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:
Sheena is a Punk Rocker
Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue
I Wanna Be Sedated
When the Levee Breaks
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.