[Today: Influences and royalties…]
I didn’t really get into Led Zeppelin until college, when my friend Bobby turned his stereo up to 17 one night and played ‘Whole Lotta Love’ so loud that it literally shook the pictures off his walls. “LISTEN TO THE MIDDLE PART” he yelled over the jet engine roar of Jimmy Page’s guitar, “THERE’S SOME CRAZY SHIT GOING ON IN THERE!” And indeed there was – enough crazy shit to carry me all the way through college on a high-flying Zeppelin. But after college – and in part because of Led Zeppelin – I started digging into some Blues albums, and inadvertently discovering the original sources of some of Zeppelin’s material.
It’s no secret that Led Zeppelin’s music was deeply influenced by the Blues – many British bands of that era were. What is less known is the degree to which Jimmy Page has simply taken other musicians’ songs without acknowledging proper songwriting credit. Willie Dixon settled out of court twice with the group, once for infringement on his song ‘You Need Love’, which Zeppelin turned into ‘Whole Lotta Love’ without crediting Dixon. Influence is one thing, but a side-by-side listen to these tunes reveals how much Zeppelin “borrowed” from the original. But Page has consistently shrugged off questions about his appropriation of other people’s music. During a 1990 interview with Musician, he laughingly responded to one such inquiry, saying “Usually my riffs are pretty damn original. What can I say?” This answer points out the fundamental flaw in his view of copyright – laying your riffs over somebody else’s song doesn’t make it your own, no matter how earth-shattering those riffs may be.
But the Blues were hardly the only genre that Page has pillaged. In a withering investigative article, Will Shade cites more than a dozen artists that Led Zep failed to properly credit over the course of their first four albums. Along with the usual Blues suspects are folkies such as Anne Briggs and Bert Jansch. The latter saw his song ‘Blackwater Side’ (actually a traditional tune) swiped without credit by Page and re-named ‘Black Mountain Side’. Shade quotes Jansch, from a 1983 biography: “The accompaniment was nicked by a well-known member of one of the most famous rock bands, who used it, unchanged, on one of their records.”
The Beastie Boys are a different case – they’ve always credited their sources and paid royalties where they’re due. Still, it’s a bit discouraging to dip into old-school hip-hop albums and find out how much of their routine has been high-jacked from the past. It’s not a matter of entire songs, it’s more phrases and wordings. Stuff like “Hip-Hip-Hop/And you don’t stop” can’t be copyrighted, but somebody wrote that, and it wasn’t the Beasties (t’was Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash + Furious Five fame). But the Beasties carry themselves humbly and pay enough homage to the past that their borrowing feels more like keeping the flame alive. Jimmy Page, on the other hand, needs to bust open his golden suitcase and start paying some overdue royalties…
Listen: White Summer/Black Mountain Side [Led Zeppelin]
Listen: Blackwater Side [Bert Jansch]
Listen: She Moved Through The Bizarre/Blue Ragga [Davey Graham]
Listen: Whole Lotta Love [Led Zeppelin]
Listen: You Need Love [Muddy Waters]
Listen: Triple Trouble [Beastie Boys]
Listen: Double Trouble At The Amphitheatre [KK Rockwell and Rodney Cee]