Led Zeppelin’s Copyright Blues

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It’s always fascinated me that Led Zeppelin’s music could be so far ahead of it’s time, and at the same time owe such a monumental debt to the music that came before it. Over the years it’s come to light that a significant portion of Zeppelin’s catalog is comprised of songs pieced together out of bits of this or that blues song, and the band has been called on to pay that debt– literally, several times over the decades. For those unaware of this ugly aspect of the Zeppelin legacy, here’s a quick rundown of Zep’s previous brushes with the law over copyright infringement:

“Dazed & Confused”: a re-written version of a song by Jake Holmes, an American folk singer that Jimmy Page’s previous band the Yardbirds played with in 1967. Page first reworked the song for the Yardbirds, altering the melody and the lyrics, but eventually recorded a version for Led Zeppelin’s first album, without crediting Holmes. Holmes finally sued Page for copyright infringement in 2010, and the songwriting credits now read “Page; inspired by Jake Holmes”. Zeppelin still holds a separate copyright for their version of the song.

“Bring It On Home”: The intro is a tribute to “Bring It On Home” by Sonny Boy Williamson, written by Willie Dixon, while the middle section was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The entire song was originally credited to Page and Plant, but was corrected in 1972 to include Dixon’s name, after Arc Music, Dixon’s publisher, brought a lawsuit against Zeppelin, which was settled out of court.

“Whole Lotta Love”: Zeppelin was sued over this song in 1985, and again the lawsuit was settled out of court. Lyrically, the song is based around “You Need Love”, written by Willie Dixon; Dixon is now included in the songwriting credit, and once again the case was settled out of court.

“How Many More Times”: Originally credited to Page, Jones, and Bonham. Since 1993, the song has included a credit for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), whose “How Many More Years” shares a lot of lyrics with the Zep tune. Burnett’s estate settled out of court and demanded several credits in the Zeppelin catalog be corrected, including “The Lemon Song”, which includes several elements of Burnett’s “Killing Floor.” (That song’s “lemon” lyrics are taken from another old blues song: Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues.”) “How Many More Times” also includes uncredited passages from “The Hunter”, written by Jones, Cropper, Dunn, Jackson, & Wells in 1967 and recorded by Albert King. No legal action was ever taken over this.

“Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” is a sort of medley made up of pieces of blues songs and lyrics, including “Shake ‘Em on Down” by Bukka White, to name just one. It’s unclear if Zep claimed ever profited from this amalgam of established, legally held songs; the song’s credits read “Trad. Arrangement: Charles Obscure”. Mr. Obscure is none other than Jimmy Page. So, ya, they probably did.

“In My Time of Dying”: A tradition gospel song in the public domain and with no legal authorship, the song is nonetheless credited to all four members of Zeppelin. “…Dying” is a prime example of Zeppelin’s overall arrogance, in that it claims sole authorship (and ownership) of a song in the public domain to the tune of millions of dollars. A ballsy move; at least there were no actual copyright holders getting screwed.

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In Zep’s defense, I’m gonna quote some experts who make a very valid argument in the band’s favor:

Noted blues author and producer Robert Palmer has said “It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own”.

Folklorist Carl Lindahl refers to the recycling of lyrics in songs as “floating lyrics”. He defines it within the folk-music tradition as “lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics”.

In this context, Zep’s shameless pilfering of the blues can be viewed as a musically valid form of participation in ages-old musical tradition. The problem is, the original writers of much of this material and the fledgling publishing companies that administered royalties ‘back in the day’ earned a mere pittance from their work when compared to Led Zeppelin’s earnings during the album era. The music business didn’t really become The Music Business until the mid-to-late 60’s… right about the time Led Zeppelin came along. Zep’s claiming owner/authorship of material that was generally accepted as ‘community property’ places the band well outside of Palmer and Lindahl’s safety zone.

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To me, the single most fascinating chapter in this sordid saga involves a band from Atlanta, GA called Mother’s Finest. MF were an unlikely (at least in the mid-70’s) combination of hard rock and hard funk. Despite touring as openers for Aerosmith, AC/DC, Ted Nugent, and Black (!) Sabbath, and their excellent Tom Werman-produced third album, ‘Another Mother Further’ (Epic 1977), the band never broke through commercially; MF’s music was too white for black audiences and too black for white audiences. ‘Another Mother Further’ began with a version of The Miracles 1963 Motown hit “Mickey’s Monkey”, and it kicks major ass, but… hold on a second…

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The Mother’s Finest version of “Mickey’s Monkey” is a cleverly-assembled amalgam of Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie” and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey”, with “Custard” serving as the backing track and The Miracles’ lyrics arranged on top. The mash-up works well musically, but also makes an important point. By 1976-77, Led Zeppelin had largely gotten away with stealing licks and lyrics from blues artists at will, plundering the rich history of black music, creating ‘new’ works from them, and making millions in the process. Mother’s Finest was clearly looking to provoke, to challenge; their blatant steal of the Zep song, performed note-for-note, and identical in key, tempo and arrangement, completely uncredited to Zeppelin, was a response to Zeppelin’s blatant theft of black music. Here was a band that identified as Black (their 2nd album contained a song entitled “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock ‘n’ Roll”) stealing from a mega-band that arguably built its career on the uncredited appropriation of black music…

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The tables had been turned. The question so provocatively posed by Mother’s Finest was: How would Led Zeppelin respond to their music being stolen by black musicians? An absolutely brilliant move, ingenious in it’s construction, and, imho, 100% punk rock. It’s now 35 years later, and Led Zeppelin never challenged MF on their use of “Custard Pie”; no legal action has ever been taken. Zeppelin’s non-response can be viewed several different ways: as an admission of guilt, an atonement for past sins, or as an apology. Make of it what you will.

In the present day, Led Zeppelin is vehemently refuting claims that their magnum opus, “Stairway to Heaven”, was stolen from Spirit; the legal action is moving forward, and gaining momentum daily. A cursory listen to audio samples of both songs reveals a stunning similarity… Is it any wonder?

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Epic Fail

His track record is unassailable: He’s earned 23 Gold & Platinum albums. As A&R for Epic records in the 70’s, he signed Cheap Trick, Molly Hatchet, Ted Nugent, Boston, and REO Speedwagon. As a producer for Epic Records from 1970-1982, he produced career-making records by all of the iconic rockers mentioned above. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you own an album with his name on it. “Heaven Tonight”, anyone? “Cat Scratch Fever”? “Boston”? Maybe some of his 80’s work… Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry”? Dokken’s “Tooth and Nail”? Motley Crue’s “Theatre of Pain”?

Tom Werman practically produced the soundtrack to my teens.

Werman brought Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rush to CBS, and was turned down in all three cases. Tell me, did this guy not OWN hard rock in the mid 70’s?

Most of the bands Werman worked with had their biggest albums with him; their commercial breakthroughs. Most bands he worked with stayed with him for a number of albums before changing producers. Motley Crue and Cheap Trick each did three records with Werman; Molly Hatchet 5, Nugent 6. And… most bands began their commercial decline after moving on to work with other producers.

Tom Werman’s job was, as he described it, to ‘get bands on the radio’. ‘Cat Scratch Fever’. ‘Surrender’. ‘Flirtin’ with Disaster’… I’ll bet you first heard these songs on the radio. And they are still played on the radio today, 35 years later. Is there any question as to how well this guy did his job?

Yes.

A few years back it somehow became fashionable to dump on Tom Werman. Musicians he had worked with 2 or 3 decades previous were suddenly complaining that the records they made with him were too safe, too commercial, ‘not an accurate representation of our sound’. Why these established rock stars feel the need to look back on their most successful period and complain about the records that established their careers, ‘blaming’ Werman for their biggest hits, is just plain bizarre.

The most infamous instance was probably the war of words between Werman and Nikki Sixx (feel so silly typing that name). Sixx (tee hee) wrote a book about what a super-cool guy he is and how heroin is bad but it’s also very rock ‘n roll, so hey, that’s what decadent rock stars do, dude. In this book, in between blaming his girlfriend for every drug relapse and blaming every drug relapse on his girlfriend, ‘ol Nikk talks trash about Werman, accusing him of spending more time on the phone than producing the Crue’s record. Super-hero Nikki than had to assume control and see the album through. Riiiiight. Werman felt the need to defend himself, and wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Times refuting Sixx’s story and pointing out the inherent absurdities in the version of events as described by Nikki. This, in turn, prompted Nikki to post a response on blabbermouth.com, in which he threatened to ‘out’ Werman to his wife for the partying he allegedly did during the recording of the album. What a douche. Werman responded again. The whole sad saga is encapsulated here:

http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/producer-tom-werman-fires-back-at-nikki-sixx/

Dee Snider played the same game while promoting Twisted Sister’s re-recording of their triple-platinum “Stay Hungry”, titled “Still Hungry”. Besides his production credit, Werman is also credited as ‘co-arranger’ on “Stay Hungry”, and it’s widely known that he reworked some of the songs to make them more commercial. Based on the results, I’d say he was successful. But not Dee. Snider claims that Werman had nothing to do with the success of “Stay Hungry”, that his work on the record came close to ‘ruining’ it, and that he didn’t want ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and I Wanna Rock’ to be on the record… Really, Dee? This is the guy who gets hard rock bands on the radio. The guy who’s number one priority is making sure there’s a single on the record. He didn’t think those 2 tunes were viable? Sounds like somebody’s trying to spark some controversy to sell their new album (which ultimately sold about 30,00 units, just a tad short of triple platinum). Snider goes on to claim that working with Werman was the reason that Twisted Sister’s next album (produced by Dieter Dierks) completely sucked, as poor Dee was too busy fighting against bad ol’ Tom Werman’s commercial considerations while recording “Stay Hungry” to write decent songs for the follow-up record. Really. Dee Snider’s take on Werman and “Stay Hungry” can be found here:

http://www.bullz-eye.com/music/interviews/2009/dee_snider.htm

Cheap Trick, who Werman continues to speak very highly of, have stated publicly that they were displeased with the sound of their Werman-produced records– but only started talking about it after about 25 years. Interesting that they did their 3rd and 4th lps with Werman, as well… Like Twisted Sister, they too, re-recorded one of their ‘Werman Era’ albums, “In Color”, with infamous indie producer Steve Albini; however, they have never released the record. I’ve heard it; it’s a lot more live-sounding than Werman’s recording, a lot more raw, much like CT’s first album, and maybe a lot closer to what the band were hoping for sonically back in 1977. But is it a better record than Werman’s? No. If the Albini version of “In Color” were released in ’77 as Cheap Trick’s second album, things would have been very different for this band. The Albini “In Color” leaked onto the internet years ago and is fairly easy to obtain. Just not here.

What we have here is the classic battle of art vs. commerce, with musicians on the ‘art’ side and record producers representing ‘commerce’. While Werman undoubtedly steered these bands in a more commercial direction than they were comfortable with, no one can argue that he didn’t do his job (‘getting bands on the radio’) exceedingly well. And perhaps these musicians need to take a moment, as they look back on their 30-year careers, and ask themselves if they’d even have 30-year careers to look back on if they hadn’t had the good fortune to work with Tom Werman… Would they really trade the gold and platinum albums and the hit singles that were the foundation of their success, assured their longevity and cemented their iconic status for generations to come, for complete creative control over their records, commercial success be damned?      

Tom Werman’s track record speaks for itself. However, if you want to read Werman’s story as told by Werman, he writes a regular column at popdose.com where he relates his experiences recording some of the greatest records by the greatest rock bands of all time, before they went all douche-y. I highly recommend that you read his stuff here:

http://popdose.com/the-producers-tom-werman-chapter-one/

Werman now owns and runs a bed & breakfast out in Lenox, MA, called Stonover Farm. He once posted his personal email on popdose, but has since changed it to an unpublished address (he can, however, be contacted through the Stover Farm site). If you email him, he will likely answer. I highly recommend that you do so. Thank him for all the great music. I did.