metal had pushed their sound to the limits, and acknowledged the crowd before unplugging. Their competitors had one final swing to take.

The four men on the other stage had a quick meeting, and as Jimmy Page faced the crowd to cheers of anticipation, he started in on the riff to "Nobody's Fault But Mine". 
The crowd roared again, and when Plant matched Page's riff with his voice, almost everyone in attendance joined in. All four members began pounding out the song, and that's when something became evident: 

They way these four musicians synced up—it felt like we were watching something that was just a step above. They had supreme talent and supreme personalities. They were icons. Powerhouses. All four of them. If there were an all-star game for rock bands, Plant, Page, Bonham, and Jones would all make the team. 
Other bands like KISS had four iconic members, sure, but not with the unbelievable talent of Zeppelin's starting four. And that's taking nothing away from Black Sabbath. But Zeppelin had shown with their four song choices today that they could play hard and heavy and keep up with Sabbath, all while adding a little something extra on top of that.
Their final song came to a close, and the crowd replied with one of the longest, loudest, most energetic cheers of the tournament. Today's match was an all-out battle, but the victor was now clear.

Black Sabbath had Tony Iommi's dark, industrial, churning guitar riffs. They had Ozzy Osbourne's piercing voice. They had the heavy bass of Geezer Butler and heavier drums of Bill Ward. And they'd given Led Zeppelin a run for their money. However, Zeppelin's variety of songs, supreme skill, and ability to switch from blues to metal to jazz and create new sounds altogether had helped The Rock Universe choose them as winners this round.
It was hard to dispute. I left the arena feeling both exhausted and energized. This battle had been good enough to be a championship match, and I wondered how the finals could be any harder hitting.
Here are the set lists:
Black Sabbath
War Pigs
Into the Void
Led Zeppelin
Communication Breakdown
Achilles Last Stand
Immigrant Song
Nobody's Fault but Mine
And here's the updated bracket.
Our championship match has been set. It's the #3 seeded Ramones from the US versus the top-ranked UK band, Led Zeppelin.
What do you think? Does the mighty Led Zeppelin run away with this one, or do the Ramones keep knocking out higher seeds all the way to the winner's circle?

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Battle of the Bands, US Final: Van Halen vs. Ramones

Earlier this year, The Rock Universe whisked me away to a mysterious time and place to witness a battle of the bands of unparalleled greatness. I documented the experience, and now I'm sharing the battles here on the blog. Today we've got the US finals: Van Halen vs. The Ramones. Here's how it went.

Last week's battle was a lot closer than I thought it would be. The Who made a pretty good case that they were indeed better than the #4 seed they were given, but ultimately Led Zeppelin was just a step above.

This week, however, I really wasn't sure who might win. Both bands impressed in the first round, and the only thing that I wondered about was whether the Ramones would have the necessary energy for another battle after their overtime match against KISS in the first round. 
I didn't have to wait long.

Before the house lights went off—before we'd even all gotten to our seats—Joey, Johnny, Marky, and Dee Dee walked out on stage. A low cheer from the floor section gradually expanded to the upper levels as more and more of us realized what was happening. The sound of thousands of people running through the aisles to find their seats filled the arena. Just moments after Marky sat at his drum kit and Dee Dee and Johnny hooked up their guitars, Dee Dee was yelling out ONE TWO THREE FOUR! and the Ramones were off and running with "Commando".

Remarkably, after expending so much energy during the first round, they came out even harder this time.
The Van Halen brothers, David Lee Roth, and Michael Anthony certainly heard what was going on from backstage. Toward the end of "Commando" I took a quick moment to look across at Van Halen's stage. It was still dark, but all four band members could be seen taking their places.

The Ramones finished up their quick-strike song and their stage lights went out to rowdy cheers. And then from the darkness of Van Halen's stage came an ebullient shout from David Lee Roth. He asked us all to start clapping to a certain tempo. Everyone got into it, and before long we heard the unmistakable synthesizer introduction to "Jump", played exactly to the tempo of our clapping hands. 
The stage lights came on, and there was Eddie Van Halen at the keys. The crowd went wild. Once the drums and bass joined in and Roth took a huge leap off the stage, the crowd went even more wild. 
Eddie's keyboard solo, Roth's vocals and acrobatics, and the crowd yelling out "Jump!" whenever prompted made for a great time. But it was an interesting choice by the band, coming out with such a fun, upbeat song after the Ramones had hammered down so hard with "Commando". I wondered if they were underestimating the Ramones, or if they were just focusing on their own game plan and not worrying about their opponent. Either way, the song ended with a big drum finish and one more acrobatic leap from Roth, followed by a long-lasting cheer of appreciation from the crowd.
The Ramones came right back with "Havana Affair", the fierce pace charging up the crowd with pure rock and roll energy. The point wasn't lost on Van Halen, who decided to pour out a little energy of their own with their second song of the match, "Panama". 

The excitement this song generated was undeniable, and the crowd, which might have been leaning toward the Ramones at that point, was clearly reminded of what Van Halen was capable of.

And surprisingly, the band didn't give the Ramones a chance to start their third song, instead jumping right into "Hot For Teacher". Alex Van Halen's drum introduction revved the crowd up even more, and when we reached Eddie's guitar solo, young women began screaming all around the arena. 
The Ramones could only watch and weather the storm. They knew a guitar solo like that was untouchable. And as the song continued, it started to feel like Van Halen was running away with this one. And what happened next kept them running.

While Van Halen played, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky had convened around Marky's drum kit to discuss their next song, and as "Hot for Teacher" finally came to a close, they took their places on stage and readied themselves. But Van Halen beat them to the punch yet again. David Lee Roth addressed the crowd.
"Okay, I think we've done enough here."
There was an odd mix of cheers and jeers from the crowd. Roth continued right along.
"But before we say goodnight, I want to bring you all to a place I really love."
A familiar, lighthearted keyboard melody filled the arena as Roth continued.

"It's right on the coast. The West Coast. And oh my lord are there some pretty girls there..."

We knew what was coming now. Roth finished his delivery.

The crowd let out a collection of whistles and applause as Van Halen rolled into the first verse. With the song choice, Van Halen had made a statement. This battle was all wrapped up. No need to amaze the audience with any more skills from the virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, or any more pounding drums and bass of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony. Roth would just finish this battle out with a few more skips, jumps, and roundhouse kicks across the stage, and his band would be off to the next round.
But the Ramones had other ideas. 
As "California Girls" wound down and the crowd cheered with good feeling and warmth, Johnny and Dee Dee turned up their dials, and the entire band blasted out an extra-fast and loud version of "I Don't Wanna Walk around with You". 

The comeback was just as harsh and stunning as it was deliberate. As he sang out the lyrics, Joey Ramone pointed across to all the women who'd been fawning over Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth.

I don't wanna go out with you.
I don't wanna walk around with you.
I don't wanna walk around with you.
So why you wanna walk around with me?
The crowd loved the rebellious statement. After all that singing and dancing on the other stage about being hot for a teacher and loving girls all over the world, the Ramones had woken us all right up:  
Do you think that rock is all about glamour and spandex costumes and hair and lust for women? Think again.  
The song was less than two minutes long, but it was enough to make us all well aware of how hard the band rocked. And they still had one more song to go. While the guitars finished "I Don't Wanna Walk around with You", Marky continued with quick quarter notes on his bass drum pedal, and the band went right into "Pinhead".

Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us
Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us
It was another statement toward their faithful fans. And it worked. Even some Van Halen fans, the rockin' guys who lived for Eddie's guitar solos on songs like "Hot for Teacher", appreciated the statement made by the Ramones and headed over to their stage. Some of the women who were swooning for Eddie and "Diamond Dave" were compelled to get closer to the Ramones' stage, too, wanting to know more about what these bad boys in jeans and leather jackets were all about.
It was a phenomenal result. Here were the Ramones—no vocal harmonies, no complex melodies, no guitar solos of any kind to be heard—and they were stealing away Van Halen's thunder.
Roth didn't seem to be fazed by any of this, trotting offstage with a woman on each arm. The rest of the band stuck around to watch the Ramones finish up their final song in front of the majority of the fans in the floor section.
And those fans were energized. We'd also all noticed that a victor hadn't yet been chosen. Joey picked up on it, and made an announcement to the crowd:
"Hey, we haven't played enough yet, and you look like you haven't had enough."
The crowd roared, and then quieted down. Joey continued.
"We know each band has played four songs, but while the decision is being made we're going to keep playing."
A cheer of appreciation went up again, and the Ramones started in with one song after another, maintaining the same energy the whole way through. 

As they played, I wondered if it was a mistake for Van Halen to play three songs in a row like that. As effective as it was at the time, it also meant the Ramones had their final two songs to make a statement and pull the audience back without any worry about a counterpunch from Van Halen. And now, even though it didn't count toward the final decision, the Ramones were still out there playing. Earning new fans.
Soon enough the house lights turned on and shook me from my pensive state. The Ramones finished up their extra set and waited. The Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony waited. (Roth must have still been backstage.)
The Rock Universe was ready to announce its decision.
It stated that the fun, '80s Van Halen sound, Eddie's finger tapping, and David Lee Roth's audience engagement and acrobatics placed the band in a class all its own. But it just wasn't enough to cut it against the rebellious punk spirit and pure, endless rock and roll energy of The Ramones.
Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky would move on to the tournament finals.
Here are the set lists:
Van Halen
Hot For Teacher
California Girls
Havana Affair
I Don't Wanna Walk around with You
And here's the updated bracket.
The Ramones wait for the winner of next week's battle, when the UK's top two seeds go at it: Led Zeppelin (1) versus Black Sabbath (2). 
Who's your pick?