Led Astray – The Case Against Greta Van Fleet

Where does influence end and plagiarism begin? Alex Thompson looks at how three teenagers topped the Billboard charts by imitating Led Zeppelin

REPUBLIC RECORDS

ANTHEM OF THE PEACEFUL ARMY – GRETA VAN FLEET

In  modern music, it can be hard to tell the difference between influence and plagiarism. Artists pull from a musical back catalogue which stretches back decades and often you can draw clear links between the musician and their influence. It’s hard to find rappers who aren’t in some way influenced by Biggie or guitarists who haven’t taken inspiration from Hendrix. This is especially common in more limited genres that are no longer prone to experimentation like blues rock. To me, Led Zeppelin are one of the most influential groups of this genre, their unique sound going on to inspire the likes of modern artists Jack White, Dan Auerbach and even older bands like the Ramones. The harmonic wails of Robert Plant, sped up blues riffs of Jimmy Page and legendary drumming of Jon Bonham have made the band iconic and led to a plethora of copy-cat bands.

One of these is the Michigan based, hard rock group Greta Van Fleet. The vocalist howls like Plant, guitars are bluesy like Page and the drummer tries his hardest to be Jon Bonham. They aren’t just influenced by Zeppelin, they are sound exactly like them. To clarify, I don’t think wearing your influences on your sleeve is necessarily a bad thing; the majority of my favourite artists and bands do so. The White Stripes clearly take influence from blues music of the 60s, rock music of the 70s and has a clear influence from Led Zeppelin but what makes their music unique is how they incorporate elements of this into modern garage rock to create a cutting-edge sound.

I know Zeppelin aren’t the most original band. Led Zeppelin I and II are full of songs hijacked from earlier blues musicians but to me they always managed to reinvent the music and create something unique. The same cannot be said of Greta Van Fleet.

This similarity is blindingly obvious on the band’s latest effort Anthem Of The Peaceful Army which reached number 3 in the Billboard 100. Not bad for a band who still aren’t old enough to legally drink. In their scathing review, Pitchfork Magazine states ‘They make music that sounds exactly like Led Zeppelin and demand very little other than forgetting how good Led Zeppelin often were’, highlighting this similarity and how the group fall short of Zeppelin’s genius. They have a point. Between the Bonham-esque drum grooves, Page-like blues pentatonic solos, John Paul Jones bass riffs and the eerily familiar vocal howls, Greta Van Fleet really do sound like a Led Zeppelin cover band. The whole album comes across as a blatant fetishization of 70s rock and I’m unsure as to whether this is deliberate or just a complete lack of self-awareness. I don’t even think there’s anything inherently wrong with this. The band have a huge fan base of people who still hero-worship Led Zeppelin and, in a year where rock is on the decline, you can see why Greta Van Fleet is doing so well. Their youthful energy and talent makes the group a cut above your average Zeppelin-style covers band and the album isn’t that bad even though it’s hard to ignore the ‘brass rubbing’ quality of the group’s influences. Nowhere is this crayon etched Zeppelin influence clearer than on tracks such as Highway Tune from their first EP, a near identical copy of The Rover from Physical Graffiti. Yes, you can suggest that the band also pull from other influences like Aerosmith or Rush but to me the similarity is so blatant that it’s hard to regard Greta Van Fleet as anything other than a bootleg Led Zeppelin.

I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent now and talk about uncanny valley, the idea that discomfort is created by a human-like figure closely resembling a real person but not quite being convincing. Think dodgy CGI in films or those weird robots with human faces. To me, Greta Van Fleet are an ‘uncanny valley’ band, trying so hard to imitate Led Zeppelin but ultimately ending up a slightly unconvincing facsimile.