Plagiarism and song theft have become so interwoven into the fabric of contemporary music that they barely register outrage anymore.
Almost all popular music can be said to “owe a debt” to the past, of course, and as long as that debt is acknowledged, it’s not a problem. In fact, what creative person, in visual arts, literature, and music, can’t be said to be “standing on the shoulders of giants” who came before them? With that said, today’s musical landscape is nothing but thievery, often blatant, with hip-hop being the musical equivalent of a car-jacking (hey, is that James Brown I hear in the back seat and Gil-Scott Heron and the Last Poets tied up in the trunk?).
In the more distant realms of rock & roll, the memory banks house similar chicanery. It is generally accepted, for instance, that Led Zeppelin is the Barry Bonds of rock & roll song theft. The band—and particularly Jimmy Page—has been accused of pilfering from Jake Holmes (“Dazed and Confused”), Willie Dixon (“Whole Lotta Love”), Howlin’ Wolf (“The Lemon Song”), Moby Grape (“Since I’ve Been Loving You”) and Bert Jansch (“Black Mountain Side”), among many others. It’s not so much the rip-offs that rankle, but the fact that on many of the pilfered songs, Page and Plant credited themselves as the songwriters and received the royalties that rightfully belonged elsewhere.
The most blatant Page-theft might have been from the American psychedelic band Spirit, whose “Taurus” can be found note-for-note in the instrumental introduction of “Stairway to Heaven,” arguably Zep’s best-known song. “Taurus” appeared on Spirit’s self-titled debut album, released in 1968 on the Ode Records label.
Although Led Zep was accused of the Willie Dixon theft for “Whole Lotta Love,” the Small Faces (pre-Rod Stewart) snatched Dixon’s tune first, for their 1966 song “You Need Loving.” Come to think of it, Steve Marriott’s shrieking vocals might have been “borrowed” by Robert Plant for Led Zeppelin’s 1969 version. Oh well. Takes one to know one.
George Harrison would seem to be a man above reproach. His thievery—the melody from the doo-wop hit “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons for his signature song “My Sweet Lord”—led to a protracted copyright infringement lawsuit. “He’s So Fine” was written by Ronald Mack and released as a single by the Chiffons in 1962. Allegedly, Harrison was inspired to borrow the melody from Delaney Bramlett, who claims to have strummed it on a guitar backstage at a concert while the former Beatle chanted “my sweet lord, oh my lord.” Bramlett, no stranger to mendacity, later heard Harrison’s single “My Sweet Lord,” and sought partial songwriting credit and a portion of the royalties. Alas, Bramlett scuttled off into obscurity while Harrison faced the lawsuit alone. Receiving terrible legal advice from former Beatles manager Allen Klein (par for the course for Klein), Harrison was eventually forced to pay the original publishing company more than half a million dollars, some of which Klein himself pocketed.
“Hey Joe” is, of course, familiar to anyone who ever started a band as a kid–three chords, easy-to-remember lyrics, instant ominous vibe. The song was registered at the Library of Congress Copyright Office in 1962 by a marginal folkie named Billy Roberts. Roberts was just one of several people who claim to have written the song. Tim Rose insisted he wrote it, as did Roberts’ former girlfriend Niela Miller. (The truth is likely that nobody really wrote “Hey Joe”; it seems to have evolved from traditional folk-blues-country roots music). While the Leaves’ cover (their third released version) came closest to being a hit single (reaching #31 on the charts in 1966), several other memorable versions have been released, the best-known by Jimi Hendrix. Among other versions were by Wilson Pickett, the Standells, Love, the Byrds, The Music Machine, Sons of Adam, Fever Tree, Marmalade, Deep Purple, Willy DeVille and (yes) Cher.
But here’s the real thievery of “Hey, Joe.” File this under “turnabout is fair play.” Billy Roberts met Chet Powers, a veteran folk singer when the latter was in San Quentin State Prison on a drug charge. To pay his legal fees, Powers had earlier sold the rights to his own song “Get Together” (for $100 to the manager of the Kingston Trio) and was in desperate straits. Roberts was at the prison as part of the Johnny Cash entourage. Somehow, Powers convinced Roberts to transfer the rights to “Hey Joe” to him. Powers then used the fact that he was a working musician to gain his parole. After that, Powers changed his name to Dino Valenti (later to front the Quicksilver Messenger Service) and pounded the pavement to peddle “Hey Joe” to the Los Angeles music industry. It worked, to some degree, and offset the loss of boatloads of cash when his song “Get Together” became a hit for the Youngbloods and one of the signature songs of the hippie era.
Willy DeVille “Hey Joe”
Though it took many years for them to actually meet—at a Bridge School benefit concert in 2009 — Bert Jansch and Neil Young were kindred spirits. Young had long revered Jansch, the great acoustic blues-jazz-folk-rock guitarist for Pentangle. In Shakey, Jimmy McDonough’s biography of Young, he confesses to having copped his hero’s guitar riffs for his own songs. Young told McDonough, “I always feel bad I stole the melody [to “Ambulance Blues”] from Bert Jansch. You ever heard that song “The Needle of Death”? I loved that melody. I didn’t realize “Ambulance Blues” starts exactly the same. I knew that it sounded like something that he did, but when I went back and heard that record again I realized I copped his thing. I felt really bad about that. Because here’s a guy who’ll never play guitar as good as this guy. Never!”
As it turns out, Jansch harbored no ill will toward Young. In an interview with this writer the year before his death, Jansch said, “It was only the one opening part that he used; it’s really no problem at all with me. I never thought anything of it with Neil. In fact, when I played the Bridge School benefit last year he asked me to play with him on ‘Ambulance Blues.’ He had to show me the chords and we rehearsed the song for about ten minutes before we went on stage. The idea that he nicked anything from me for that song is, well, Neil is his own man, put it that way.”