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Rock & Roll’s Anxiety of Influence

Greta Van Fleet are the latest in a long line of bands slagged for obvious musical borrowing. But is sounding like an earlier act really such a bad thing? Experts weigh in

Greta Van Fleet and Led Zeppelin

As rising rockers Greta Van Fleet receive praise and scorn for their Led Zeppelin–y sound, we look back at the genre's anxiety of influence.

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It’s unlikely that Greta Van Fleet singer Josh Kiszka woke up this morning troubled by all the accusations that he’s copy-and-pasted Robert Plant’s vocal style. Or that his bandmates are too fazed by Pitchfork pegging them as Led Zeppelin–aping hacks in a scathing review of their new debut, Anthem of the Peaceful Army. The album debuted in the Top Five, and many of the shows on a world tour supporting the LP have already sold out. Besides, accusations of shameless musical pilfering have long been a rock & roll rite of passage. 

The media compares most bands who reach a certain level, often in their early career but certainly sometimes later too, to other bands. At this point, it’s standard practice. And an efficient if potentially lazy way to describe a band: [insert band name] sounds like “Big Star meets Television” or their music evokes “Joni Mitchell jamming with Kraftwerk.” And so on. Some fans talk like this too.

“It’s a primitive, instinctual thing for people to take one thing and create parallels to better identify with something they don’t initially understand,” Greta Van Fleet guitarist Jake Kiszka recently told Rolling Stone. “I find myself being guilty of that as well. Throughout listening to an entire song, I’ll hyper-analyze it and say, ‘It kinda sounds like that and kinda sounds like that,’ and by the end of the song I’ve beaten it to death.”

But what’s a point of reference for many acts can become a career-long label or even millstone for a few, particularly artists whose music exudes undeniable similarity to a previous artist’s sound. And not every band with sleeve-worn influences gets stuck with this. Sometimes who does or doesn’t get labeled a rip-off feels somewhat arbitrary. Of course, other times it’s obvious why some bands get dinged, like Greta Van Fleet. Although to their credit, GVF echo Houses of the Holy and Led Zeppelin III more than the much-pilfered Led Zeppelin II and IV.

Consider the Black Crowes. Their 1990 debut, Shake Your Money Maker, contained blues-rock tunes like “Jealous Again,” “Twice as Hard,” “She Talks to Angels” and that electrifying, career-goosing cover of Otis Redding’s R&B nugget “Hard to Handle.” The throwback sound earned the Crowes plenty of fans, props from rock legends like Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and eventual multi-platinum status. There were plenty of positive reviews. Black Crowes were cited as Rolling Stone‘s Best New Band in both fan and critics polls for 1991. But there was also negative criticism of the band, because the early Crowes sound was very reminiscent of Seventies Rolling Stones, Faces and Humble Pie.

“We weren’t surprised that people drew Stones and Faces comparisons and they should’ve,” Crowes drummer Steve Gorman says. “You put the record on and it’s all right there.” There’s a reason for that, though. Gorman says the band, who were also fans of groups like R.E.M. and the Replacements, “spent a year obsessing over the Stones” before making their debut. “We made a record that we loved.”

Throughout the Crowes’ 20-plus year career that followed, Stones comparisons would frequently crop up even in positive coverage. Early on, the comparisons were relentless. “We never tried to act like we didn’t love everything about the Stones,” Gorman says. “But as much as we had that perspective, within a few months we were sick of it. It’s like, ‘Yeah, fucking get over it. At least we have good taste.’ At some point, and for us probably earlier than in a lot of bands, we very genuinely could say, ‘OK, that doesn’t matter.’ It serves no purpose to get great or bad reviews, because that doesn’t change what we’re doing any iota.” 

Of all factors that tend to make a band more susceptible to being labeled a rip-off, lead-vocal similarities may be the biggest one. After all, vocal performances and melodies are what draw many listeners in. “People sing along to records,” says record producer and film music supervisor George Drakoulias. “You go, [mimics Robert Plant singing style] ‘Way down inside’ more than you go [imitates Jimmy Page’s “Whole Lotta Love” riff] ‘da-na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na-na-na.'” 

This reflects singers’ outsized importance in rock music in general, according to pop-culture critic Chuck Klosterman. “It’s similar to the fact that a canonical rock band can replace the bassist, or they can replace the drummer, or they can even replace the lead guitarist and people that like that band will accept that,” he says.

Interestingly, when it comes to perceived mimicry of Plant’s Zeppelin singing, this becomes most noticeable during non-verbal screams or “ma-ma-ma-mama”/”oh yeah” type vocal ad libs. Actual verse and chorus singing by accused Plant clones like Josh Kiszka and Whitesnake singer David Coverdale — while undoubtedly similar in style to the Zep great — reveal clear differences in tone and personality. Kiszka, for example, isn’t as bluesy as Plant and lands in a tonal zip code somewhere between Ronnie James Dio and early Geddy Lee. That said, the feel and phrasing of some singers, like say Billy Squier on his 1981 hit “Lonely Is the Night” is uncannily Plant-like. The 1989 MTV hit “Wait for You” by the group Bonham also comes to mind here, but since Zep skinsman John Bonham’s son Jason Bonham was behind the kit, the style was legitimately in the band’s blood. New Orleans band Zebra’s leafy 1983 cut “Who’s Behind The Door” gets an honorable mention in the Most Zeppelin-Like Musical Arrangement category. 

Heart’s initial Seventies albums contained some of the most strikingly well-executed Zep-isms ever: guitars, production, arrangements and particularly Ann Wilson’s amazing vocals. And while Heart has certainly received Zeppelin comparisons positive and negative during their career, they’re not mentioned as Zep clones nearly as often as, say, Whitesnake or Eighties act Kingdom Come (a.k.a. “Kingdom Clone” because of their “Kashmir” cop “Get It On”), even though early Heart is the more accurate, accomplished Led Zeppelin offspring.

Know who else probably isn’t fretting about “Led Zeppelin clone” accusations right this very moment? David Coverdale. Once slagged as “David Cover Version” by Robert Plant himself, Coverdale has since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same number of times Plant has: once. OK, Coverdale’s induction was for his mid-Seventies Deep Purple stint, and it seems highly unlikely the hall would ever fete Whitesnake. Still, more than 30 years on, Whitesnake hits like “Here I Go Again” and “Still of The Night”, the song responsible for many of those “Zep clone” accusations, are now era-defining arena-metal classics.

Overall, the very idea of slagging any band as a Zeppelin clone is ironic, since Page and Plant were never shy about their own musical rip-off jobs.

When it comes to this type of criticism, though, bands are frequently judged according to the nature of their borrowing. Rip off a mega-band, and you’re more likely to come under fire, but nod to a cult favorite, and you might actually garner praise.

“People love to hear new bands where they feel as though they’re the only ones seeing the influences,” Klosterman says. “In other words, if somebody liked Nirvana and they said, ‘You know there are parts of this that remind me of a Pixies record,’ it’s almost like a compliment to the listener. They figured this out. But in this case [of Greta Van Fleet], everybody can figure it out. So, the kind of self-reward of understanding or citing the influence doesn’t really exist, which is of course, for people who write about music, the ability to pick those influences out is a big part of the job and a big part of the illustration that you’re informed. Let’s say Greta Van Fleet sounded almost exactly like the [Seventies blues-rock] band Cactus. If they sound exactly like Cactus, people would be charmed by it. For no other reason than recognizing that connection is like a compliment to one’s self.”

If it’s a mega-band that’s being channeled, there can also be a built-in assumption that the purposes for doing so are partially commercial. “But if the band you’re ripping off was never that big, people don’t care as much,” Klosterman says. There are exceptions to this rule, sure. For example, the early-2000s band Interpol caught slack for their Joy Division-isms. And there are certainly examples of groups frequently compared to mega-bands and still critically acclaimed, such as grunge-gods Soundgarden, whose album reviews often included Zeppelin references. In the Seventies, music writers certainly noted (and sometimes cracked on) the Dylan-ish vowel-stretching by then-new artists Dire Straits and Tom Petty, but hardly to the point of obsession or legacy detriment. Curiously, Greta Van Fleet trashers Pitchfork have given positive reviews to some contemporary artists who bear more than a passing sonic resemblance to music giants Michael Jackson (The Weeknd) and Elton John (Father John Misty, especially on his Pure Comedy LP).

Rip-off accusations can be mitigated if an artist, as Kurt Cobain did with his Pixies fixation, readily cops to the influence in the press. Of course, it also helped Nirvana wrote very strong, very successful songs. “A strong song trumps everything,” says writer and former MTV News anchor Kurt Loder, via email. Loder adds, “Bearing similarities to another band isn’t always a minus, especially if it’s unintentional, and most especially if your music has obvious virtues of its own. In the wake of the Ramones, approximately 10,000 bands on both sides of the Atlantic leaped onto the scene with boatloads of copycat loud-and-fast. But a lot of these bands’ records sounded great anyway, because the Ramones’ style was so exciting in itself.” This tally would include groups like the Buzzcocks, the Dickies, the Rezillos, the Saints, etc. — even the Replacements, whose “first album was pretty Ramonesy,” Loder says.

The more uncut those primary influences are perceived to be, the more intense the rip-off accusations. At least on their debut LP and two 2017 EPs, Greta Van Fleet sounds approximately 92 percent Zep. The bare-chested-banshee vocals; snaky, stutter-step guitars; the jazzy, fluid bass; a Bonham-like drum tone. There are bits of Crosby, Stills & Nash, vintage R&B and other sounds present too, but in micro-doses. Whereas with early 2000s garage-rockers the White Stripes, although Jack White often sounded like what would happen if Page and Plant were the same person, Meg White’s understated (and underrated) drumming helped the Stripes establish a signature sound and avoid Zep-rip doom.

It’s not just the emulation of classic acts that can land a band a ticket to Clone City. During the grunge gold rush, next-wave groups like Bush and Stone Temple Pilots were often criticized for bandwagon-hopping, even as they sold millions of records. Funnily enough, some bands knocked for being rip-offs are later Xeroxed too. For example, when bellowing rockers Creed came along in the late Nineties, sounding like an imitation of STP imitating Pearl Jam. Around that same time, when the Black Crowes were signed to Columbia Records, a label exec tried to get the Crowes to cut a cover of “Rocks,” the very-Crowes-ish 1994 Primal Scream cut. “And we just laughed,” Gorman says. “That would be like some bizarre meta Black Mirror episode of us covering someone covering us covering the Stones. It’s like, ‘No. What the fuck, are you crazy?'”

Obviously in 2018, social media plays a major role in music consumption — and creates an echo-chamber of public opinion that wasn’t around when the Black Crowes or Lenny Kravitz, another artist from that era both beloved and dissed for retro stylings, first arrived on the scene. Or Beatles acolytes Oasis. Or even Seventies Aerosmith, sometimes knocked as a Stones rip. (Likely the result of Steven Tyler’s Jagger-like pout and Joe Perry’s Keith Richards-cosplay look as much as Aerosmith’s grimy grooves.) Upon Anthem of the Peaceful Army‘s release, social media feeds were littered with fans’ anti- and pro-Greta Van Fleet posts, often related to the Pitchfork torch.

The hands of time can soften or shift perception of a clone-saddled rep. Oasis songs like “Don’t Look Back in Anger” are now widely considered bona fide classics. Once criticized by outlets like Rolling Stone for lifting Zeppelin’s sound for his 1995 track “Rock and Roll Is Dead,” Kravitz is probably now more respected than ever for his multi-instrumental talents and the durability of his early hits like “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over.” It works the other way too. In 2018, Wolfmother is a Zep-imitator punchline (even if Wolfmother singer Andrew Stockdale sounds more like Black Sabbath-era Ozzy Osbourne than Robert Plant). But at the time, the first two early-2000s Wolfmother albums received solid reviews from some notable media outlets.

Iconic rock critic Robert Christgau has been reviewing albums since the late-Sixties. He says he’s never even heard of Greta Van Fleet, let alone their Zep controversy. But he downplays the importance of originality — “the only thing that matters to me is that it be good” — and believes it’s “ignorant to believe that music in older styles can’t be vital.” Songs that move Christgau remain a primary barometer for his reviews. But so is an artist’s emotional investment in a track. “Some people are excited to be doing what they’re doing, and some people are feigning excitement,” he says. “And yes, you can hear the difference.”

Producer/engineer Keith Olsen produced the chart-topping, self-titled 1987 Whitesnake album that finally made David Coverdale a full-on MTV star. “Still of The Night” the album’s slashing, six-minute-plus blues-metal single is frequently Exhibit A in Led Zep rip-off discussions. “Let’s look at it this way,” Olsen says. “There are only 12 notes.” He says those Plant comparisons are “a touchy subject” following the 1993 Coverdale-Page LP that the singer made with Zep guitarist Jimmy Page. (Responding to a Rolling Stone request for this story, a Whitesnake publicist said Coverdale was “unavailable for interviews at this time.”)

Olsen readily proclaims his Zeppelin admiration. Along with the Stones and Beatles, he says Zep cast a long shadow on rock music that can be hard for other bands to avoid. While he feels Whitesnake’s clone rep is “unfair” — “Lou Gramm sounds more like Robert Plant than David does” — Olsen admits that Kingdom Come, another band he worked with, “was a total lift.”

Although Olsen certainly sees the Zep parallels on “Still of the Night,” he feels it would’ve been “a total mistake” to steer the song, penned by Coverdale and guitarist John Sykes, away from its strength: “big-ass rock.” In fact, he says he never even considered asking the band to take the song in a different direction. “I’m sure if you talk to other bands that have been compared to other bands they’d probably say ‘no,’ the same way. When you get out into the world of the critics, that’s where comparisons are made. And you know, it’s good that comparisons are made.”

Rock history is dotted with young bands who took a big step forward on their second album. And many more who didn’t. The Black Crowes did the former, with their 1992 LP The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, which showcased the group’s road-sharpened playing, wider sound and more-nuanced songwriting. “Bands will grow,” says Drakoulias, who produced Southern Harmony and Money Maker and signed the Crowes. “Once you go around the world, as you’re exposed to the world, you grow. Hopefully it works its way into the art, you know?”

Whether or not Zep criticisms continue to hound Greta Van Fleet comes down to that group’s next album, reportedly already being eyed for a 2019 release, Gorman says. “If there’s a theremin on it, then we’ve got a problem,” he declares with a laugh. “But at the end of the day, we don’t have a problem either way. If they’re happy doing what they’re doing, God bless ’em. They’re playing real music. They plug in, they play loud and there’s never going to be too much of that in the world.”

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