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 final matchup of the first round: Led Zeppelin vs. The Who. Here's how it went.
There's no doubt that the battle between KISS and the Ramones last week far exceeded expectations. We'd all had some time to reflect and relax, however. Now it was time to get excited for another great matchup. And there was drama right from the start. This afternoon, for the first time in the tournament, there were some impromptu "pre-game" comments made by both bands.
It all started because The Who were rather upset about receiving the #4 seed in the UK draw. Roger Daltrey spoke for the group, and stated that they were coming into the battle with a chip on their shoulder. And some focus. And a specific set list. Keith Moon was there too. He was fuming, but didn't say a word.
Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, said that his band wasn't even sure of what songs they wanted to play. He sounded a little bit nonchalant. Fanciful. I really couldn't tell whether (1) that was actually the case, (2) he and the band weren't all that interested in the tournament, or (3) they were all so supremely confident in their abilities and discography that they really were just going to choose four songs on the fly. But it sure added to the excitement.
I made sure to get to the arena early, but so many other fans had the same idea after hearing those pre-game comments that by the time I was able to get to my seat, the house lights had already gone off and the crowd was buzzing.
The Who was up first, and they broke into "My Generation" in the dark, cueing the stage lights to flash on and the crowd to cheer heartily. They were playing very well, and as the song finished up to raucous applause, I looked over to Led Zeppelin's stage and watched as all four band members took their places.
John Bonham immediately blasted into the drum introduction to "Rock and Roll", which was moving along at an even faster tempo than normal. The two high-energy songs had really amped up the crowd, and The Who intended to keep that energy going. Once Zeppelin had finished their first offering, Pete Townshend began the classic guitar introduction to "Pinball Wizard". The crowd knew instantly and roared.
Before the song finished, I made sure to look over at Zeppelin's stage. Robert Plant was walking from bandmate to bandmate and saying a quick word. Each member nodded his head in agreement. They'd found their next song, and as The Who finished up, we all found out what song that was: "Whole Lotta Love".
Plant, Jones, Bonham, and Page had hit one out of the park. But The Who were far from finished. They followed their game plan. A single guitar chord rang out and resonated, and then the synthesized introduction to "Won't Get Fooled Again" began to fill the arena.
Their stage presence was undeniable: Daltrey swinging his microphone cord around and punching the air. Townshend jumping and windmilling all over the place. Moon pounding the drums and cymbals extra hard. Entwistle holding it all together. The crowd cheered and whistled long after the final note was played.
Led Zeppelin patiently waited—all the way until the crowd had grown silent. Robert Plant had a plan. He turned to face The Who's stage, and with a little bit of cheekiness, announced "This next song is called Fool in the Rain".
And the band jumped right into it. A combination of cheers and laughter spread through the arena. This was a song that truly revealed Zeppelin's musical merit, and their clever little dig at The Who—replying to a song titled "Won't Get Fooled Again" with one titled "Fool in the Rain"—wasn't lost on the crowd.
Cheers erupted as the song ended, and lasted even longer than the previous song. But The Who were determined to go for it as hard as they could. Once the audience calmed down, another synthesized introduction caught everyone's attention. They had started their final song of the battle: Baba O'Riley.
Looking at their four choices, I think I understood their strategy. They'd built it up from two classic-sounding rock songs and finished with two that were a little heavier and deeper and drew out more emotion. The crowd really did enjoy it. But Zeppelin seemed to have a solid response that put them out in front every time so far. All throughout Baba O'Riley, I wondered what Zeppelin would do for their final song. I couldn't have been the only one.
The Who ended their song with bravado—Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and everything. And again, Zeppelin waited calmly for all the noise to dissipate.
Even after that, they waited a moment more. Finally, John Paul Jones, who'd taken off his bass guitar and seated himself behind the keyboards, began to play a familiar introduction. And we knew what was coming: "No Quarter".
In battle, if you give your imprisoned enemy no quarter, it means you spare them no suffering. You treat them harshly. No mercy. Was this another dig at The Who?
Full marks to Zeppelin if that's what they were up to, because not only was it another clever use of a song title, but it was also a fantastic way to exhibit their musicianship and songwriting talents. They'd gone from two hard-rocking blues songs to a more vibrant, playful song with "Fool in the Rain", and now were finishing with a piece anchored more in the realm of fantasy and myth; something darker, and maybe something The Who would have a tough time replying to, even if they were given a fifth song to use.
Jones and Page played tremendous solos, and more than 10 minutes after the song began, it wound down to a commanding, extended cheer from the crowd. It was the first reaction of that kind in the tournament. The applause was so full of admiration and lasted so long, in fact, that it helped guide The Rock Universe to a final decision. Even with all the great back-and-forth, and with all the fantastic stage presence on both sides, Led Zeppelin was just a cut above. They would move on to the next round.
Here are the set lists:
My GenerationPinball Wizard
Won't Get Fooled Again
Rock and Roll
Whole Lotta Love
Fool in the Rain
And here's the updated bracket. The first round is now complete.
Next week, we've got the US finals, where #1 seed Van Halen will take on the #3 seeded Ramones.
Who do you think wins that one?