Roots and Fruits: Blues, Invention, and Led Zeppelin

A common perception of Led Zeppelin devotees is that they are borderline fanatical in their love of the band, that they react with an insane degree of defensiveness whenever their rock gods are criticized and not shown the respect they deserve. Now before I continue I must provide full disclosure: I am one of those Zeppelin fans. Having said that, I concede that we “Zep Heads” have great difficulty accepting the multitudes of anti-Zeppelin arguments. Use the word “overrated” in the presence of a Zep Head and do it at your own peril. Things could get ugly :lol:

On the flip side, Zeppelin haters are equally fanatical in their loathing. Over the years I’ve learned that there is just something about the band that really pisses certain people off, often to the point where they’re willing to make risible statements that can’t be taken seriously. Black Sabbath kooks are particularly guilty of this, like when they say – with a straight face no less -that Ozzy has a better voice than Robert Plant. Stop it you fools. Just stop it.

During their exhilarating 12 year run from 1968 – 1980, Led Zeppelin was accused of having been many things: crass, oversexed, licentious, volatile, too loud, too aggressive, too debauched. These were meant as insults. I see them as hallmarks of rock and roll. You remember rock and roll, don’t you? In this day of Miley Cyrus and Beyonce, auto-tune and rampant lip-synching, it’s easy to forget pure, unadulterated musical badassery. And to those aforementioned aspersions of Led Zeppelin, I would just counter that they were also electrifying, mercurial, seductive, intrepid risk-takers who dared to fail (which they occasionally did), shrouded in mystique, swagger, and unpredictability. And at the root of it all was thoroughly solid musicianship.

And that sound … oh that sound …

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John Bonham, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin:

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When we put aside the sordid tales of drugs, groupies, touring mayhem and hellraising that followed the band’s reputation, even to this day, we discover the musical force of nature that was Led Zeppelin. That these four particular guys happened to find each other is one of those fortuitous events in pop culture; two seasoned and accomplished session musicians on guitar and bass, a sledgehammer of a drummer who never had a lesson in his life, and a visceral, howling singer from England’s Black Country. Each one irreplaceable. Put them all in a studio together and it reached a rare level of chemistry. If there was ever a band that was the sum total of its parts it was Led Zeppelin. Just the fact that the group decided to call it quits after the death of their drummer John Bonham (a wise decision) tells you all you need to know about their interdependence. Though they were reviled by critics at the time, their legacy of blues-infused heavy rock has propelled them into iconic status. And yet even in their music, Led Zeppelin has not avoided controversy. Oh Zep, what are you doing to us?

Approximately seven songs in the Zeppelin catalogue have been cited as “rip-offs”, accused of having been plagiarized. Some of these accusations have had legitimate merit. Others are debatable. Regardless, the too-frequent occurrence of such claims is disconcerting to hard-core fans, and adds fuel to the vociferous Zeppelin hate club. In 1985, Led Zeppelin was sued over their song “Whole Lotta Love” by Willie Dixon, the American blues musician and songwriter. Dixon wrote the song “You Need Love”, which was recorded by the great Muddy Waters in 1962. While he was aware for years of Zeppelin performing their “version” of the song, Dixon assumed it was being presented as a cover. But alas, it wasn’t quite a cover. When he learned that he received no songwriting credits on Led Zeppelin material, he filed suit. It was settled out of court and Dixon received an undisclosed amount.

Willie Dixon:

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Dixon used his award from the settlement to fund the charitable organization Blues Heaven Foundation, whose mission statement is “to help artists and musicians obtain what is rightfully theirs, and to educate both adults and children on the history of the Blues and the business of music.”

In spite of his numerous legal battles, Willie Dixon was able to see the bigger picture and fundamentally understood the essential “borrowing” that goes into the creative process. He said, “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on.” A gracious statement. Roots and fruits. I like it. I like it so much that I “plagiarized” it for this post title. Credit to Mr. Willie Dixon of Mississippi :-)

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on stage:

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We’re all familiar with the famous quote from Picasso, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Blunt words from a man who did his fair share of stealing. (Cézanne anyone?) Stealing is an awfully harsh word though, and in these instances of creativity it’s difficult to know exactly where the line is drawn between being heavily “influenced” by one’s predecessors and flat-out theft: theft being an unethical act, and influence being a gesture of admiration and appreciation.

Like many of the British Invasion bands of the 60s, the members of Led Zeppelin were inspired by the American blues tradition. They made no secret of this. Musically-inclined youths in postwar Great Britain turned to the sounds and expressions emanating from the American south for musical awakening and stimulation. And who could blame them? The music is raw, rich, and authentic. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has been a passionate and vocal champion of Muddy Waters, one of the greatest blues legends of all time.

The legend himself, Muddy Waters:

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Though I’m not going to chronicle all of Zeppelin’s disputed songs, let’s take a look at one more. In 1972 the band was hit with legal action by ARC records over “The Lemon Song” on behalf of Chester Burnett, stage name “Howlin’ Wolf”. His 1964 song “The Killing Floor” bears strong lyrical resemblance to the Zeppelin version, although musically they sound very different.

These are Howlin’ Wolf’s lyrics:

I shoulda quit you a long time ago
I shoulda quit you, babe, long time ago
I shoulda quit you and went on to Mexico

If I hada followed my first mind
If I hada followed my first mind
I’da been gone, since my second time

And these are Robert’s Plant’s:

I should have quit you, long time ago
I should have quit you, long time ago
I wouldn’t be here, my children
Down on this killin’ floor

I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
I should have listened, baby, to my second mind
Every time I go away and leave you, darling
Send me the blues way down the line

Yikes. Busted. Once again the suit was settled out of court and songwriting credit on the record was amended to include Chester Burnett’s name.

Chester Burnett, aka “Howlin’ Wolf”:

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Now let’s clear up one thing in this mess: lifting riffs is not the same as “plagiarizing” a song. Not even close. And chord progressions cannot be copyrighted. If they could be, then literally every single rock, pop, blues, folk, or country song ever recorded would be the subject of legal action. The basis for valid music plagiarism cases has almost always involved melodies and lyrics. Remember, it was lyrics that nailed Led Zeppelin on “The Lemon Song”, along with others.

Without lyrics or distinguishable melody, plagiarism cases become trickier. Recently, a new suit was filed against Led Zeppelin over their most popular song, “Stairway to Heaven”. The family of Randy California, founder of the progressive rock band of the 60s and 70s called Spirit, have claimed that the opening bars of Stairway were ripped off from the Spirit song “Taurus”. You can listen for yourself. This claim seems tenuous at best, for a variety of reasons. First of all, Stairway is an eight-minute long composition and is largely lyrically-driven (“Taurus” is an instrumental). And Stairway develops structurally in a way completely different from the Spirit song. Stairway has that great “arc” which makes it such an effective, indelible work. So we’re talking about maybe five seconds of similarity, not to mention a complaint suspiciously filed over forty years after Stairway became part of the public’s music consciousness. Randy California himself has been dead for 17 years. That descending chord line in question has been around for centuries. No one “owns” that. Just like no one owns the G chord, or the D minor scale, et al. And if we’re trying to pinpoint the origins of that Stairway to Heaven opening guitar riff, then what about this guy? –> Davy Graham, “Cry Me A River”. Hmm . . .

There is a element of futility in some of these cases. We can keep going back, and back, and further back, even to Robert Johnson, to trace the “original” authorship of a music composition, or a mere segment of a composition. But the reality is that, in rock and blues especially, the musical vocabulary at one’s disposal is limited from the get-go. Blues recycles the same chords over and over again. In music generally, only a finite number of scales and chords are available for use. So it is inevitable that similarities will occur, accidentally or otherwise. Legal rulings have been a crapshoot. George Harrison was successfully sued for plagiarism over his song “My Sweet Lord” for its similarities to the The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. Coldplay, however, beat the rap in a suit brought by guitarist Joe Satriani.

Copyright/plagiarism cases can be very complicated legally when they involve artistic matters. If the issues at hand pertain to things like sounds, ideas, concepts, styles, etc and are subject to interpretation, it becomes a tough call. Heck, if Apple could lose their lawsuit against Microsoft over an interface, then little-known songwriters in a heavily crowded field surely have an uphill battle.

Breaking here for a moment to say that one of my all time favorite Led Zepplin songs is “Over The Hills and Far Away”. Love it. Strumming, singing, thumping … everything you need in a great song that soars :-)

If there’s anyone who would have legitimate grievances in a music plagiarism lawsuit it would be Johann Sebastian Bach, who revolutionized music, invented and experimented with counterpoint and harmonics in momentous ways. You know that piccolo trumpet solo in the Beatles’ song “Penny Lane”? That was inspired by one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos which Paul McCartney happened to see performed on the BBC. (The musician who played that terrific solo was trumpeter David Mason). Composer Johannes Brahms said, “Study Bach and you will find everything”. And that about sums it up. I say we bring old Johann back from the dead, get him lawyered up, and watch the lawsuits rain down like an avalanche on all the recording studios around the world. I’d love to see that. Old Johann in his powdered wig, red-faced with fury, storming into a songwriting session and yelling … “That’s my arpeggio, dammit!!”. I’m being jokey but it’s fairly true, that Bach and Monteverdi and Telemann and all those prolific geniuses of music’s golden age are responsible for pivotal compositional devices that have been used for hundreds of years.

JS Bach:

(c) British Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So at this point in time, the musical “toolbox” is full. All anyone can do here in the 20th and 21st centuries is pilfer the toolbox. That’s what Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did, albeit carelessly. Originality, in the purest sense of the word, doesn’t really exist anymore. All the literary plots have been written, all the chord progressions have been implemented, all the choreographic moves have been executed in dance. We can tweak it and mix it up, embellish and add and subtract, speed up tempos or slow them down, revamp and transform, and hopefully create something that resembles originality. And that’s fine. Oh and by the way, all you painters out there? Your toolbox is full too, just in case you forgot ;-)

Here’s where I take issue with some of my fellow Zeppelin defenders. Justification is frequently given that Zeppelin’s admitted reworkings of songs made them better than the originals, that they breathed fresh new vitality into them, and infused them with the powerful, pulsating Zeppelin sound that was their trademark. And they did, this is true. But it’s not really the point. If you improve on something you appropriated does that make the appropriation any less larcenous? Sure Jimmy Page could shred on his Les Paul like nobody’s business, and Robert Plant could wail erotically that he wants to “make you burn, make you sting” and “be your backdoor man” to the thrills of female fans, and Jones and Bonham could pound out the most solid rhythm section in the history of rock,  but if you’re appropriating then just say it. Just clarify it. That’s all. Jimmy Page, the mastermind of Led Zeppelin, is an intelligent guy and a superb musician and composer in his own right. It seems, frankly, that he should have known better. Led Zeppelin has made a boatload of money over the past 40 years. If they did so on the backs of uncredited lesser-knowns then that is simply wrong.

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But if the Zeppelin haters think these plagiarism cases will cause us Zep Heads to waver in our loyalty, the answer is … they won’t. Trust me. We will rationalize. We will even say that Led Zeppelin filled an valuable role by reviving and reinvigorating blues music that might otherwise have been forgotten. What did Willie Dixon say about keeping the “roots” alive? Led Zep did that, in their own reckless way. They owned up to it. And paid for it. Now can’t we just enjoy the fire, vigor, and spirit of great music?

You guys, I told you was I bringing Music Mondays back, and it seems I’ve done so with a vengeance! Thanks for reading this monster of a post. Whew! Let’s conclude with Led Zeppelin performing in their glorious heyday. In this clip I really like the way Page, Jones, and Bonham close it out at the end. And Robert Plant’s open shirt? I like that too ;-)

New York City. 1973. The Garden. Led Zeppelin doing their ferocious song “Black Dog”. This isn’t American Idol, folks. This is rock and roll.

LED ZEPPELIN!!!!!! <— Zep Head :sorry:

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For C  

  Ixsixán

Musical Passages

Last month the jazz community, and music world at large, said goodbye to the great Horace Silver, a consummate jazz pianist and fixture on the Blue Note recording label. Silver was a founding member one of my favorite hard bop groups, The Jazz Messengers, with drummer Art Blakey. Universally admired by his fellow musicians, Horace Silver performed and composed for decades, and mentored many young jazz artists. He died of natural causes at the age of 85.

The classical music world has recently seen passages of a different sort. The New York Philharmonic has bid a fond farewell to two prominent members who have retired from the orchestra and are moving on to other things. Concertmaster and violinist Glenn Dicterow just took his last bow on the stage at Avery Fisher Hall after 34 years with the Philharmonic. Principal trumpet Phil Smith has also taken his final bow after 36 years. His retirement is a little more significant to me personally because of my father. Dad, as most of you probably know, was a professional trumpet player, and he would take our family to hear the Philharmonic on a regular basis. Smith’s pure, warm tone and solid technique was of course the highlight to Dad’s ears. Trumpet players everywhere have nothing but respect for Phil Smith, and he will be greatly missed among the Philharmonic’s faithful audience. This article in The New Yorker is an excellent read. I highly recommend it. Not only does it describe Smith the man – humble, deeply religious – but it addresses the unique nature of orchestra musicians, and trumpet players specifically. I can tell you that Glenn Dicterow’s retirement has received somewhat more fanfare in local and national media than Phil Smith’s. It is not for negligent reasons, but rather the larger popularity of violinists among the general public, thanks to performers like Joshua Bell, Itzhak Perlman, and Anne Sophie Mutter. Virtuosic trumpet players in the classical world are rarer, which makes Phil Smith an exceptional standout in a smaller, more elite circle.

We’ll conclude this week’s Music Monday with a different musical genre entirely. I was sorting through some very old CDs stashed among the junk in my house and I came across one of the many British music crushes I’ve had in my life. Robert Palmer was performing for years before his huge success in the 1980s with his “Addicted to Love” resurrection. A purveyor of what is known as “blue-eyed soul”, Palmer gave us vocals that drew on influences from reggae, R & B, rock, pop, and blues. Oh how I love cute, sexy Englishmen. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for them, and always will :-) Robert Palmer left us in 2003, dying far too soon at the age of 54. From his debut solo album in 1974, this is “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”.

Heaven and Hard Times

So it looks like this summer is going to be worse than last summer, and I didn’t think that was possible. Last summer sucked majorly for a couple of reasons; painful breakup with the boyfriend which still hurts over a year later, slow art modeling, and no vacation. This summer adds a new element of tension and troubles in the form of intra-family strife that only seems to get worse by the day. Isn’t that fantastic? The hits just keep on comin’. Ugh.

Coping mechanisms? Same as always. Hunker down among the good. Jettison the bad. Cling for dear life to that which gratifies and gladdens and edifies. Oh yeah, and blogging. Keep blogging :-) Art and music are two of the best pathways to salvation, I think we can all agree on that. And I’ve got one of each to offer today. A striking linocut print of yours truly by the wonderful Christian Johnson, followed by music for Music Monday. Gospel is a dependable source of solace for me as most of you know. The track is “I’m So Glad (Trouble Don’t Last Always)” by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers.

A belated Happy Father’s Day to my dad readers. Hope you had a great day! I’ll see you all very soon, friends. And Christian … thank you :-)

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Miles Davis Way

Like most big cities, New York has its share of honorary street names. More than it’s share, really. Our city council has re-named so many streets in tribute to famous figures that’s it’s hard to keep track of all of them.  The standard for street re-naming according to the council is “proposed honorees must be individuals who are deceased and of significant importance to New York City.”  The names range from local politicians to military figures to contributors to the arts, academia, sports and finance. The sheer number of them is a testament to the historical and cultural breadth of our throbbing, humming city and how many noteworthy individuals have lived here, worked here, created here, and found inspiration among its people and neighborhoods.

East 110th St is “Tito Puente Way”. West 145th is “A. Philip Randolph Boulevard”. Broadway between 51st and 52nd is “Al Jolson Way”. West 31st St is “Father Mychal F. Judge Street”, in honor of the Fire Department Chaplain who was killed during the 9-11 attacks while administering last rites. These are just a few examples of many. Last week, the city unveiled its newest street honorific; “Miles Davis Way” on 77th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. The jazz legend lived on the block for 25 years. It’s a cool honor for the man credited with the “birth of the cool”.

For Music Monday I’m posting a 1989 interview with Miles Davis from the 60 Minutes archives. Interviews with Miles Davis are quite rare, as he was not the most accessible or congenial fellow in the music business. However, I found this interview interesting in that you can see flashes of humor in Miles, and a sense that he’s putting us on a bit. And Harry Reasoner, in spite of some rather silly questions, deserves credit for getting the elusive Miles Davis to sit down for a face to face interview at all. They touch on race, music, art, women, and Miles’ past heroin addiction. Also, this isn’t the first time Miles Davis has been the subject of a Music Monday. Here’s my Museworthy post from March 2010 about Kind of Blue.

Respighi and Botticelli

I don’t know about you guys but I could definitely use a Music Monday. A melodious distraction from life’s worries is never a bad thing. And today we have one that marries music with art, from the creative imaginations of two Italian fellas. In 1927, composer Ottorino Respighi wrote three orchestral movements inspired by the Botticelli paintings in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The works are known as the “Botticelli Triptych”. You can visit an excellent post about this on the blog Muddy Colors. Here we have “Spring”, or if you prefer, “Primavera”. See you all very soon :-)

A Bedecked Burmese Harp

Do you know what a saung kauk is? I didn’t until two days ago. After taking in the Carpeaux exhibition at the Met on Saturday, I decided to further endure the weekend museum crowds and visit some of my favorite galleries before I left. After a stroll through the magnificent American Wing, I stopped by the Musical Instruments. Though most of the objects are displayed in cases and tricky to photograph, I was dazzled by this old Burmese harp. I took a couple of pics for Music Monday, but I’m afraid they don’t do justice to the shimmering gold and detailed craftsmanship.

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The descriptive text reads as follows:

SAUNG KAUK.
Burma.
This richly decorated arched harp is tuned by twisting the braids attaching its strings to the neck. Often used to accompany songs, the sang kauk has its origin in ancient India and represents one of the eldest surviving harp traditions.

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This particular harp is from 1889, but the sang kauk is a centuries-old instrument, believed to originate as far back as 500 AD. You can read much more about this harp on Wikipedia.

I’m going to jump civilizations for a moment. Let’s leap from southeast Asia to ancient Greece, from one resplendent stringed instrument to another. This is Gustave Moreau’s depiction of the Greek poet Hesiod in Hesiod and the Muse. Technically that’s a lyre, but still a beautifully adorned instrument. Also I love Moreau, and any painting with the word “muse” in the title is most welcome on this blog :-)

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Happy Day

I was thinking about which music to post for Music Monday to mark the beginning of Holy Week. Churches throughout New York City are offering a glorious selection of masses, choral works, and hymns. I’ve decided to go with some good old American gospel.

One can’t help but wonder where American music would be without its gospel roots. A huge number of R & B singers and pop performers began their musical journeys singing in church, from Marvin Gaye to Whitney Houston, to Tina Turner, Patsy Cline, Katy Perry, and so many others. One of my all time favorites, Sam Cooke, started out a church singer and eventually became an member of the highly respected Soul Stirrers. Sam Cooke was an exceptional gospel vocalist and had one of the most recognizable voices in the history of music. He was so masterful at gospel that many of his fans were dismayed when he decided to cross over into pop. Mahalia Jackson, on the other hand, turned down every opportunity to go “mainstream”. She sang gospel – and only gospel – throughout her decades-long career. So in many respects, American music owes a great debt to the churches of Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, and Harlem, and those atop country hills in small towns stretching from Appalachia to the Louisiana bayou. They nurtured and unleashed some of the most gifted talents of our time.

Our music today is the incomparable Aretha Franklin, who got her start singing in her father’s church, and the great Mavis Staples, gospel singer and national treasure. Here they are performing – I should say “testifying” – “Oh Happy Day”. The song was originally an 18th century hymn which was freshly adapted and arranged by Edwin Hawkins in 1967 and has become a popular gospel classic. I could listen to this over and over, as it is infused with spiritual uplift and foot-tapping, hand-clapping joy. You couldn’t ask for two better ladies to turn it out.

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A most blessed Holy Week my friends. A Happy Passover. A happy LIFE to all. Rejoice in the glory that surrounds us every day . . . every happy day.