2016 Edmonton Fringe Review: Led Zeppelin Was a Cover Band

Led Zeppelin recently made international news by winning a court case about the origins of "Stairway to Heaven".

The music industry, still reeling from the Blurred Lines verdict, will be relieved, said Larry Iser, a lawyer and copyright specialist who was not involved in either case. “Today’s verdict is a vindication of copyright, which only protects an original expression of music.” Led Zeppelin showed that the disputed chord progression was a common building block of classical and popular music dating back centuries, he said.
That notion, that Zeppelin was just building on the musical influences of the past, is the primary thesis of Zeppelin Was a Cover Band, a one-man show by Montreal's Stéfan Cédilot. Cédilot begins by reciting the history of Led Zeppelin's formation, from Jeff Beck joining the New Yardbirds after Jimmy Page turned it down, to the hiring of John Bonham and the infamous Keith Moon conversation that possibly never happened. Once Zeppelin formed though, Cédilot isn't interested much in the band itself: not the famous Page and Plant disagreements and reconciliations, not the loss of John Bonham, not the endless reunion rumours. From the formation to the present day, it's only about the music...and the musical influences.

As noted, the general thesis of the play is "Zeppelin didn't write most of their songs and we shouldn't expect them too." This open admission of copyright theft is a touchy one: unlike far-left extremist Pete Seeger the white boys from 'Zep don't get lionized (pun intended) for re-recording songs made by poor American blacks. There's a strong torrent in today's racially-charged society that these black artists deserved their share of the pie. Willie Dixon successfully sued Zeppelin for a chunk of that "Whole Lotta Love" money, and Howlin' Wolf got $45,123 for "The Lemon Song". However, Cédilot discounts that notion and "The Lemon Song" provides a great example of it. Howlin' Wolf wrote a song called "Killing Floor" which Led Zeppelin borrowed the tune from to make "The Lemon Song". However, "Killing Floor" doesn't mention lemon juice at all: the lyrics came from Robert Johnson's "Travelling Riverside Blues" which Robert Johnson wrote in...no, just kidding. Black blues legend Robert Johnson stole many of the lyrics from a song called "She Squeezed My Lemon" by Roosevelt Sykes. In fact, despite Zeppelin recording a "cover" of "Travelling Riverside Blues" it actually is a "version", which stole less of Johnson's original song than the original song itself stole from another blues artist.

For a good chunk in the middle of the play, Zeppelin almost takes a backseat to the history of blues/gospel/rhythm n' blues music as Cédilot defends (or at least lays in detail) the practice of "stealing" music. "In My Time of Dying" from the 1975 Physical Graffiti album is controversial for having writing credits to Zeppelin's four members despite Bob Dylan recording the song in 1962. But, of course, Bob Dylan didn't write it either. Josh White recorded it in 1933, but White also didn't write it. In 1929 Charlie Patton performed it, Blind Willie Johnson recorded it in 1927, but he stole large chunks of it from Reverend J.C. Burnett's 1926 song "Jesus Is Going to Make Up Your Dying Bed". While Burnett may (but probably didn't) have written parts of the tune, it's an even older gospel song of unknown origin and refer to Psalms 41:3 and despite what some 70s rockers might tell you, Led Zeppelin did not write the Holy Bible.

Throughout the play, Cédilot strips down physically (he starts in a nerdy tweed jacket, and eventually pulls off his dress shirt to reveal a Zeppelin tee underneath) as he strips back the origins of various Zeppelin songs. "Gallows Pole" was a cover of the 1939s Lead Belly song...but Lead Belly stole the song from...white people! The original "version" of the lyrics comes from "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" which dates back centuries. This is the strongest current of Cédilot's argument: that every couple three generations a song has to be re-done and re-"released" in order to be remembered into the future. He sort of ignores the differences caused by the recording era, which is a shame. He doesn't even pay lip service to the fact that a song from 1827 being "redone" by a band in 1875 is necessary for its survival in the cultural landscape, while a song from 1927 being redone in 1975 isn't. As a result, his argument suffers.

But this isn't just a musicology essay, it's a dramatic work in its own right: playing blues standards and Zeppelin tunes and playing "spot the similarities and influences", realizing that we can't enforce a "your copyright is sacrosanct" when it comes to Muddy Waters without extending the same courtesy to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and then back to whoever she "stole" from before recorded music existed. As the play winds down, Cédilot just starts up with the air guitar and explaining (whitesplaining?) that Zeppelin's versions are just better. Whatever the music's origin, Led Zeppelin was at the forefront of a new style of music: they mixed their albums in a new and nontraditional style. They recorded 3-8 minute versions of centuries-old slave work songs that typically only were a minute or so long and introduced music to a wider audience. They ultimately were later "stole/adapted" when Puff Daddy remixed "Kashmir" with his rap beats. They sang about Tolkien and dead 5-year olds.

And they fucking rocked.

The play moves at generally a good clip, and Cédilot's passion shines through. While he doesn't expand on some of the legitimate issues brought up by Zeppelin's copying in the recording era, and he riffs on the relatively ridiculous Spirit lawsuit without mentioning the numerous other and more successful ones, it's an entertaining foray into the world of music and might open a few eyes about the role of influence in music even as it leaves open the question of when that influence can be monetized. If you're a music fan, Zeppelin Was a Cover Band is a play worth a watch.

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