Why Led Zeppelin never had a number one single

Led Zeppelin

The members of Led Zeppelin knew how to sell records. Formed during the late 1960s blues-rock boom, the group sold a staggering 111 million records in the United States alone. And it remains one of the most revered heavy rock bands of all time. They had seven number-one albums, with Led Zeppelin II, their best-selling LP, remaining on the Billboard album chart for 117 weeks after spending two months at the top. The one thing they didn’t accomplish was a number one single. This is why.

Ozzy Osbourne described Led Zeppelin I as “a great breath of fresh air for somebody doing something acceptable. But yet so different” when he heard it for the first time. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham sought mainstream success without compromising their values from the start. While they certainly achieved their goal, they had to take the road less traveled.

Through a combination of charm, theatricality, and catchy, radio-friendly songwriting, The Beatles had established themselves as the UK’s best-selling pop act. Early hits such as ‘She Loves You,’ ‘Want To Hold Your Hand,’ and ‘Please Please Me‘ all followed the same structure. And it lasted no more than three minutes, providing listeners with a burst of flavor but never satisfying their hunger. There’s a reason The Beatle’s music is so frequently described as bubblegum pop.

Led Zeppelin’s first singles (‘Good Times Bad Times’ and ‘Dazed and Confused‘) are also under three minutes long. But they blur and subvert the traditional pop structure pioneered by groups such as The Beatles. They focused on texture and virtuosity over lyrical-musical concision. These were songs to be savored rather than spit out. Perhaps it was for this reason that Zeppelin advertised themselves as a band looking to sell albums and concert tickets rather than singles.

Zeppelin refused to release singles in the United Kingdom. It eventually allowed their label to release ‘Whole Lotta Love’ as a single in the United States. It became their biggest hit, reaching number four on the Billboard Hot 100 despite clocking in at five minutes and 33 seconds. Atlantic Records pressed copies of a shortened version of the track for release in the UK. But Jimmy Page wouldn’t allow it. “I played it once, hated it, and never listened to the short version again”. He told the Wall Street Journal.

Following that, the band missed a press release clarifying that they had no intention of releasing “Whole Lotta Love“. It was because they believed it was part of their concept album. They contended that isolating the track would be equivalent to destroying it. Led Zeppelin maintained this view of their music throughout their career. They refused to release their biggest songs as singles. Thus they eliminated any chance of a number one.

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