Sunday, August 26, 2012

Musical Transformations: Boogie With Stu

This week’s theme made me think about plagiarism. I’m not an expert on intellectual property, although I am professionally involved in matters concerning trade secrets and confidential information. As a music fan, I know that the issue of plagiarism has always been a concern. Mozart was not the first who was accused of it, and a popular Broadway show and movie explored that. George Harrison was found liable by a court for “subconsciously” copying another song. Sampling has raised concerns about stealing, and it is only getting harder to figure out what can and can’t be done now that pretty much all music is now available in easily manipulated electronic form.
In any event, it is hard to listen to almost any song and not recognize influences from other songs. It is clear that you can’t simply take a song, in total, and put your name on it, at least without getting permission (a “cover”). After that, it is all a matter of degree, and whether you get accused of plagiarism.
Led Zeppelin is one of the great rock bands. Their influence and popularity cannot be denied, and I love them. I saw them at Madison Square Garden in 1977, and it was an incredible show, even if critics say it was far from their best tour, and they actually messed up “Stairway to Heaven” (if I recall, Bonham came in early). They have also been accused of plagiarism many times. Of course, using classic blues riffs has always happened, but Zeppelin went a bit too far, too often. Google it, if you are interested, and you will find a great deal of discussion on this topic.
“Boogie With Stu” was a jam recorded in 1971 featuring Led Zeppelin augmented by Ian Stewart, a piano player best known for his work with another pretty famous band, the Rolling Stones. It is very obviously a version, of sorts, of Ritchie Valens’ “Ooh, My Head.” The band didn’t try to hide their “influence,” to be charitable, even including “ooh, my head,” in the lyrics. It also may be that they were just goofing around in the studio and never expected to release the song, but when they decided to add it to “Physical Graffiti, the writing credit was "Page/Plant/Jones/Bonham/Ian Stewart/Mrs. Valens.” This was, apparently, an attempt to give Valens’ mother a credit and some royalties.

That was not enough for Valens’ publishing company, which sued for copyright infringement, and an out-of-court settlement was reached.
The irony is that Valens’ song itself appears to “borrow” heavily from Little Richard’s earlier song, “Ooh! My Soul.” And was Robert Plant aware of this, when he mentioned, in “Boogie With Stu,” “tutti-frutti,” the title of another Little Richard song?

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