Let me start by clearing the air about something that has bothered me for years. One day I'll have a post that settles whether or not certain bands are truly "metal" because people wantonly throw hard rock bands into the metal category all of the time. Many bands seem like they should be considered metal on the surface because of the people who listen to them and because their tee shirts are black, but that isn't the way to gauge what is or isn't metal. You have to figure that one out by asking me. So here it is... neither Black Sabbath, nor Led Zeppelin are metal. Period. Black Sabbath come closer to being metal but both bands are hard rock, pure and simple. Both bands also happen to be heavier than most metal bands. There is a big difference between being "heavy" and being aggressive or mean. Lots of people mistake mean for heavy. It's an honest mistake. It's a more honest mistake than claiming that speed makes a band heavy. That is a sign of complete ignorance. Speed usually prevents a band from being heavy. "Heavy" is as much conceptual as it is stylistic, and that is the first hint at how I will eventually answer the Black Sabbath versus Led Zeppelin question for all of you curious, metal scholars.
Metal owes more to Black Sabbath than Led Zeppelin. That is indisputable. Black Sabbath represented darkness more consistently than Led Zeppelin. They were the more fatalistic of the two bands and that is one of the common threads throughout almost all metal. Led Zeppelin were certainly dark themselves, but they were embraced more openly by pop culture at the time than Black Sabbath. There have been a lot more bands who wanted to make it big by trying to sound like Led Zeppelin, while Black Sabbath wannabees have tended to stay below the radar. Being a fan of the genre, I have heard countless Sabbath imitations. I think that part of the reason so many metal kids have tried to sound like Black Sabbath is in no small measure because Sabbath's sound and writing style are much more attainable than Led Zeppelin's. Black Sabbath had a very primitive style that turned heads in part because they filled a void in popular music. Bands that stay at the low end of the guitar neck and play really loud are a dime a dozen now, but in the early 1970's the approach was something new. I have written before that Black Sabbath invented "heavy metal" with the first note of their debut album. I do wonder what kind of impact they would have made had the song "Black Sabbath" not been on that album. It took me years to finally be able to listen to that album in its entirety, but that track is unparalleled in its impact on heavy music.
When Led Zeppelin were firing on all cylinders they created things that were bigger than life. Like The Beatles, they were greater than the sum of their parts. They did not always produce heavy songs in the sense that they were full of low chords and plodding rhythms, but they created the kinds of places that no other band could recreate. Say what you will of Robert Plant's self absorbed wailing, but he could create a mood with the very best of them. In fact, he may be the very best of them when it comes to sexing up a song. He and Jimi Hendrix had sex appeal dripping off of them, but Hendrix was able to pull of the ridiculous clothes far better than Robert Plant. That may be because Jimi Hendrix was smart enough to never put on a woman's blouse for a live performance film ( really, Robert... a blouse? ), but be that as it may they both had women and men aflutter. That doesn't make your band heavy, but it does speak to the fact that Led Zeppelin were bona fide rock gods. And the fact that they achieved that status by writing truly interesting and provocative music makes their case even more compelling.
Both Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin had their fair share of misses ranging from "less than great" to "Dear God, will you skip to another song?!?!" Black Sabbath seemed to get better as they went along. Their first record is a collection of long winded garage rock songs that does create its own thing, but that 'thing' never interested me when I was younger. I preferred 'Vol. 4' and 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' when I was in high school. There were some individual tracks off of their second and third albums that I liked a lot, but they became more creative later. Led Zeppelin had quite the opposite evolution. I actually believe that Led Zeppelin's first album is about as solid as any band's first offering could be. It is both brooding and energetic in a way that most bands can't achieve until they have been around for awhile. Their first four records have most of their best material, and once you get past that the pickings become very, very slim. Led Zeppelin's music was in a constant state of evolution, and almost by definition that means that there will be some pure crap recorded as one phase spills into another. Bad Led Zeppelin is so bad it's insulting. Black Sabbath had four records under their belts before they began to branch out, and their branching out was also marred with less than perfect tracks. I guess drugs were stronger back then. That's the only way I can imagine thinking songs like Sabbath's "Am I Going Insane" or Led Zeppelin's "Boogie with Stu" should be on any album. In my opinion, Sabbath's most consistent album with Ozzy Osbourne is their last one, though the there are far fewer people in that camp with me than there are who get fired up by their more famous albums.
In my opinion, Black Sabbath was more one dimensional than Led Zeppelin. It was a great dimension though! I was ambivalent towards Led Zeppelin until I had been out of school for a few years. I never owned any of their records because you could never escape them on the radio or in the smoking court at school anyway. I didn't need to buy any of their albums because everyone else played them all the time. Once I did begin to check them out I realized how much great music they put out. You have to wade through some crap to get to it all, but it's well worth the effort. Most of Black Sabbath's more impactful songs are well known, but there are a handful on their later records with Ozzy Osbourne that are worth checking out. I think that Sabbath's most creative track, and one of their darkest songs is "Megalomania" on 'Sabatoge'. When they thought out of their own box they showed a surprising capacity to create new things for a band who let the original impact of their introduction to the music world carry them through the first several years of their career. Led Zeppelin were never afraid to experiment. Though that led them astray often in later years, they were able to use that pioneering mindset to create places that no one has ever come close to replicating.
Black Sabbath were able to turn heads with their primal darkness. While Geezer Butler is one of my favorite bass players, the rest of the band were not necessarily 'great' musicians. You don't have to be a great musician to create great music. That is something that bands prove every day. But Black Sabbath really overachieved for what they were capable of doing as individuals. Ozzy Osbourne has one of the most distinctive voices for a guy who really couldn't sing if his life depended upon it. He pulled it off and separated himself from the rest of the pack by embracing his own unique qualities. Tony Iommi has always been able to write heavy riffs, but you only need to hear one lead to realize he was never all that good. Bill Ward was a better drummer than their records led us to believe, but his lack of finesse was more visible than the rest of the band's limitations. Black Sabbath capitalized on the purity of knuckle dragging at its best. Celtic Frost have made it an art form, but Sabbath paved the way for all musicians who loved dark music more than actually practicing their instrument to follow their dreams.
Led Zeppelin were very different from Black Sabbath in that finesse and dynamics were the tools they used to create their sound. Their best music was made when vocals and music perfectly complimented the other. I cannot think of another band that was able to create that kind of synergy as often as Led Zeppelin. John Bonham is a drumming icon for a damned good reason. Finesse oozed out of his pores ( messy, but not a bad problem to have ) and his drum sound was always impeccable. After years of triggered drums, especially in metal, it is a real treat to hear how drums are 'supposed' to sound. John Paul Jones was an underrated bass player who just happened to play a pretty mean Hammond organ as well, which really added to the bigger-than-life feel of much of their music. Jimmy Page was a strange guitarist. His leads were almost always awful but his chord vocabulary was the well that Led Zeppelin were able to go back to for their entire existence. You have to close your eyes to be able to take their live videos seriously. Between Robert Plant's blouses and Jimmy Page's argyle sweater vests and poet shirts you might think a thrift store had exploded on stage. Drugs, man... I'm telling you, they had to be good back then! Robert Plant could wear whatever he wanted as long as he still nailed it live. He wandered off into ridiculous territory with his live ad-libs. It makes me think that they had to work hard to reel him in in the studio, but his skills were undeniable.
So what does all of this mean? Who kicked whose ass, as pop culture would demand to know these days? Who was made the other's "bitch"? I think it boils down to what it is in music that moves each of us. I have no doubt that had Led Zeppelin stayed together they would have written some of the worst songs ever, but the music they wrote that mattered is unparalleled in rock. Black Sabbath can lay claim to their own unique style of music helping create the birth of metal, but their vibe is not mysterious. You can see how they put everything together. Led Zeppelin wrote songs that no one else could have. They created something bigger than life with their music that, at its best, was both dark and enigmatic. Monica and I have playlist of relatively obscure ( meaning not the songs you hear on the radio ) Led Zeppelin songs that is like a eighty minute journey to a world far away from this one. I never put on any of the Ozzy Osbourne Black Sabbath cd's we have except 'Never Say Die'. There just isn't enough in Black Sabbath's music to keep me engaged almost thirty years after high school. At least not until Ronnie James Dio joined the band, but this post is about the "classic" version of Black Sabbath versus Led Zeppelin. I love Black Sabbath for what they did that has inspired so many musicians to play metal, but it's Led Zeppelin whose music has stood the test of time with me. I'll take their enigmatic, bigger than life masterpieces any day over Black Sabbath and therefore, I crown them the "Kings of Heavy" in this head to head competition.
Black Sabbath at their best:
"Black Sabbath" - from the album 'Black Sabbath'
"War Pigs", "Planet Caravan", "Fairies Wear Boots" - from the album 'Paranoid'
"Lord of This World", "Into the Void" - from the album 'Masters of Reality'
"Wheels of Confusion", "Tomorrow's Dream", "Supernaut", "Under the Sun" - from 'Vol. 4'
"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", "A National Acrobat" - from "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath"
"Hole in the Sky", "Symptom of the Universe", "Megalomania" - from 'Sabatoge'
"Junior's Eyes", "Hard Road" - from 'Never Say Die'
Led Zeppelin at their best:
"How Many More Times", "Your Time Is Gonna Come", "Dazed and Confused" - debut album
"What Is and What Shouldn't Be", "Ramble On" - from the album Led Zeppelin II
"Friends", "Out on the Tiles", "That's the Way" - from the album Led Zeppelin III
"Four Sticks", "When the Levee Breaks" - from the album Led Zeppelin IV, or "Zoso"
"The Rain Song", "No Quarter" - from the album "Houses of the Holy"
"Kashmir", "In the Light", "Ten Years Gone" - from the album 'Physical Graffiti'