Sunday, February 01, 2009

Shaved and Confused

UPDATE: April 23, 2017
Good things come to those who wait, I guess. I originally wrote this post over 8 years ago and this musical mystery was apparently solved in 2014 when John Parr officially released The Best with this accompanying statement: "Never before released or broadcast “The Best” features John Parr's collaboration with Jake Holmes (author of Zeppelin's “Dazed and Confused”) to create a true epic."

They co-wrote it!  This wasn't exactly keeping me up at night for 8 years, but I can now resolve those few lingering brain cells that had been stewing on this.  Funnily enough, I was inspired to reinvestigate this "cold case" after recently discovering (in a fit of random internet research) that the original singer of the 1980s Gummi Bears Theme was Joseph Williams, son of composer John Williams, current lead singer of Toto, singing voice of adult Simba in The Lion King, and co-writer (English lyrics) of Sy Snootles song and the Ewok Celebration song (AKA "Yub Nub") from Return of the Jedi.


It's Super Bowl Sunday and have I got a fascinating, strange-but-true tale for you.
First, some back story: everyone knows Led Zeppelin's legacy is built on liberally "borrowed" riffs and material from other artists, which has landed them in legal problems on multiple occasions. It's an old story and well covered elsewhere, but that's not what we're here to talk about today. Our interest is focused on Dazed and Confused from Led Zeppelin's 1969 self-titled debut, which you may or not know was based on folk singer Jake Holmes' song of the same name.

At an August '67 show in New York City, Jake Holmes opened for The Yardbirds which is where Jimmy Page would first be exposed to the song. Soon after, The Yardbirds' new arrangement of the song quickly became a staple at live shows for the next year before the band disbanded. Page brought along Dazed and Confused to the newly formed Led Zeppelin and it was reworked further with new lyrics. The big controversy stems from fact that the song was (and is) credited solely to Jimmy Page. In spite of the fact he received no credit or royalties from the song, Jake Holmes surprisingly shrugs the whole thing off. In an interview, Holmes said "But you know what? It was just a blues riff that made up the melody anyway, and I think I got more mileage out of being ripped off in the long run. All the kids in my son's school think I'm a genius because of the Led Zeppelin song." At one point, he did send a letter to the band regarding acknowledgment but he never received a response.

Jake Holmes - Dazed and Confused

Here's where the story takes its first curious twist. While someone who gets ripped off by what would become one of the biggest rock bands of all-time might become bitter or pack it in, Jake Holmes went on to co-write a concept album for Frank Sinatra and several advertising jingles including the US Army's famous "Be All That You Can Be" and Lego's "Zack the Lego Maniac". Yes, the man who wrote Dazed and Confused wrote ZACK THE LEGO MANIAC.

Here's where the Superbowl fits into the equation. Twenty years ago nearly to the day: it's Super Bowl XXIII in Miami, Florida, January 22, 1989. For the previous year, Gillette ad executives had been toying with various concepts and performing extensive market research to create a new campaign that would strongly resonate with male shavers around the world with a powerful, emotional theme. At one point, the team had come up with 25 sample print ads with various slogans, but one grabbed everyone's attention: Gillette, The Best a Man Can Get. And guess who they commissioned to write the music and lyrics? That's right, our man Jake Holmes. The Best a Man Can Get ad made it's debut during Superbowl XXIII, kicking off an $80 million ad campaign across the US and Europe. The slogan is still in use today. Here's the original 1989 60-second spot with more lyrics than you may have remembered:

Next twist: you probably know of John Parr, as I do, from his 1985 hit St. Elmo's Fire (Man in Motion), co-written by David Foster. It may surprise you to learn that he is still performing live, as recently as last year opening throughout the UK for Journey, who just so happen to be a pre-show act at today's Super Bowl. Here's the zinger, at his shows he plays a full-length version of The Best a Man Can Get.

John Parr - The Best a Man Can Get
The idea that someone would bootleg a 2008 John Parr concert is fascinating in and of itself, but anyway take a listen to this live recording. He introduces the song as "a song I wrote for a commercial a long time ago..." and proceeds with quite an emotional, somewhat beautiful rendition of the Gillette theme.

And history repeats itself. Did Jake Holmes pull a Jimmy Page on John Parr or is it the other way around? I can find two sources (that aren't wikipedia) that side with Jake Holmes in this matter. On the other hand, we hear it straight from John Parr himself that he wrote it. There are also some fairly adamant YouTube commenters who claim Jake Holmes only sang on the Gillette ad while it was based on John Parr's original song... In John Parr's defense, who would falsely claim to have written the Gillette theme? Perhaps the two of them co-wrote it together, but Google turns up nothing with both their names. Another bit of synchronicity: John Parr's 1985 self-titled debut has a song called Heartbreaker, whose lyrics more closely match Pat Benatar's Heartbreaker than Zeppelin's, though it's a cover of neither. And ironically there's another track called Somebody Stole My Thunder (not a cover of of the Georgie Fame song).

So a real cover riddle indeed. I guess if artists didn't borrow (or steal) from each other throughout history, music might have devolved into some sort of experimental music hell. Anyway, didn't someone wise once say "Take a sad song and make it better"?

The Yardbirds - Dazed and Confused [originally by Jake Holmes, arranged by The Yardbirds]
From a March 1968 performance on French TV, this is a really intriguing version since it closely mirrors the Led Zeppelin version, pre-Robert Plant on vocals and singing Jake Holmes' lyrics.

John Parr - The Best a Man Can Get (Live) [originally by ?]

Inspection 12 - St. Elmo's Fire [originally by John Parr/David Foster]

The Link Quartet - Somebody Stole My Thunder [originally by Georgie Fame]

Additional reading:


Anonymous said...

hi.been digging your site for awhile now.being a musician myself,its not uncommon that a singer will say they wrote a song when someone else actually wrote it.ozzy osbourne rarely wrote lyrics and music in sabbath and in his solo career.sharon osbourne has a contract,that if someone in the band writes a song and ozzy wants to record it,they do not get writting credit as the sole song writer(except zakk wylde)and they only get a small percent instead of basically ozzy/sharon owns the song.

anyway,the zep/holmes feud is alittle different,because sometime around the late 60's and back,in some cases song writers wrote songs for if someone else like it-they recorded it. that's why you may find the same some covered by many artists.

and when a band becomes high profile then that's when the trouble starts.pat benatar didn't write "shadows of the night".it was recorded by rachel sweet a full year earlier.

anyway,here's a thought: maybe jake holmes is john parr? of course ididn't do the research.but its a thought.

Fongolia said...

Ha, I like that theory. By day he's Jake Holmes, jingle writer; by night John Parr, 80's one hit wonder. Unfortunately, by all accounts they're different people.

John said...

ironic, i recently posted something that (briefly) mentioned the whole dazed and holmes connection (, but i really like the angle of your piece, kudos on the great research!

i can't seem to get the yardbirds/dazed mp3 to work...let me know; if you don't have it already, i'll swap you that for the 'live yardbirds feat. jimmy page' version.

Fongolia said...

I found out about Jake Holmes and Dazed & Confused a couple years ago when I was deep in Zeppelin mode, but it wasn't until recently that I learned about his advertising career after that. The whole John Parr thing randomly came up when I was trying to google "Jake Holmes" and "Gillette" (I was somewhat skeptical of wikipedia's claims). That's when I stumbled upon John Parr singing "The Best a Man Can Get" on youtube. Totally bizarre and unexpected!

Maybe mediafire wasn't working when you tried, it seems to work fine now. Try again? If it still doesn't work, I can e-mail it to you. Thanks for reading!

tgigreeny said...

I used to produce and occasionally present a local radio show in South Yorkshire and have met John Parr. He told me he wrote the Gilette song, as a track called The Best, and it was later turned into the music for the advert. He also performed it for our listeners (the same acoustic version as on the YouTube vid). I seem to remember him implying that he still earns quite a lot of money from the royalties to the ad. Sadly I can't dig up a recording of the interview at the moment.

David said...

Does anyone know who sang the "Zack the LEGO Maniac" jingle? I always thought it sounded like Rob Paulsen.

Fongolia said...

tgigreeny: if you ever happen to dig up that interview sometime, I'd love to hear it! I'm just fascinated that there are these two conflicting claims of authorship that are more or less uncontested and I don't think anybody even realized it until I threw together this post. I suspect they each played some role in the writing of the song. Maybe Parr wrote the bulk of it and Holmes shaped it for the ad campaign? I was under the impression that Jake Holmes also did quite well on the royalties.

David: I have no idea no sang the Lego jingle!