Is Led Zeppelin the Most Influential Rock Band?

Jack Hamilton has a column in Slate arguing that modern rock began not with the Beatles or Bob Dylan but with Led Zeppelin. He declares them the most influential band in rock history, both in the bands they inspired to emulate and the ones they inspired to reject them.

Led Zeppelin’s legacy is fittingly long and fittingly loud. Depending on your preference in white male hagiography, “modern” rock music is often said to have started with Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” or Sgt. Pepper, but these myths are wishful, and overly fanciful: Modern rock music started with Led Zeppelin. Their influence, for better and worse, over all that’s come since is singular. Punk in the 1970s was a rejection of their pompous pretentiousness, metal in the 1980s an affirmation of their excesses, grunge in the 1990s a reclamation of punk that often sounded a lot like Led Zeppelin. We have Led Zeppelin to blame for Creed; we have Led Zeppelin to thank for the White Stripes. They were a band loved by millions, but if you were smart, or just cool, you probably hated them. Led Zeppelin lifted popular music to new heights of opulence and ambition and in doing so made people fear for its future. They were a microcosm of age-old anxieties about music and commerce and youth and race and sex: if the music of the ’60s—Motown, the Beatles, Stax and Muscle Shoals, Woodstock—brought unprecedented consensus, Led Zeppelin brought something like the opposite. Forty-five years later, we live in their aftershocks…

For a band so fundamentally associated with the 1970s, it’s startling to remember that Led Zeppelin came out seven months before Woodstock, eight months before Abbey Road, 11 months before Altamont.

He’s actually quite critical of Zeppelin, thought he loved their fourth album (as should everyone). It’s been said that every hard rock or metal band after about 1973 can trace its roots to either Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, and that is mostly true. I would add Deep Purple in there as well, alongside Zeppelin. And I would argue that Zeppelin is not just the most influential rock band of all time but also the best — and that Kashmir is the single greatest song of the rock era. All that is highly arguable, of course, and almost entirely subjective. Tastes differ. But that’s how I hear it.

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  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Almost entirely subjective?

    What’s with the almost there?

    Led Zeppelin does rock though. Whether they are top of the musical Stairway to heaven is a personal opinion but for sure I would say they’re up there.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcL—4xQYA

  • tigzy

    So four old white guys comprise the most influential rock band ever. Never mind that they in turn were influenced (massively) by the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Skip James.

    Nope. The white guys get the prize, as usual.

  • D. C. Sessions

    I think I’m the exception to the LZ “love them or hate them” observation. They really just don’t do much for me one way or the other. Best I can tell the closest they ever got to “interesting” was when Stairway to Heaven came around, and it got boring before the summer was over.

  • reinderdijkhuis

    It’s probably correct… the answer to whether this is for better or for worse is also rather easy. They stole everything and became the biggest thing in he world on the back of it.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “They stole everything and became the biggest thing in he world on the back of it.”

    If that is true then ALL music, speech, art or other sorts and most other inventions of various sorts are “stolen”.

    There are two sorts of “thieves” in the game. Those who steal shit and are still no good at doing whatever it is they do and those who steal (for lack of some other term) and build on it, re-cast or give it a different meaning.

    Listen to John Hiatt sing, “Icy Blue Heart” or John Prine singing, “Angel From Montgomery” and then listen to Emmylou do the Hiatt song or Bonnie Raitt singing “Angel” and tell me that there isn’t a very different thing going on with the same set of lyrics and notes. Granted that they didn’t “steal” in the sense of taking the music without compensating the artist who wrote it–they still managed to make the tunes something that people usually think they wrote.

    Jimmy Page, btw, was doing just fine before Zepplelin AND “The Yardbirds”.

    We stand of the shoulders of giants, including Toulose Lautrec’s.

  • caseloweraz

    No question about it: Led Zepp is a great band. But the originators of modern rock? I beg to differ.

    Rock began with Bill Haley and the Comets.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Zep is the most important band ever. Before Stairway, school dances couldn’t end.

  • Synfandel

    Led Zeppelin was definitely a huge influence on much of rock music that came after. “The most influential”? Well, it’s debatable. I would take particular exception to this claim:

    Punk in the 1970s was a rejection of their pompous pretentiousness

    Punk was not a rejection of Led Zeppelin. It was much more a rejection of Pink Floyd, ELP, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, and other progressive rock bands of the late 60’s to mid-70s. It was a reaction against not just the alleged ‘pomposity’, but also of the perceived elitism. These bands consisted of virtuoso performers. They wrote and recorded complex, original, ground-breaking material that drew on diverse sources, including classical, jazz, blues, and modern experimental forms. It was the high art of popular music and was seen as beyond the reach of aspiring, young musicians. Punk aimed to take back popular music for the common man.

    I had a basement band during the punk era. We weren’t especially talented, but we played a lot of Led Zeppelin, because it wasn’t nearly as challenging as Gentle Giant.

  • Al Dente

    caseloweraz @9

    Rock began with Bill Haley and the Comets.

    That’s my understanding as well. Led Zeppelin was an extremely influential band, ranking up there with the Beatles, the Stones and Hendrix, but the originators of rock? It is to laugh.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Synfandel, don’t forget the various incarnations of Steve Winwood.

    If you can’t play in that league, change the rules.

    The ironic consequence was … Queen. Which set all kinds of benchmarks for melodic complexity and dead-on vocals that a lot of bands couldn’t even sing well, much less make it look easy.

    Life is not fair.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Synfandel “I had a basement band during the punk era. We weren’t especially talented…”

    *Pbbt!* I had a crawlspace band, and we were way less talented than you!

  • gingerbaker

    it’s startling to remember that Led Zeppelin came out seven months before Woodstock, eight months before Abbey Road, 11 months before Altamont.

    And nearly two years after “Are You Experienced” by Hendrix came out. So much for Jack Hamilton’s thesis.

    Does anyone think Hendrix was not “modern rock” or did not have a huge influence on every sentient musician on the planet?

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    So .. I wonder if I link and say I like Kashmir’ how many folks are now going to say dey hatz dat saong now? :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfR_HWMzgyc

    Lol.

    An’ y’know I do like these songs. (Shrug.)

    Some peeps jus’ too easy ta fuck with coz they’ze so wrong. In so many ways.

    (No not trollin’ just amused by some humans shallow stupidity.)

  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Then there’s this song :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tlSx0jkuLM

    ‘Mong so many others. Yep. Led Zep do rock.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    StevoR, Zep doesn’t rock. Rock Zeps.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Kashmir has aged pretty well, but now as then the best I can say for it is that it’s usually better than listening to commercials. If that’s all I can get.

  • Taz

    “All of Chuck’s children are out there, playin’ his licks”

  • Michael Heath

    Jack Hamilton’s so demonstrably ignorant I won’t bother with his argument.

    I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan, my 2nd favorite band over the Rolling Stones. But I gotta concede The Beatles are the most influential band of all time.

    Anyone whose studied the roots and history of rock & roll realizes that it’s the Beatles that compelled the vast number that soon followed to pursue a rock music career; or for those who were their contemporaries, demanded their new work riff off what the Beatles did, who themselves were openly being influenced by their predecessors.

    Rock could have very well died if it weren’t the Beatles, it was certainly dicey in the early-1960s. That’s in spite of the giants in both blues and rock that preceded this era. From a marketability perspective they had already pretty much left the scene except for their influencing people like McCartney, Lennon, Page, and Richards. With the blues guys that was touring England since they weren’t appreciated much here in the states back then.

  • Michael Heath

    As for greatest songs, I think there are many perfect rock songs. I could hardly name one song as best because how can one perfect song exceed another?

    However, if I had to name one of these perfect songs that best defined what rock music is, then I nominate Honky Tonk Women by the Rolling Stones. I love Kashmir but somebody ignorant of rock can’t hear that and detect stylistic themes that predominate the genre.

    Honky Tonk Women isn’t my favorite Stones tune, Gimme Shelter is. But Gimme Shelter, like Kashmir, is so unique it doesn’t lend itself well to being representative of what a roc song is. That’s probably because of the massive over-dubbing Richards did on guitar.

  • Michael Heath

    Here’s a demonstration of my devotion to Led Zeppelin.

    My grandmother lived with my wife and I when she could no longer live on her own. My wife and I listen to music when preparing and eating dinner and for awhile afterwards. I couldn’t live without Zep; so I created playlists of their “Zepplin” material that didn’t include the “Led” stuff.

    Now my Grandma is a devoted traditional country music fan, but I’m fortunate and grateful she’s always been open and liberal. So she enjoyed it as well. And yes, we played that as well. It helps I’ve always been a fan of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “And yes, we played that as well. It helps I’ve always been a fan of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.”

    I had to take Buddy the Wonderdog in for a check-up the other day and the Vet du Jour was a young lady from Memphis. I told her that I had visited some friends in Nashville a few years back and she asked if I had gone for the music. I told her that I had not and, in the event, “Country” died with Hank Sr (ymmv on this). I love Patsy Cline but country was not all she sang and she was very, very good.

  • Michael Heath

    democommie writes:

    I love Patsy Cline but country was not all she sang and she was very, very good.

    I’m a k.d. lang fan for the same reason I love Patsy Cline.

  • imthegenieicandoanything

    How tiresome.

    Now, argue about who is in or should be in the R&RHOF.

  • suttkus

    I don’t even understand the question. How could there be a “most influential” anything? Everything exists in a web of interactions. If the Beatles influenced Led Zeppelin, then they have to be more influential… except that they had influences (Buddy Holly), who had influences (Chubby Checker) who had influences. Until the most influential musical anyone was Wog who stumbled onto the notion of banging two rocks together just for the sound it made.

    Trying to define a “most influential” is just trying to give a veneer of respectability to “The band I like best is totally the bestest!” I’d rather argue Star Trek vs. Star Wars, and I hate that stupid debate. Me, I never got into Zeppelin. I love the Beatles to death, and no one can argue they aren’t a very important step in the evolution of music in this country. But they are neither its beginning nor its end. Neither is Zeppelin.

    Though Kashmir is fantastic.

  • davroslives

    I fully acknowledge how important LZ is, and their musical talent, etc. But I find them just completely boring. There are a few songs I like, but as a whole, I find them tedious. I feel very much the same about the Rolling Stones, incidentally.

  • Michael Heath

    davroslives writes:

    I fully acknowledge how important LZ is, and their musical talent, etc. But I find them just completely boring. There are a few songs I like, but as a whole, I find them tedious. I feel very much the same about the Rolling Stones, incidentally.

    Pete, is that you?

    Seriously, which rock gods should we submit our ears to instead of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones?

  • Synfandel

    Michael Heath wrote, “I’m a k.d. lang fan for the same reason I love Patsy Cline.”

    k.d. isn’t just country anymore. I drove from Edmonton to Calgary and up through Banff and Jasper back to Edmonton one long summer Sunday when Constant Craving was a hit. It was on one radio station or another almost constantly and I didn’t tire of her amazing voice. That girl got pipes.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    Re: K.D. Lang:

    I have constant craving as well, it’s not an every day thing but I listen to it more than a lot of other music. I really liked the video of her, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Tom Waites and a number of other performers who did “A Night With Roy Orbison”.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I was stuck in traffic outside of Madison Sq Garden the night they recorded “the song,remains the same” I wondered what the excitement was about; years later I knew.

    Once in WAL-MART near my house, I accosted a kid (about 14) wearing a TSRTS t-shirt, saying “I was stuck outside…” Then I felt stupid.

    It wasn’t until my 40s that I understood how Mr Plant and Janis Joplin had reinterpreted the blues so us SWKs (suburban white kids) could access them.

    It wasn’t till I hit 50 that I understood how great John Paul Jones is.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    I have to say The Rolling Stones are probably as significant; perhaps more because they appear indestructible.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Speaking of Kashmir, if you haven’t seen this, you must!

    1) Page looks more and more like Ludwig Van

    2) When the sound comes…. It transforms

    3) Who are those other guys with Mr Page?

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ODidAgdL40Y

  • sinned34

    I’ve been drinking for six hours, so I really shouldn’t comment on this thread.

  • lofgren

    Rock began with Bill Haley and the Comets.

    Puh-leeze. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was rocking out when Bill Haley was learning to walk.

    http://youtu.be/JeaBNAXfHfQ?t=1m25s

    Just try to tell me that’s not rock and roll.

  • Akira MacKenzie

    So what are you trying to tell me, little man, that you don’t like Zepp?

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    @ Marcus Ranum:

    I had NEVER seen any of Jack White’s stuff before I saw, “It Might Get Loud” (although I heard “Seven Nation Army” about a thousand times without knowing what it was.

    My CD and album collection is about 90% from cut-out bins or thrift stores. Some of it is nearly priceless, other is not worth the dollar or two that I paid for it.

    I liked it when The Edge was talking about his technique in the movie you linked to. He played something very simple and then put it through the “stack” and it was what you would expect from U2.I watch a lot of guys who use an amazing array of effects pedals (Oz Noy, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S57JSZ1FyvA) and I think of them as being something like 3d chess players. It’s beyond my understanding how they keep all of the stuff that’s going on arrayed with some sort of coherency in their own brains.

  • http://www.ranum.com Marcus Ranum

    Democommie @35 – Danny Gatton was the god of guitar effects. His problem was that he could make any sound, and wound up sounding indistinct. He made these insane dingus boxes covered with controls…

    http://www.dannygatton.com/Graphics/guitars/dingusbox1.jpg

    And if you want to hear someone with an amazing ability to abuse effects, search youtube for Reggie Watts and make sure you’re sitting down.

  • desertyeti

    Funny, I noticed that the members of led zeppelin are all old white males. How dare you share the personal opinions that these old white men are the best rock band. You sound like privileged white supremacists! Who do you think you are, Richard Dawkins?

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    @36:

    Well, Mr. Noy uses all sorts of effects but he can play pretty well and when he’s cookin’ it’s like watching some bizarroworld version of Riverdance.

    I will look at Mr. Watts, when I have a little more time. Meanwhile, this guy (http://www.last.fm/music/Geoff+Achison) is the opposite of Pedalpalooza. I saw him at Oswego, NY’s Harborfest back in 2009 or 2010 and he smoked with his guitar, a borrowed amp (and rhythm section) from “Delta Blues”–another fine little band–and no pedals that I recall. Some young guys were standing at the edge of the stage, dumbstruck by the sounds he was making with his guitar, his body and the amp/speaker set-up.

  • robb

    wrong.

    the most influential band is

    Wyld Stallyns

  • Matrim

    I don’t generally like to speak in terms of the industry or the history of music as a whole as there are far too many interactions to really nail down answers to some of these questions. I can speak as to what influenced me, and LZ IV, and singles like Kashmir, No Quarter, and When the Levee Breaks were instrumental in my musical development. Still, if I had to pick a personally most influential rock/metal album, I’d have to give it to Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden.