A not-so-secret history of Led Zeppelin’s “influences”
Sixteen years after his disappearance in a riptide off Molokai, L.A.-born singer-songwriter Randy Wolfe may get a shot at recognition, if not rock ‘n’ roll immortality. That Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” might not be wholly the creation of its accredited author is only part of a tale told ‘round the heavy meta campfire for decades. How the man who Jimi Hendrix renamed Randy California fits into the story requires digression into the stubborn anti-mythology of what many call “the World’s Richest Cover Band.”
Led Zeppelin emerged from the rubble of the Yardbirds, lynchpin of the first British blues boom when Eric Clapton at the helm and one of the world’s first psychedelic rock acts under his successor Jeff Beck. Beck left the Yardbirds in 1966 and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Page occupied the lead guitar chair through Little Games, a band-killing attempt at pop crossover. After the original group disintegrated, Page and pickup members Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham continued to tour as the New Yardbirds until enjoined to stop. The story goes Zep’s name came from offhand remarks variously attributed to Keith Moon and/or John Entwistle of the Who.
It’s fair to say 1969’s Led Zeppelin is a landmark in the evolution of the rock LP. It’s also fair to say many of the “original” songs on it owe serious debts to other artists. Anne Bredon had to wait until 1990 to get her name on “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” even though she was the uncredited author of the 1962 Joan Baez original. An honest mistake perhaps, but one that illustrates the band’s penchant for copywriting work they didn’t do. Worse, “Dazed and Confused” bears a noticeable resemblance to a 1967 joint of the exact same title by future jingle-writer Jake Holmes. A Page-era Yardbirds version bears an even more pronounced likeness. Fans of genius U.K. folk guitarist Bert Jansch have fumed for years over Page’s alleged use of the former’s 1966 arrangement of the traditional Irish song “Blackwaterside” for Zep’s “Black Mountain Side.” Page since admitted to having been “obsessed” with Jansch’s music. “How Many More Times,” signed by Page, Jones and Bonham, contains lyrics chiseled nearly whole from R&B legend Albert King’s oft–covered “The Hunter.”
To be fair, some oft-aired plagiarism claims made against this album are easily debunked. Page’s recycling of his own material from “Beck’s Bolero” on “How Many More Times” was more of a dick move than larceny. “Communication Breakdown” is a suitably rip-roaring Eddie Cochran pastiche that doesn’t really sound like “Nervous Breakdown.” Similarities between the openings of “Your Time is Gonna Come” and Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” are unusually well hidden compared to the borrowings elsewhere.
On subsequent albums, however, LZ’s help-yourself habits would become apparent. Zep coughed up a co-writing credit over Plant’s use of Willie Dixon’s lyrics from“You Need Love” on Led Zeppelin II’s standout “Whole Lotta Love.” Plant’s excuse? “You only get caught when you’re successful.” Discernible elements of several notable blues records, especially Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” somehow wound up in “The Lemon Song.” Charges Led Zeppelin III’s “Hats off to (Roy) Harper” is an uncredited rewrite of a 1937 Bukka White tune stand up well to side-by-side comparison.
There’s also the bizarre allegation Plant outsourced lyrics from the 1968 Moby Grape obscurity “Never” for “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” also off Led Zeppelin III. I sincerely hope songwriter Bob Mosley got something out of Plant’s acknowledged love of the Grape. I used to see Mosley wandering downtown La Jolla ragged and jabbering to himself and he looked like he could’ve used the money. Off Physical Graffiti, “Boogie with Stu” is a close enough match for Ritchie Valens’ “Ooh! My Head” for Zep to give up another co-credit. Presence contains a brilliant uncredited rewrite of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” a 1927 gospel-blues song by Blind Willie Johnson. The above examples are by no means an exhaustive list of the band’s actual and purported borrowings.
I can hear the objections now- “All art is theft!” “All music is remix!” “All rock ‘n’ roll is stolen from Chuck Berry!” Such arguments sound good shouted at parties but shift limited weight with judges. Others dump Led Zeppelin’s plagiarism problem on Robert Plant’s magpie way with lyrics, but that doesn’t explain the business with Bredon and Holmes among others.
Shielding the Jimmy Page myth runs into serious trouble with the Internet, talk radio, pop-culture ephemera, ever-widening knowledge and appreciation of the late Bert Jansch and the 2007 CD reissue of “The Above-Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes, which contains a few nice moments of proto-Zep posturing apart from the shocking swipe of “Dazed and Confused.” Holmes sued in 2011 and the song’s credits read “Inspired by Jake Holmes” on the 2012 Celebration Day live set. There’s something wonderful in the idea of Jimmy-the-genius taking bows for Zep’s second most-popular track with the guy who wrote the “Be All You Can Be” jingle for the U.S. Army.
In light of the foregoing, arguments Led Zeppelin’s most popular song can’t possibly have anything to do with the plaintive middle section of a tune its composer played in front of Zep’s faces when his band performed with Zep on five occasions in 1968-9 begin to sound a little strained.
This is where Randy California comes in. After a stint with Hendrix in Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, this boy-wonder guitarist became a mainstay of the Sixties psychedelic rock band Spirit while still in his teens. Remembered by an unusually tenacious cult, Spirit released four studio albums from 1968 to 1970 combining jazz, garage-rock, hippie optimism and post-Sgt. Pepper acidhead orchestrations into intriguing patterns still pleasing to connoisseurs. If rock fans remember them at all, it’s for their exuberant 1968 summertime hit “I Got a Line on You” and their final LP Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, a proto-Dark Side of the Moon cult item that stayed on the Billboard Albums chart for years after the band’s breakup. Led Zeppelin was so taken with Spirit’s moody environmental protest song “Fresh-Garbage” (off the L.A. band’s self-titled debut), they made it part of their live repertoire with surprisingly lousy results.
Here is “Taurus,” Randy’s only solo writing credit on that same album. An instrumental, the track is a foretaste of Spirit’s sunshine-creepy score for Jacques Demy’s 1969 cult movie The Model Shop –
Pretty, isn’t it? That middle bit sounded familiar the first time I heard it too, ‘way back in 1993 when a copy of Spirit’s two CD comp Time Circle (1968-1972) wound up in a cut-out bin near me. Suddenly all those old hippie stories about Led Zep ripping off music began to make sense.
It makes you wonder. “Stairway” is the crown jewel of Led Zeppelin’s catalog and arguably the greatest rock song of all time. Page called it the “gem of the album” and the song was considered sacrosanct for years. A novelty record titled “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway)” got some airplay in the late Seventies before being suppressed. Robert Plant is supposedly weary of singing of bustles in hedgerows, but the public isn’t tired of hearing it. The band’s most fervent admirers are now in the ludicrous position of forgiving Led Zeppelin their sins because, well, they’re Led Zeppelin.
Vernon Silver at Bloomberg Businessweek asked “What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?” before answering with the obvious: “You’d need to rewrite the history of rock ’n’ roll.” A rewrite of rock history is a long-overdue project in any event and if the mere legend of Led Zeppelin suffers infinitesimally thereby, so be it. The stupendous musicianship on their records is safe, no matter which or how many songwriters are credited.
Speaking of legacy, Silver also informs us most of the composer’s share of any payout would go to the Randy California Project, which teaches music to the children of Ventura county.