Why Led Zeppelin hated releasing singles

Music aficionados have identified a certain formula for hit radio singles: There's a lively intro, followed by a verse which leads to a catchy chorus, a short bridge, and a few repetitions of the hook. The industry has even identified that most radio-ready singles last about three minutes, give or take 30 seconds. One influential rock band that never quite got the radio single formula down — and was actually averse to the very idea of radio singles — was Led Zeppelin.

Pop on "Stairway to Heaven" and you will realize why Led Zeppelin isn't known for brevity. On some of their albums, their tracks average out to a rambling six minutes in length, per Vulture. In 1969, when the band had completed their second studio album, Led Zeppelin II, their label Atlantic Records was looking for a way to satisfy radio stations that were ravenous for new Zeppelin material but not the Zeppelin length. According to Billboard, Atlantic Records executives thought the catchy, upbeat song "Whole Lotta Love" could be Led Zeppelin's first real radio effort. Except, of course, for its nearly six-minute length, ambling middle section, and the explicit-sounding moans of Robert Plant.

"Whole Lotta Love" as it was recorded just wouldn't cut it for American AM radio. While established acts like Bob Dylan or the Beatles could get away with lengthy hits, Led Zeppelin, whose debut album had only been released earlier that year, didn't have as much leeway. So, the record execs and radio stations made one grave mistake — they edited Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin: "No singles" is the golden rule

Led Zeppelin wasn't especially anti-single as much as pro-album. Earlier, in March 1969, Led Zeppelin had released a "Good Times Bad Times" and "Communication Breakdown" single compilation to promote their first album. They allowed this, as noted by Billboard, partly to accommodate their new record label and partly because those songs didn't need a trim. (They were in the rare "under three minutes" category.)

Drummer John Bonham claimed the band was initially fine with releasing "Whole Lotta Love" as a single. "It was only for American AM radio stations to promote the LP and that was a full-length version of the LP track," Bonham explained to Melody Maker after the single's release. The issue was that only FM radio stations were ready for the spaced-out track in its entirety.

Seeing an opportunity, AM radio deejays set to work cutting out the bizarre middle section of "Whole Lotta Love" and took their edit to the airwaves. There was an immediate commercial demand for that radio single, and Atlantic Records was put in a bind to deliver on its popularity. Led Zeppelin had it in their contracts that they had final artistic approval on all cuts, and guitarist Jimmy Page wasn't keen on trashing his well-crafted experimental section in favor of a hacked up product.

Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant stalled by promising a shortened single after the band's December tour. "I think that was a cover-up," Grant later admitted. "We never went in just to record a single. That was the golden rule. No singles."

Led Zeppelin never had a top 10 single in the UK

With fans eager for the short, reworked version of "Whole Lotta Love" they knew from the radio, and with the four-minute cut already broadcast daily, Led Zeppelin gave in to pressure. They released the single of "Whole Lotta Love" in the United States, where it sold over 900,000 copies. It even peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1970.

Across the pond, the UK branch of Atlantic Records hoped to release the same edited single of "Whole Lotta Love" that had done so well in the States, but both manager Peter Grant and Jimmy Page said absolutely not. They had already stretched the artistic integrity of the song pretty thin with their American radio play. The group was so bitter about the experience, Led Zeppelin vindictively refused to release any singles in the UK for their next six studio albums. 

Considering they rarely released singles in the US and never released singles in the UK, it's truly astonishing that Led Zeppelin has sold 300 million record units over five decades, according to Forbes. Perhaps their staunch album-pushing attitude was worth it.

While somehow one of the greatest English rock bands has still never had a top 10 hit in the UK, "Whole Lotta Love" did eventually chart. The track was finally released as a remastered single in the UK in 1997, and it entered the UK charts at number 14, per a 1997 issue of Billboard. Hey, it only took 28 years and a breakup.