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 😆
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 …
John Bonham, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin:
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.
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:
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:
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”:
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 overwhelmingly 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.
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.
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: