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:
Into the Void
Achilles Last Stand
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?