"I don't think I could hum any of your stuff" - what happened when Led Zeppelin visited the BBC

Robert Plant on Nationwide
(Image credit: BBC)

Back in 1969, producers at the BBC invited Led Zeppelin to perform for an audition panel. From this distance it's seems like an outrageously pompous request, but it wasn't unusual. Hopeful musicians would go in, play two or three songs, and a report card would be produced, deeming the artists worthy of airplay or screentime. 

In 1965 David Bowie auditioned, only for one of the judging panel to describe him as "a singer devoid of personality”. Elton John was dismissed as a writer of "dreary songs" with "precious little musical ability", while Marc Bolan was deemed "crap, and pretentious crap at that."   

But back Led Zeppelin's audition. 

"We'd showcase the material, whatever there was from the album of the time and for the rest of it we would just jam," Jimmy Page told the BBC in 2009. "And that's how urgent and how creative it all was at the time."

It may have been creative, but the suits at the Beeb weren't impressed. One member of the audition panel said the band were "derivative" and "unconvincing", while a second described the band's sound as "old-fashioned".

The following year it all changed. "The rock revolution!" screamed Melody Maker, announcing the results of its annual readers' poll. "The walls of the pop establishment have crumbled!"

The spur for all this unlikely noise was Led Zeppelin's performance in the Melody Maker poll. They triumphed in the Best UK Group and Best International Group categories, relegating The Beatles from top spot for the first time in eight years. Robert Plant was voted best UK singer. And Led Zeppelin II was voted best UK album. 

So Led Zeppelin were invited back to the BBC on September 16, the day of the poll winners' party at London's swanky Savoy Hotel, to appear on the station's flagship Nationwide news show. 

Unlike the previous year, they were taken very seriously indeed. Host Brian Ash voiced a sincere introduction to "The Led Zeppelin", Melody Maker editor Ray Coleman claimed that the preceding six months had seen "a revolution in popular music and the death of the personality cult", and interviewer Bob Wellings talked to a cigarette-wielding Robert Plant and John Bonham about Zeppelin's music, admitting, "I don't think I could hum any of your stuff."

“I think it’s changing," explained Bonham. "That’s the main thing. That’s why the awards have changed. The kids are changing, for a start, and so is the music. I think these days, the public, they’re coming to listen to what you’re playing and not just to look at you and see what you are. I remember when I went to see The Beatles, it was to look at them. You didn’t really bother with what you were listening to. Today, it’s not what you are, it’s what you’re playing.”

Three days later, as if to emphasise their spectacular surge to prominence, Led Zeppelin played two sold-out shows at New York's Madison Square Garden. And a year later, as if to emphasise the fickle nature of the Melody Maker readership, Emerson, Lake & Palmer swept the annual poll.

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.