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Why Led Zeppelin Pays Royalties to a Southern Bluesman

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 16, 2024 3:02 am

Why Led Zeppelin Pays Royalties to a Southern Bluesman

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 16, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Stephen Davis, author of Hammer of the Gods, and Kirby Furgeson of "Everything a Remix" tell the story of how Led Zeppelin found themselves in a courtroom over a few of their songs and why there are so many "copycats" in the music industry.

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Presented by AT&T, connecting changes everything. And we return to our American stories and now it's time for another rule of law story which is a part of our rule of law series where we showcase what happens in the absence and the presence of the rule of law in our lives. And we love music on this show too.

It's a big part of our lives, all of our lives. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with a story of how one of the biggest bands in the world had to pay an influential musician from the deep south a bit of money. Here's a question. How do a southern blues man and a lot of English rock bands from the 60s and 70s connect? It turns out, in the case of Led Zeppelin at least, a lot of ways, including in a courtroom. Here's Steven Davis, author of Hammer of the Gods, with more on that southern man in question. Robert Johnson was considered by Jimmy Page and Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, all the English guitarist of that period, to be the founder of rock and roll basically and is indeed the founder of recorded blues. I mean, he wasn't by any means the first blues guy to be recorded, but Columbia Records sent down a producer called Don Law to Arkansas in 1938 or something and he made these 20 or 30 recordings with Robert Johnson. That is the bedrock of the blues, of R&B, of rock, of rock and roll. And so it's interesting that from a southern perspective at least, Mississippi, Arkansas, the Delta, that this is where Led Zeppelin comes from in the first place. So it's not surprising that later in their career they would be charged with plagiarizing blues artists like Robert Johnson and Booker White and Willie Dixon.

Here's Kirby Ferguson, creator of the documentary series Everything is a Remix, with more. So Zeppelin is a great band, but they do have this unusual history of copying from other artists, not transforming the things that they copy and then not attributing them. So this was something that plenty of artists did something kind of like that, usually just in the form of cover songs, like all the bands of their era, like the Beatles and the Stones and such.

So Led Zeppelin were unusual in that they were a jam band. They would play these long songs sometimes. They would improvise them on stage and there'd be like sections to the song where you're doing this thing and then you do something else and you do something else, rather than just being a nice compact three minute song.

So they would take recognizable pieces from other musicians and sometimes more than that, sometimes it would be basically an entire song, but they would take pieces from other people, they would incorporate them into their songs and they wouldn't switch them around enough. And Muddy Waters and his band and Willie Dixon came to London to give shows. One of the songs that Muddy Waters did was written by Willie Dixon called You Need Love. And I guess Jimmy Page was listening very carefully because three or four years later he turned it into a song called Whole Lotta Love, which was one of the biggest radio grenades in America in 1969, 1970.

And it sounds nothing like You Need Love, the Willie Dixon song, but it's got a bunch of the same lyrics. Like this is Robert Plant nicking lyrics when he should be writing new lyrics and instead he's copying them from somebody else and dumping them in. And the credit on the Led Zeppelin album reads Plant and Page, meaning that they didn't give Willie Dixon any credit. And this would cause problems for them immediately because the rock critics of the day realized that Led Zeppelin was pilfering Willie Dixon's material, but nothing happened for a long time. Willie Dixon died and eventually I think his children filed suit. And today, if you buy a Led Zeppelin album, the credits read Plant, Page, Bonham, Jones, Dixon.

The family is being compensated. So the system worked years and years later. So they've made amends. It's something that young artists do.

They take from other people and they don't attribute, like, I don't think we should be too hard on these people. They copied, it wasn't just blues artists, it was all sorts of different artists. It was folk musicians and rock musicians, and it was all different types of music.

But that it kept going on is kind of the odd thing. And the one that Zeppelin took a stand on that they refused to just give a portion of the songwriting to another artist was The Case of Stairway to Heaven. It was a group called Spirit that wrote a song called Taurus. And Spirit, nobody knows who they are anymore, but back in that era, everybody, any young ambitious band would have known who Spirit were. And Zeppelin opened for them a few years before Stairway to Heaven came out.

So they perhaps were exposed to this song. It's the opening acoustic guitar bit at the start of Stairway to Heaven that resembles this similar guitar line from Taurus. Written by a man in Spirit named Randy California. Years and years later, his estate sued Led Zeppelin on the same grounds as the Willie Dixon estate.

And Plant and Page were concerned enough about this to respond in court in California and testify. So Jimmy Page, in his testimony, claimed that he had never heard the song Taurus. But when I was researching Hammer of the Gods and I interviewed Robert Plant, he talked about how much he loved the California bands when he arrived on the West Coast in 1969. And he mentioned Spirit. Now, I'm not here to accuse anyone of lying on the stand, but I was a little shocked that they would say that they had never heard of Spirit. I tend to think it would be hard for a person to remember if they did hear a song 50 years later, but they're different as well.

And the song overall is nothing like Stairway to Heaven, but it is some sort of derivative work. Zeppelin beat the case in 2016, but it was appealed in 2018, revived, and then the U.S. Supreme Court could have heard it. But they decided not to, effectively killing the lawsuit. There are countless other examples of court cases like this. Katy Perry's Dark Horse case. Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines case.

Coldplay's Viva La Vida case. So that brings up a question. Why are there so many copycats? We like copying.

There's always tons of copying going on, right? People don't want to hear an entirely new kind of song every time they fire up Spotify or whatever, right? They want something that's kind of like the stuff that they already know. That's why we have genres, right? Like people want to hear kind of versions of the stuff that they already like. Music is mercurial. I go back to bebop music with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Charlie Parker would play a lick and Dizzy Gillespie would play the same lick and argue about who would get credit over the songs. And it's sort of the cost of success, right? Like if you become big, people are going to cop you.

People are going to rip you off. So at first it was Zeppelin that was copying people and then in time they went from the copier to the copied because they became a big successful band and in particular the beats to their song When the Levee Breaks, those got used all sorts of times in early hip hop. It's this famous reverb-y drum beat that they did, I believe in like a stairwell or something like that. It's got a really distinct sonic quality to it and hip hop artists loved it and sampled it a lot early on. To be exact, the drums are sampled in over 220 songs from Dr. Dre to the Beastie Boys to Bjork. They've all copied. It seems everyone is copying. So what's the point of copyright law? Without copyright law, artists can't make a buck and the big guys can steal from the small guys as much as they like. It does help smaller artists because sometimes smaller artists, they're very influential, right? Like they aren't necessarily heard by everybody, but people in the know, musicians know who they are, right? And they can get copied from by dozens, hundreds, whatever, you know, lots and lots of different musicians and potentially not make a cent from that. So copyright is definitely a boon for people like Little Richard. One of his early hits was Tutti Frutti and I don't believe it quite connected with white audiences.

It was too much, too soon. So Pat Boone did a cover of it. It was a hit, but at the same time, Little Richard made a bunch of money.

So it was a win in a lot of ways for him. And I'm sure Willie Dixon made a lot of money off of Led Zeppelin. The interesting thing about Willie Dixon's family's copyright victory against Led Zeppelin is that it shows that in a civilized society, the rule of law can actually work.

I mean, these were children of a deceased Chicago bluesman basically suing the biggest band in the world and they won. So you know, just in terms of the rule of law, one of the good things about art system is that David can go up against Goliath and sometimes David can win. And a great job as always by Monty Montgomery. Terrific storytelling about the rule of law and how it affects, well, even the things we love dearest. Check out Stephen Davis's book Hammer of the Gods on Amazon. A terrific exegesis on rock and roll and modern American music.

Check out Kirby Ferguson on YouTube or his podcast Everything is a Remix on Spotify. And again, what terrific storytelling and the end of that story said it all that these intellectual property rights protect the little guy from often the big guy also can protect the big guy from somebody smaller stealing. But the idea is these are your ideas and they're protected by law. The rule of law is the reason our arts are so great because our artists are so free and protected by courts and by property rights. The story of Led Zeppelin versus Willie Dixon and so much more here on Our American Story.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-04-16 04:33:20 / 2024-04-16 04:38:54 / 6

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