THE THIEVING MAGPIES:
Jimmy Page's Dubious Recording Legacy
(photo courtesy of Epic Records)
Led Zeppelin: innovators or plagiarists? Jimmy Page: genius or charlatan? Perhaps the question itself is moot. After all, the band no longer exists, having broken up after John Bonham's death in 1980 (and despite a recent seeminly one-off reunion). Further, Led Zeppelin is safely enshrined in the hearts of their fans and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame itself. Is an article examining their appropriation of material an exercise in futility? It's preaching to the choir and the heathens at the same time. The detractors have already made up their minds and the camp followers don't care one iota. If nothing else, though, this piece will give readers an opportunity to track down the recordings that Led Zeppelin "borrowed" from. So, on with the show.
By Will Shade (January 2001, revised March 2008)
Led Zeppelin has long had a reputation for taking music and lyrics from lesser known artists. Many times the songs were never credited to the rightful owners. Consequently, royalties lined the pockets of the millionaire British musicians. Further, their American heroes, often poor and black, never saw a dime from songs they had written before their heirs ever picked up an instrument. Led Zeppelin has been taken to court over the matter on numerous occasions. For an indepth study of Led Zeppelin's penchant for stealing others work, music fans must turn to Page's first band, the Yardbirds.
Although the history of the Yardbirds has been well documented before, a thumbnail sketch of the band will lay the foundation for analyzing Jimmy Page's later behavior. Formed in 1963, the Yardbirds quickly became the darlings of the British R&B circuit. With Eric Clapton on lead guitar, the quintet cranked up the volume and played looser than any of their contemporaries. Songs were stretched out to 30 minute jams. Clapton's furious fretwork was matched by singer Keith Relf's frenetic harp playing. Further, the band boasted one of the loudest rhythm sections in rock 'n roll, with Paul Samwell-Smith on bass and Jim McCarty on the drum stool. Chris Dreja rounded out the fivesome, with his chunky rhythm guitar bolstering Clapton's stinging leads. The Yardbirds, while known as a breeding ground for lead guitarists, were definitely a band. And a tight one at that.
To survive in that era, a band needed a chart topper. The Yardbirds soon turned themselves to that process. Clapton, a blues purist, was unhappy with the band's new direction. After playing on their first pop hit, "For Your Love," he left the band.
Obviously, the Yardbirds were in dire need of a lead guitar player. They approached London's ace session man, Jimmy Page, with an offer to join the band. Page had played on hundreds of studio tracks by such luminaries as Them, the Pretty Things, the Who, the Kinks and other groups that have faded into the mists of time. Amazingly, so obiquitous was Page on the scene that some musicologists have estimated that he appeared on 60% of everything recorded in England between 1963 and 1966. Surely that smacks of hyperbole and is logistically - not to mention humanly - impossible. There is no doubt that many of the songs he lent his guitar to ranks amongst the best work of his entire career, uncredited though they may be. His session work has been compiled numerous times, but it is usually the same tracks recycled ad infinitum and many of them don't do him justice. It would beehove an enterprising label to track down the brilliant 45s and album tracks he worked on that have not shown up on compilations as of yet.
Back to the Yardbirds, though. Page turned their offer down, preferring the steady paycheck from his hack work. Instead he suggested a brilliant, yet mercurial, guitarist named Jeff Beck. Beck and Page had been chums since their schooldays. Jeff Beck joined the Yardbirds for a 22-month rollercoaster ride that many still consider the high point of rock 'n roll electicism. With Jeff Beck, they forged a futuristic sound that culminated in the proto-psychedelic single, "Shapes of Things."
By 1966, Jimmy Page tired of session work. Fortunately for him the Yardbirds were once again in need of his services. Page was brought in to replace departing Yardbird Paul Samwell-Smith. Jimmy Page initially played bass before switching over to lead guitar. Chris Dreja then filled the bassist slot. Needless to say, with Beck and Page on dual lead guitars, the Yardbirds quickly became the greatest rock 'n roll band in the world. They recorded only three songs with this configuration, though. One of those songs, "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago," is the zenith of psychedelia, a nuclear meltdown and aural firestorm masquerading as a pop song.
This lineup was shortlived, however. Within six months, and under mysterious circumstances, a volatile Jeff Beck left the band. The Yardbirds were undaunted and decided to carry on as a quartet. While their subsequent studio work may not be up to the standards laid during the Beck era, the unit was still very capable of creating blistering pyrotechnics on stage.
"Live as a four-piece, when Jimmy was playing guitar, I think those were some of our best shows," Chris Dreja said in an interview with this author.
The Yardbirds, while one of the most innovative bands ever, had always been quick to acknowledge their stone cold blues roots. As an example, their stratospheric adaptation of "I'm A Man" was properly credited to Ellas McDaniel a.k.a. Bo Diddley. The same holds true for a slew of other covers the Yardbirds performed, both on stage and in the studio. This wasn't always true. As an example, a song like "Jeff's Boogie" should have borne the names of Chuck Berry and Arthur Smith in addition to Beck's. Snooky Pryor deserved a nod for "Lost Woman" as well.
The practice became even more prevalent on their final LP, 1967's "Little Games," which was Page's sole album with the group during their existence. It contained a number of traditional songs that the Yardbirds' names appeared on. Consequently, royalties wouldn't go to the American blues artists responsible for the songs, but rather to the English musicians themselves.
The Little Games album track "Drinking Muddy Water" was a rewrite of the Muddy Waters' tune "Rolling and Tumbling." Muddy Waters' version itself was a pastiche of many earlier blues numbers. In cases like this, it is customary to list the song as "traditional; arrangement by John Doe." Yet the Yardbirds version was credited to Dreja, McCarty, Page and Relf. The same goes for "Stealing, Stealing," a song usually ascribed to the Will Shade's Memphis Jug Band (yes, that's where I nicked my nom de guerre!). Some of these lyrics are also traditional. Once again, various Yardbirds were listed as responsible for writing the song with no mention being made of the original black musicians. The irony is obvious in stealing a song of that name. Further, why would one even want their moniker on a piece of hokum like "Stealing, Stealing"?
"Smile On Me" was another song where the credits aren't quite kosher, so to speak. Authorship is given to Dreja, McCarty, Page, and Relf, but the song is basically a rewrite of two earlier blues songs. Jim McCarty was quick to point this out in an interview with this author in 2001. Asked if it was based on an earlier Yardbirds song, "Rack My Mind," McCarty didn't hesitate in acknowledging the song's lineage.
"Yeah, and 'All Your Love,' too, the Otis Rush tune," he said.
In all fairness, "Rack My Mind" (which appears on the Roger the Engineer album) was a xerox of "Baby Scratch My Back" usually credited to J. Moore a.k.a. Slim Harpo. Beck, Dreja, McCarty, Relf and Samwell-Smith helped themselves to the songwriting credits on "Rack My Mind," though.
Interestingly, another Little Games album track, the modish "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor" opens with a progression that Page would later use as the opening chords on Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains The Same."
The highlight of the "Little Games" album is Page's solo acoustic showcase, "White Summer." With its Eastern tuning and dazzling fretwork, this tune has long been regarded as one of his finest performances. And rightly so. Curiously, the song is credited to Jimmy Page. However, it is a traditional English folk song called "She Moves Through The Fair." Many British artists had previously covered the song, including Davey Graham. Graham, along with English folk guitarist Bert Jansch, was one of Page's major acoustic influences. Coincidence? The song should be listed as "traditional; arrangment by Graham/Page," but it is credited to the Yardbird guitarist alone.
Perhaps citing these songs is nothing but an excercise in semantics. After all, putting your name on traditional tunes is nothing new. Take the legendary patriarch of country music, A.P. Carter, as an example. Through the early part of the 20th century he and his kin scoured Appalachia, copyrighting dozens of centuries old tunes that had their origins in the British Isles. To this day an ancient song like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" is credited to A.P. Carter. Those in the know just chuckle and say "Well, A.P. had the smarts to put his name on it before anybody else." However, the last great Yardbirds tune was most definitely not a traditional song, but was written by a contemporary musician. Jimmy Page was to take this song with him to his next band, Led Zeppelin.
On August 25, 1967 the Yardbirds caught an acoustic act fronted by Jake Holmes at the Village Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village. Holmes and his two sidemen played a song about a love affair gone dreadfully wrong. The song was called "Dazed & Confused." It's often been described as a song about a bad acid trip. Jake Holmes set this author straight in a 2001 interview.
"No, I never took acid. I smoked grass and tripped on it, but I never took acid. I was afraid to take it. The song's about a girl who hasn't decided whether she wants to stay with me or not. It's pretty much one of those love songs," Holmes explained.
Asked whether he remembered opening for the Yardbirds, Holmes laughed.
"Yes. Yes. And that was the infamous moment of my life when 'Dazed & Confused' fell into the loving arms and hands of Jimmy Page," he said.
With its descending bass line, jittery lyrics and dramatic caesuras, the Yardbirds knew they were onto something. The very next day Jim McCarty bought Holmes' album, The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes.
"We played with Jake in New York and I was struck by the atmosphere of 'Dazed and Confused.' I went down to Greenwich Village and bought his album and we decided to do a version," McCarty said. "We worked it out together with Jimmy contributing the guitar riffs in the middle. Don't you think he's the riff-master?"
Apparently, Page also bought the album the same day. According to Yardbirds historian Greg Russo, a certain John Alusick witnessed Jimmy Page purchasing it at Bleecker Bob's Record Store on Bleecker Street. The Yardbirds quickly set about adapting the song that had captured their collective imagination.
Yardbirds singer Keith Relf tinkered with the lyrics while drummer Jim McCarty and Jimmy Page expanded the song structure itself. The song stuck to the original arrangment until the bridge. Even at this point, the fret-tapping acknowledged Holmes' original. Then Page threw in some eerie effects, bowing his guitar like a violin. Whereas a violin's neck is curved, a guitar neck is flat. Consequently, Page was only able to bow a couple strings at a time to produce an bizzare melody. When he bowed all six strings, the effect was startling. Strange moaning and whooping sounds were produced. This was a gimmick he had incorporated into his bag of tricks back in his studio days. He had first used it on two tracks on the Little Games LP, "Glimpses" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor."
Page was not the first guitarist to use a violin bow. He was a favorite session musician of famed producer, Shel Talmy. Talmy had used Page on session work for the Who and the Kinks among others. One of Talmy's pet projects was a band called the Creation. Eddie Phillips, lead guitarist of said group, had employed a violin bow on his guitar on two 1966 singles, "Painter Man" and "Making Time." It's worth musing over whether Page ever happened to see Phillips use the violin bow in the studio.
Talmy himself had no doubts about it. In the book, Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll, he shared his views on Eddie Phillips and Jimmy Page with author Richie Unterberger.
"He [Phillips] was one of the most innovative guitarists I've ever run across. Jimmy Page stole the bowing bit of the guitar from Eddie. Eddie was phenomenal," Talmy said.
Page himself has claimed he didn't meet Eddie Phillips until Jim McCarty's 50th birthday party in 1994. Further, and to be fair, there are also pictures of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett using a violin bow in concert. Eddie Phillips' underrated guitar work is now widely available with the reissue of the Creation's entire recorded legacy in the late '90s. Further, the movie, Rushmore, includes "Making Time" on the soundtrack.
There is a noticeable difference in the two guitar players' approach, however. Phillips' violin bowing is organic, much more integrated into the song structure itself. During "Making Time," his bowing sounds very similiar to feedback. When Page utilizes the effect, though, the song comes to a halt, with all attention being focused on the bowing. In "Dazed and Confused," Page followed up the violin bowing with a furious spitfire solo which he had lifted from the flipside of the Yardbirds' last single, "Goodnight Sweet Josephine" b/w "Think About It."
The Yardbirds' version of "Dazed and Confused" became their dramatic showstopper. They played it for the final six months of their existence. It was never heard outside the concert circuit until Epic Records released Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page in 1971. Epic had taped a show at New York City's Anderson Theatre in the spring of 1968, during the Yardbirds final American tour. When the band heard the masters several days later, they decided that Epic should not release it as an album.
By 1971, Led Zeppelin was a colossal success and Epic obviously hoped to ride on their coattails. The track in question was erroneously called "I'm Confused" on the LP, a title the band never used. Nevertheless, Page quickly gained a court injunction and the album was withdrawn from the market. He cited the fact that Epic had overdubbed crowd noises on the original tracks. Further, he was dissatisifed with the band's original performance. In an interview from the spring of 1999, Jim McCarty revealed that he had no problem with the band's performance.
"The Anderson Theatre show I didn't think was too bad- Jimmy says Keith had a bad night," McCarty said. "I think it was more a case of doing 'Dazed and Confused' pre-Zeppelin that made him withdraw it."
Page also had the LP withdrawn in 1975. It is still easily available as a bootleg and was remastered and distributed on CD by Mooreland Street Records in 2000. Once again, Page stepped in and forced its withdrawal from the marketplace.
How was Jimmy Page able to wield this clout, seeing as how he was the the last member to join the Yardbirds? Interestingly, there is a myth that he talked the other members of the Yardbirds into selling him the rights to the band's very name just before their final dissolution in the summer of 1968. More on that subject in a moment.
Contrary to rumors, the Yardbirds never did lay down a studio version of “Dazed and Confused." However, there was one last studio session in April 1968, which figures into the scheme of things shortly.
The Yardbirds' live take on "Dazed and Confused" certainly outshines Led Zeppelin's studio and live versions. Jim McCarty's drumming is much more fluid than John Bonham's, propelling the song along at breakneck speed. Further, Keith Relf's frantic harmonica bleats on the tune is not matched by Robert Plant's hamster-with-its-ass-on-fire caterwauling. In the hands of the Yardbirds, the song is a psychedelic masterpiece, not the metal monstrosity that Led Zeppelin performed.
Much later, Led Zeppelin's live version would incorporate another Yardbirds song into "Dazed and Confused." Page quotes the main riff to "Happenings Ten Years Time Ago" during the bow solo on Led Zeppelin's live album, The Song Remains the Same. It does indeed.
See Part Two of this article
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