Did Led Zeppelin Steal Music From Other Artists?
Led Zeppelin is often considered one of the greatest rock bands of all time. For more than a decade they produced some of the most original and captivating hard rock ever heard, many of their songs are classics, particularly “Stairway to Heaven” (arguably the greatest rock tune of all time). Only the Beatles have been more influential.
However, in recent years and decades, people have investigated the possibility that the members of Led Zeppelin are not gods of rock ‘n’ roll, but rather, music thieves. Did this legendary rock band actually rip off the licks and lyrics of other artists?
Read on to see if these allegations ring true or if they are nothing but feedback.
Origin of Led Zeppelin
Having just left the Yardbirds, guitarist Jimmy Page formed the New Yardbirds late in 1968, but the band soon changed their name to Led Zeppelin. Lucky us! The quartet released their first album early in 1969, and (judging from this masterpiece) it quickly became obvious that the world of rock ‘n’ roll—particularly hard rock—would never be the same. Seemingly, only Jimi Hendrix was better.
Four out of five of the Zep’s first albums became classics, and the band eventually sold 300 million records. Fronted by vocalist Robert Plant and lead guitarist Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin created marvels of rock ‘n’ roll artistry, their list of praise, honors, and awards is seemingly endless. If their drummer John Bonham hadn’t died of alcoholism in 1980, they may have lasted much longer than 12 years.
The Zep’s First Two Albums Made Them Targets
Led Zeppelin’s first two albums, Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin II, showed how much the group had been influenced by blues artists such as Elmore James, Leadbelly, Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, Muddy Waters and, especially, Willie Dixon. Jimmy Page unleashed an incendiary version of Dixon's “You Shook Me” on the Zep's first album. The Tune utilized the backwards echo recording technique, for which Page would become famous.
In fact, the band played four of Dixon’s tunes on their first two albums. Two songs on Led Zeppelin II, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It on Home,” listed Dixon as one of the co-writers, in addition to Robert Plant, Page, and other band members.
The band also showed how they’d learned much from classic rock and roll and rockabilly, creating a kind of psychedelic rock or hard rock, which was just gaining momentum in the late 1960s. They also learned much from the various folk singers of the era, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
As these were Led Zeppelin’s formative years, the music they created during this time showed the obvious influence of other artists, which eventually led to claims of copyright infringement or outright plagiarism. Thus, many of the songs from those first two albums show different writers than they did when the albums were first pressed.
Ever since, Led Zeppelin’s great fame has painted targets on the members' respective backs, and many songwriters and enthusiasts from that classic rock and roll era (1965 to 1975) are perusing the band’s various hits, looking for similarities or instances of copying.
Controversy Around "Dazed and Confused"
Recently, American folk singer Jake Holmes sued Led Zeppelin for one million dollars. Holmes claims that Jimmy Page stole his licks and lyrics for “Dazed and Confused,” perhaps the greatest tune on the Zep’s first album. Holmes says his version of the song was written in 1967, two years before Led Zeppelin’s. Jimmy Page, along with the rest of the Yardbirds, performed on the same bill as Holmes when he played in Greenwich Village in August 1967. Perhaps that’s when Page became familiar with the number.
Featured on Holmes’ album, The Above Ground Sound, the song, which has a kind of acoustic acid rock feel, sounds a great deal like the Zep’s offering. Perhaps Holmes will win his million bucks! You have to wonder why he waited so long to push the button. Is he now in need of retirement money?
In the November 1990 edition of Musician magazine (on page 62) when Jimmy Page was asked about the authorship of “Dazed and Confused,” he replied, “I'd rather not get into it, because I don't know all the circumstances. What's he (Holmes) got—the riff or whatever? I haven't heard Jake Holmes’, so I don't know what it's all about anyway. Usually, my riffs are pretty damn original.”
Page went on to say that after lead guitarist Jeff Beck left the Yardbirds, he worked on the song with the group. Page said what the Yardbirds did with it can be heard on a bootleg album entitled, Live at the Emerson Theatre. In fact, according to an article in Wikipedia, the band played it on their last two American tours.
Page also said that Robert Plant, the Zep’s primary songwriter, had gotten them into trouble by directly taking lyrics from artists such as Willie Dixon, who sued the Zep for making “Whole Lotta Love.” Found on Led Zeppelin II, the song certainly brings to mind Dixon’s “You Need Love.”
Controversy Around "Stairway to Heaven"
In recent times, even “Stairway to Heaven” (one of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits) has been accused of being a rip-off. The estate of Randy Wolfe, the deceased guitarist of the rock band Spirit, claims that part of his tune “Taurus” is similar to the intro riff of the Zep’s classic ballad. Incidentally, “Taurus” was produced in 1967, four years before “Stairway.” The bands toured together at least once. Be that as it may, the beginning licks in each tune seem similar. But, are they similar enough for Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the defendants in the lawsuit, to be convicted of plagiarism?
Led Zeppelin finally won the aforementioned case. In June 2016, a jury decided that any similarity between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” was coincidental, so there will be no royalty money going to those associated with writing the song “Taurus” or the band Spirit. Will there be anymore such lawsuits?
Stairway to Heaven
The Controversy Continues
Over the years, numerous books have been written about the “origins” of Led Zeppelin’s music: Led Astray, The Roots of Led Zeppelin, and Zeppelin Classics, among others. Chris Welch, defender of the Zep and author or Dazed and Confused: The Story Behind Every Song, writes that “Led Zeppelin were constantly being sniped at by nit-pickers and probed by musicologists.” Nevertheless, Welch added that the Zep may have been “careless in crediting their sources of inspiration.”
The Early Blues of Led Zeppelin, one of a series of CDs, emphasizes how the British rock groups of the 1960s regularly passed around the standard blues tunes, incorporating much of this wealth of material into their respective oeuvres. This makes one ask the question: Led Zeppelin is so popular and, therefore, their music so widely studied and scrutinized, whose music could possibly stand such a comprehensive investigation of perceived thievery?
Summing It All Up
Is Led Zeppelin nothing more than the best cover band in the world, or are they true originals? The list of tunes from which they allegedly took riffs and/or lyrics is a long one, too long to list here. It includes a guitar lick they may have snatched to create their greatest hit, “Stairway to Heaven.” To even make such a suggestion seems rock ‘n’ roll sacrilege!
As the evidence shows, Led Zeppelin certainly “borrowed” heavily from the blues genre in particular, and they should have given many more artists credit for helping create the band’s signature sound. Let’s simply be glad that Led Zeppelin covered so many standards, making them classics of hard rock in the process. Wouldn’t you like the Zep to steal one of your tunes and make it a work of gold or platinum?
At any rate, the Zep has a long list of great songs, about which nobody has claimed plagiarism. These include "The Rain Song," "Ramble On," “Black Dog," “Rock and Roll,” “Dancing Days," "Kashmir," and many others.
What's your favorite Led Zeppelin song? Feel free to share in the comment section.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Kelley Marks