The Thursday Death Match: Tony Iommi vs Jimmy Page
Two of music's ultimate string wranglers go head-to-head in a battle for supremacy
Is there any axe battle bigger than Iommi versus Page? If there is, then it certainly isn't taking place today. It's the Brummie Behemoth versus the Sorcerer's Apprentice, and YOU get to decide the outcome. But before choosing — you can vote at the foot of the page — commentators Henry Yates and Tim Batcup are here to guide you through the bout. Take it away, Henry...
Jimmy, it kills me to write this. In the grand pantheon of dark lords, you’re right up there with Darth Vader. In any other Death Match, you’d trample your rival underfoot. And yet, today, I find myself mounting the six-pint soapbox to argue that Tony Iommi is the greater creative force, the more questing musician, the all-round cooler bastard. As for the Zeppelin hardcore, please hear me out before you ram a mudshark up my arse.
Look, I haven’t got complete shit for brains. I realise there’s no way I can make a credible case that golden-age Page wasn’t a stone-cold genius. But humour me. Wipe off the weight of nostalgia, revisit 1969’s Led Zeppelin and 1970’s Black Sabbath now and assess them pound-for-pound. Sure, the former album is a thrill-ride classic, but it’s basically old-time, semi-plagiarised blues with a bit of added chest-hair and more pendulous testicles.
Black Sabbath is the real line slashed in the sand. Anvil-heavy and shiver-up-the-spine evil, it’s a haunted hinterland where Iommi’s SG scythes like the Grim Reaper and stomps like a dinosaur in diving boots. Essentially, if we’re talking heaviosity, then Page was a sledgehammer, but Iommi was a piledriver, minting a whole new sound that fired the starting pistol for metal as we know it and still registers on the Richter Scale today. Not bad for a man with thimbles for fingers.
The riffs? Holy shit, Page could pen ’em. But maybe it’s just that I’ve heard too many pub guitarists pootling around Black Dog and Whole Lotta Love, because for me, there’s more juice and fizz left in Iommi’s lick library. The obvious moments like Iron Man, Paranoid, War Pigs and Into The Void still endure, of course, but there’s also a malevolent freshness to connoisseur favourites like Supernaut and Symptom Of The Universe. While Stairway prompts groans of overfamiliarity, you can still imagine Iommi’s riffs being whistled in 2015 by the world’s most morbid milkman.
Granted, Page probably took the bolder stylistic leaps, bringing in folk, funk and so forth. But I’d argue that Iommi made greater ripples for the guitarists that followed. By 1971’s Master Of Reality – his fingertips still smarting from that run-in with the industrial slicer – he was slackening the pitch of his SG one-and-a-half steps down from standard to a bowel-emptying C#, thus inventing the drop-tune concept that flowed into modern exponents from Machine Head to Slipknot (let’s skim over Limp Bizkit).
On another six-string matter – and at the risk of sounding like a joyless guitar-shop bore – Iommi’s touch and technical prowess often leave Page in the dust. Perhaps the hit-and-hope solo of Heartbreaker, or the clunky breaks on I Can’t Quit You Baby, represented the apogee back in 1969, but when I revisit them now – post-Vai and EVH – those bum notes don’t half put my teeth on edge. Iommi’s vintage fretwork on leads like Children Of The Grave and Turn Up The Night, by contrast, still sounds fabulously assured, even measured against the blur-fingered widdlers of modern metal.
Of course, aside from their merits as musicians, both men are de facto leaders of their respective bands. On that front, you can’t deny that Iommi has done a better job of keeping the Sabs afloat and relevant through successive decades, in the face of some pretty major personnel (and personal) issues. Whereas Page’s recent years have largely been spent buffing and frotting the Zeppelin catalogue once again – occasionally breaking off to leave yet another message on Percy’s voicemail – Iommi has swatted away a cancer diagnosis to deliver an almost-career-best album of fresh material in 13. And they’re still not done yet…
But for me, the greatest thing about Iommi is that he seems blissfully unaware of just how important he really is. Meeting Page earlier this year had my inner schoolboy turning somersaults – I’m sure he could sense the homoerotic tension in my handshake – but I can’t deny there was a faint whiff of ego in the room, radiated by a man who is well aware that he’s an international treasure (which to be fair, he is).
Iommi, though, was a revelation when I interviewed him a few years ago, palpably squirming when I accused him of being the founding father of heavy metal. “I hate talking about myself that way, cos it’s big-headed,” he shrugged. “I get a little bit embarrassed. The stuff I came up with was just something I liked…”
That trailblazing talent, coupled with his Brummie-next-door modesty, swung it for me. And that’s why, today, I find myself in the black corner, on Team Iommi, wafting the towel and administering the smelling salts, before our boy returns to the ring to slug it out for the heavyweight title. Jimmy, like I say, I’m sorry. But even you can’t compete with the Iron Man…
Convinced? Before you cast your vote, here's Tim Batcup with the case for Page.
At the risk of stridency and disrespect - the former fully intentional, the latter not at all - this isn’t even a fair fight. To get into a somewhat unwarranted pre-emptive defence, for sure Iommi’s got the heavy-blues chops down pat and a stack of riffs that could unblock a tunnel – not to mention a song or two in his back pocket – but in terms of range and package, only Hendrix is worthy to be in the ring with the dark magus, and even then he’d be on the ropes by side one of Led Zeppelin II.
I mean, where to start? Before we even get on to the playing, let’s just toss songwriting, production, arrangement and an over-arching vision into the pot. Not to mention world-class myth-building nous, aural innovation and a dragon suit. That’s right: a fucking dragon suit. Most referees would be stopping the fight by now, but to continue in a slightly more sober vein, what Page has, or at least had, above and beyond any other comparable guitarist was scope and instinct.
His elegant acoustic fingerpicking on Babe I’m Gonna Leave You and Going To California (check the crystal-chime perfection on How The West Was Won’s version) illustrates both his mastery of the style and his obvious immersion in, and study of, his antecedents: Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Davey Graham. Absorbing these pioneers’ adoption of eastern and modal tunings (the thief of DADGAD indeed), Page upscaled these new-builds into mansions, not just adding weight and ambition to composition, but also an always-unforgettable melodic reach.
An oft-repeated (and utterly redundant) criticism that echoes down the decades with tedious familiarity runs that Page was occasionally a tad light-fingered with some of his influences, as if somehow this was a chink in his ability: a dark secret that undermined his mastery. I call bullshit. And to use a relatively apposite literary analogy, would you rather read The Volsunga Saga in Old Norse or Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings? Rock history is stuffed full of musical magpies, it could never be any other way. Music will always be a lineage, added to and tweaked by further generations. Deal with it.
As to riffs, they are legion; whether remoulding the blues into new forms (Heartbreaker, Communication Breakdown, the stammering, time-signature-eating Black Dog) or stepping outside those parameters into more complex yet still primal and hook-y forms (The Rover, Ten Years Gone, Achilles Last Stand), Page didn’t just re-write the book, he added an appendix, then wrote another chapter anyway.
It’s true Iommi’s no slouch in this department, and his riffs were always mined from a heavier seam, but as Page is at pains to remind us, you need both light and shade for full spectrum dominance. It’s the gaps between the acoustic and monolithic, though, where Page’s true genius is manifest. Though viewed as a bit below par by your average bootleg-hoarding Zep zealot, the version of Since I’ve Been Loving You on The Song Remains The Same, remains (ahem), the most instinctive, heartfelt musical channelling of the id ever to grace the atmosphere. The feel is incomparable, the phrasing pinpoint-perfect, it’s almost an occult summoning of his Holy Guardian Angel (and it probably was).
Page being Page, he managed to recreate this feat several times over his career – the Stairway To Heaven and Achilles Last Stand solos, Dazed and Confused and No Quarter’s breakdown sections, and the song’s dark mirror image: Tea For One. To deliver this even once, takes a perfect storm of technical ability, utter one-ness with your instrument and an intrinsic understanding of the now. No one else even comes close. The masterstroke of wrapping all this era-defining talent and power in a cloak of mystique, both real and manufactured, only supercharges the legacy and mythology, sometimes in unexpected ways:
Rewind to my 16-year-old self, underage drinking with earnest likeminded mates, engaged in a loud argument regarding Page’s relative merits; like the above but with more swearing and less punctuation. A straggle-haired piss-pot of undeterminable age stumbles over, not entirely dissimilar to the figure on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV.
“Eh lads, couldn’t help overhearing. Jimmy Page, eh? Saw him loads of times. Knebworth, Earls Court, man…”
“Wow, really. Good huh?”
“Good? Fucking good? He was the greatest, the fucking greatest guitarist that’s ever walked this earth”
“That good eh?”
“Fucking better. Man, he was so good, so good. I tell you how good he was…”
“He was so good, he could play it with his right hand, he could play it with his left hand. Once I even saw him play it with his fucking cock!”
I rest my case.