August 1, 2021

The Led Zeppelin paradox or the fine line that separates innovation from plagiarism

The legendary British band formed by Jimmy Page, John Bonham, John Paul Jones y Robert Plant This month celebrates 50 years of their first performance, in September 1968, when they made their first tour of Scandinavia under the name of The New Yardbirds.

One of the most important rock bands of all time was born, then, as a rehash of the previous Page band, which of course he had not formed. Despite this, when Led Zeppelin released their first album, in 1969, his songs sounded new and exciting. And, even today, his self-titled album has a tension in songs like Communication Breakdown that keeps making the hair stand on end.

However, since this first album, the band was accused of musical theft, plagiarism and copyright violation, often justified.

How do you explain Aram Sinnreich, profesor de la American University School of Communication en The Conversation –And as anyone with the slightest ear will recognize– the band’s first album contains several songs that are inspired by previous compositions, arrangements and recordings, sometimes with and often without attribution.

The disc includes two songs by Willie Dixon, which the band attributed to the influential Chicago blues composer (You shook me Y I can´t quit yoy baby). But the band did not give credit to the folk singer of the 50s Anne Bredon for his song Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, which I had previously recorded Joan Baez, in a version blatantly similar to the one signed by Led Zeppelin.

Nor did they recognize that their success Dazed and Confused, also from that first album, which was originally attributed to Jimmy Page, it was actually a recording of the composer Jake Holmes. It was not until 2010, when Holmes filed a lawsuit alleging that he had written and recorded this song in 1967 that a court forced the reissues of the records to specify that the song had been “inspired by” Holmes. Inspired by saying something, because it is practically the same:

On his second album, Led Zeppelin II, the band repeated their plagiaristic formula. After a series of lawsuits, the band agreed to list Dixon as a previously uncredited author on two of the songs, including their first single, Whole Lotta Love, the most famous cut on the record that in 1963, more than five years earlier, had recorded Muddy Waters under the title of You need love.

An additional lawsuit established years later, in 1972, that the blues legend Chester “Howlin ‘Wolf” Burnett was the previously uncredited author of another song called The Lemon Song, that he had recorded as Killing Floor.

The evolution of the concept of plagiarism

The malpractice of Led Zeppelin, ignoring the origin of many of these songs, can be seen today as an outrage, but it must be said that it was a extremely common practice at the time.

The truth is that all the folk revival of the 60s was rooted in an ethic that typically treated musical material as a “common good” a wellspring of shared culture from which everyone can draw, and to which everyone can contribute.

Nobody disputes today the authorship of the songs of Bob Dylan, but all his songs, especially from the early period, are actually a pastiche of earlier tunes, considered traditional but which, without a doubt, someone had to compose. This was always the usual practice of popular music, until it began to be commercialized.

Of course, the racial problem cannot be ignored. As Sinnreich points out, Willie Dixon Y Howlin ‘Wolf’ were African Americans, members of a subjugated minority that, especially back then, she was excluded from reaping her fair share of the huge profits she generated for record companies, publishers, and other artists.

Led Zeppelin did the same as his contemporaries like Eric Clapton O The Rolling Stones that they appropriated a good part of the blues songbook without giving any credit to its authors unless they were caught. They were all pirates.

It is worse to copy and innovate than to copy and not do it / Wikicommons

You can innovate by copying

It has become clear that Led Zeppelin they were about copiots, but that does not mean that his recordings were special: they managed to transform the most classic blues into a new kind of rock, which was truly a pioneer at the time and which was the prelude to the emergence, also in the United Kingdom, of the first heavy metal.

This brings us to the central question: and that is that you can innovate by copying. Ethical issues aside – it’s not okay to steal songs from blacks, something that whites had a hard time learning – the truth is that every song we hear reminds us of another from the past. Every piece of art we see is a variation on an idea someone else had. And all companies, even the most disruptive – as entrepreneurship gurus like to say – are built on technologies and ideas that others developed.

Innovations are often the result of improving on a previous attempt. The key to success may lie in changing your focus, point of view, or adapt innovation to a new audience. Apple didn’t invent computers or mobile phones, it simply raised the bar for innovation by adding small tweaks and creativity to an existing idea.

The ugly thing is not copying, it is not recognizing what was copied. Returning to music, many bands have built their legend on other people’s songs, and it is common to know over time that a song that you have always associated with a group was actually from a previous one.

Much of the repertoire of a mythical band like The Cramps -Not to mention other bands of revival garage later – it is built on versions, many of them by unknown artists whose authorship could have gone unnoticed, but they always insisted on correctly crediting their authors, something that Led Zeppelin refused to do systematically. Sure they innovated, but they could have been more honest.