One of the dirtiest tricks in the music business evolved when record label owners and publishers began routinely adding their names to the credit line on songs. Most artists went along with it because they were anxious to get a record out, not that they were exactly given a choice. Many times they were not aware of the practice until they saw the printed record label. In the early days, most of a musician’s income came from live performances so they viewed a record as another form of advertising for their shows. When records began selling millions of copies, it did not take too long for the songwriters and performers to notice the suits were making the big money and they were not. The ‘musicians vs the suits’ battle over songwriting credits (and thus, royalties) is as old as the industry itself. What is a little surprising to me is how often musicians have done the same kind of thing to other musicians.
Many articles and books have been written about the genius of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. One of the most persistent tags bestowed upon him, for lack of a better word, is ‘thief’. Oh, they do not use this word specifically, but however they couch it, the implication is pretty clear. Author Mick Wall notes in his book, A Biography of Led Zeppelin – When Giants Walked the Earth (2008 St. Martins Press), Page may have been “quite permissive when it came to borrowing other people’s material,” but the ‘borrowing’ has been overshadowed by his innovative arrangements and production techniques. As we will see, Wall isn’t picking on Page nor is he giving him a free pass; he is just providing details most casual record buyers would not be aware of if they do not know the history of some of the songs in question.
The first eponymous Led Zeppelin album (released in 1969) contains a track that would become a showpiece of Zeppelin’s live shows. Wall traces back the history of Dazed and Confused all the way to its original writer as a typical example of how fluid a songwriter’s credit can be in the music world. The credit given on the LZ album simply says ‘Jimmy Page’ but as Wall explains, the song was originally written and recorded by a 28 year-old singer-songwriter named Jake Holmes. The song included a walking bass line and lyrics whose eerie atmosphere led many to assume the song was about a bad acid trip (Holmes says it was actually about a real-life love affair that went south). The song first appeared on Holmes’ solo album The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes. Holmes was appearing with his two-man acoustic band at The Village Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village on a Friday night in August of 1967, just a few months after he had written Dazed and Confused. Holmes was opening for The Yardbirds who were on tour in America and, according to Wall, “Yardbirds’ drummer Jim McCarty and Page were watching spellbound from the side of the stage as Holmes performed the song.” McCarty later recalled he went out the very next day to buy Holmes’ album specifically to hear Dazed and Confused again. McCarty claimed Page bought his own copy for the same reason.
When Jimmy transitioned from the end of The Yardbirds to the formation of Led Zeppelin, he had a sound in his head. During the years he had spent as a session player, Page had accumulated a vast knowledge of how to make a record sound better. Led Zeppelin would be the crucible and the studio his laboratory to create a new sound to set his new band apart from all the others. As he mixed the ingredients for their debut album, Dazed and Confused would borrow not only from the Holmes version, but also from the version Page had performed with The Yardbirds in their last days together. The Yardbirds’ vocalist, Keith Relf, had altered the lyrics a little and the ‘Birds ‘amped-up’ the arrangement a bit, but the walking bass and eerie atmosphere of Holmes’ acoustic version were all there. The only recording of the ‘Birds’ rendition was done for a March 1968 session aired on John Peel’s Radio 1 show on BBC just before they set off on their final American tour.
The version they performed on Peel’s show and during their last tour was pretty much identical to the one that showed up on the first LZ album credited to ‘Jimmy Page’. The rest of The Yardbirds were certainly aware of the song’s origins. McCarty gave his recollections in a 2003 interview: “I was struck by the atmosphere of Dazed and Confused, and we decided to do a version. We worked it out together, with Jimmy contributing the guitar riffs in the middle.” When the ‘Birds’ remastered and expanded Little Games album came out on CD, the track was credited to ‘Jake Holmes, arranged by The Yardbirds’. Three months after the final Yardbirds tour, the only substantial change to the Dazed and Confused track recorded by Led Zeppelin was another slight rewrite of the lyrics. Page included a new line about ‘the soul of a woman’ being ‘created below’.
At the time, Holmes was unaware that his song had been pirated away by Page. He said he had written the song on a college tour not long before the tour with The Yardbirds: “I didn’t think it was that special. But it went over really well; it was our set closer. The kids loved it – [and he adds dryly] as did The Yardbirds.” Jake didn’t realize the appropriation of his song until “way later”: “Rock ‘n’ roll was kind of going into its second life when Led Zeppelin came along. I wasn’t fifteen years old anymore so I wasn’t listening to that stuff, I was too busy hanging out at clubs like the Night Owl with the Lovin’ Spoonful, Vince Martin, and Cass Elliot.”
Did he care when he found out about Page taking credit for the song? Holmes said, “I didn’t care. At that time I didn’t think there was a law about intent. I thought it had to do with the old Tin Pan Alley law that you had to have four bars of exactly the same melody, and that if somebody had taken a riff and changed it just slightly or changed the lyrics that you couldn’t sue them. That turned out to be totally misguided.” Holmes did investigate the matter, but the cost of litigation outweighed his economic situation, especially if it didn’t pan out. He has reached out and basically said, “Hey, Jimmy, I don’t care about the royalties, just give me a credit, half a credit, something,” but he doesn’t think it is about royalties anymore. “For [Jimmy Page], it’s probably more difficult to wrench that song away from him than it would be any other song,” Holmes says. “And I have tried, you know, I have written letters to him. That’s the sad part. I don’t think it has to do with money. It’s not like he needs it. It totally has to do with how intimately he’s been connected to it over all these years. Besides, I am a cult hero now. I have a lot of cachet with my kids because all the kids in their school say, “Your dad wrote Dazed and Confused? Cool!’”
One of the highlights of Zep’s live Dazed and Confused performance happens when Jimmy extends the middle section using a violin bow to coax otherworldly sounds from his guitar. According to Wall, the inspiration for this little gimmick was also borrowed from a couple of other sources. There were two acts (maybe more) known for doing the violin bow schtick before Page. One was The Creation whose guitarist Eddie Phillips scraped a violin bow across his guitar strings in the group’s two 1966 singles, Painter Man and Making Time. Jimmy was familiar with The Creation as they were based in London. Record producer Shel Talmy, who worked with Page on sessions for The Kinks and The Who, later stated, “Jimmy Page stole the bowing bit of the guitar from Eddie. Eddie was phenomenal.” The other possible source was the psychedelic band Kaleidoscope from Pasadena, CA whom Page was also familiar with.
Wall asked Page about the origins of the violin bow thing: “He insisted it was concertmaster violinist David McCallum, Sr (father of the Man from Uncle star David McCallum, Jr) who first suggested the idea as the two chatted during a tea break at a session in 1965. As a result, he had first experimented using a violin bow in The Yardbirds, on two tracks on Little Games: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor and Glimpses. The later number become an early violin-guitar showcase for Jimmy on stage, to be replaced during their final months by Dazed and Confused.” Was Page being the innovator or a copycat? After Eddie Van Halen made tapping his guitar strings all the rage, was he ripping off those who may have experimented with it earlier or were all the guitarists who jumped on the tapping band wagon stealing from Eddie? We will leave that one for you to ponder.
Just to make it clear that Jimmy Page was not to be singled out for hijacking other peoples tunes, Wall goes on to give a long list of songs that begat other songs. He started with Bob Dylan who famously told an interviewer that his first album was, “some stuff I’ve written, some stuff I’ve discovered, some stuff I stole.” As for the last category, Wall mentions, “Man of Constant Sorrow being a reworking of Judy Collins’ Maid of Constant Sorrow; a blatant steal of Dave Van Ronk’s version of House of the Rising Son (something Van Ronk never forgot); Masters of War which Dylan did after hearing Martin Carthy perform Nottamun Town when [Bob] was in the U.K. Carthy’s take on Scarborough Fair led directly to Girl from the North Country and Boots of Spanish Leather. Even the melody for Blowing in the Wind was derived from an old anti-slavery song No More Auction Block and Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is a direct descendent of a traditional Appalachan song called Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone.”
Clearly there are only so many chords to work with and so many ways to string the notes together. The issue still comes down to ‘give credit where credit is due’. With that said, we can go back to the patriarch of Hill Country and traditional Country Music, J.P. Carter. When his ‘Carter Family’ radio performances (and later records) began spreading the ‘gospel of country music (and gospel country), J.P. smartly copyrighted songs that were written decades before he arrived on the scene. Many of those tunes had their origins in ancient Celtic melodies from the British Isles so they rightly should be put down as ‘Traditional’ but old J.P. was a foxy one. Note that many of these venerable old country masterpieces like Will the Circle Be Unbroken bear a credit line of ‘J.P.Carter’.
Page’s contemporary and former ‘Birds bandmate Jeff Beck kind of accused Zeppelin of copying his version of Willie Dixon’s You Shook Me that came out on his Truth album before Led Zeppelin’s album was out of the studio. Both guitarists were familiar with the song as they had listened to the Muddy Waters album it came from back in the day. Beck was angry but Page was probably telling the truth when he said he was not aware that Beck had recorded the song on Truth. Then again, it later came out that Zep manager Peter Grant had given Page an advanced copy of Truth weeks ahead of its official release. At least both guitarists gave Dixon his due on the songwriting credits. Interestingly enough, Beck was not beyond nicking a tune here and there; he just was a little more covert about it. He and Rod Stewart reworked several songs but credited them to ‘Jeffery Rod’. These included Buddy Guy’s Let Me Love You, B.B.King’s Rock Me Baby and Gambler’s Blues (retitled Rock My Plimsoul and Blues De Lux by ‘Jeffery Rod’), and Dinah Washington’s Drinking Again which came out on Truth as I’ve Been Drinking. Beck explained it to Charles Shaar Murray in 2005: “There was a lot of conniving going on back then: change the rhythm, change the angle, and it’s yours. We got peanuts for what we were doing and I couldn’t give a (expletive deleted) about anyone else.” That is, unless the ‘anyone else’ is Jimmy Page putting out You Shook Me not long after Beck’s version was on the market.
Another band that Led Zeppelin toured with was Spirit. Jimmy liked them well enough to cover their song Fresh Garbage on their early tours. When Spirit guitarist Randy California heard Stairway to Heaven, he immediately recognized the same (or at least very similar) chord progression that he used on a short instrumental called Taurus. After California’s passing, journalist Michael Skidmore filed a copyright suit against Led Zeppelin on behalf of the late guitarist’s family. Skimore claimed Robert Plant had seen the band at a club in Birmingham a year before Stairway was written. Plant and Page both professed to have no memory of the event, Page stating, “I knew I had never heard that before. It was totally alien to me.” He further said he was not even aware of the claims of copyright infringement until people started posting clips on the internet in the 2010s. The courts rejected Plant and Page’s argument noting they had ‘access’ to the song. It was the testimony of musicologists, however, that turned the case in their favor. The experts cited several examples of songs that used what they termed a ‘common musical device’, using the Disney musical’s Mary Poppins song Chim Chim Cher-ee as an example. A later appeal was also ruled in Plant and Page’s favor. The jury who ultimately decided the songs were ‘not intrinsically similar’ were, oddly enough, not allowed to hear the song Taurus during the trial.
When I heard Buckwheat Zydeco perform When the Levee Breaks at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival, I wondered how a Led Zeppelin song ended up in his repertoire. As it turns out, the song originated with Memphis Minnie (McCoy) and her husband ‘Kansas’ Joe McCoy who were documenting the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. Though credited to the four Zep band members on their fourth LP, the track has more recently been listed with Minni being given a co-credit for the song. When Plant sang, ‘Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good / When the levee breaks, mama, you go to move’, there was no doubt those were Minnie’s words.
We could provide more examples, but as previously stated, there are only so many ways to string the same notes together. Wall noted that, “John Lennon believed Bob Dylan’s 4th Time Around to be nothing less than a deliberate parody of Norwegian Wood. Of course, one might point out that Lennon’s All You Need Is Love was barely more than a modern re-reading of Three Blind Mice.” If you are wondering, Thomas Ravenscroft gets the credit for Three Blind Mice – it was published in 1609. As I said, “Give Them Credit.”
Top Piece Video: As long as we kept talking about Dazed and Confused . . . LZ in 1970 at Albert Hall