Kelley Marks has been an online pop culture writer for over 11 years. He's an avid Led Zeppelin fan with a vast knowledge of their catalog.
Icons or Thieves?
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"
In 2010, American folk singer Jake Holmes sued Led Zeppelin for $1 million. 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’s 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’s, 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"
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 any more 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?
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.
© 2012 Kelley Marks
t james on April 23, 2020:
It's easy to become self-righteous about this or that aspect of a song - words or musical riffs - but the reality is that everyone borrows from everyone. You listen to any group and they'll tell you in interviews how they came to this song or that song. There are certainly many originals, but there are also many "borrowings." Zeppilin may not have rightly credited some of the stuff they used, but their version was certainly their own. Hell, I'm even willing to bet that back in the day when groups were mixing it up people were rather open about lending their material, but once someone became famous or wealthy by virtue of that material, suddenly the "lending" became "stealing." Zeppelin has enough original material to its credit to quash any notion that they could only rip people off to become what they've become.
Sundae on March 12, 2020:
They love the blues and it shows in there lyrics .I love muddy howlin wolf ect
I know muddy got paid to be loved by zepplin so he cant complain to much Rolling stones name there band after muddy waters rolling stone song. It would of been a awesome concert if they gave praise and appreciation to those that influenced them . I think that would be awesome show to see myself maybe have whoever still around come and jam with them
Sage on November 05, 2014:
The Bottom Line is Led Zeppelin Claimed They Wrote, Music, Lyrics - did Not Give Credits to the origonal composers
Youngy999 on May 21, 2014:
A point well made Hammertime. Much in line with what I wanted to say and I simply can't improve on your words.
Hammertime on September 23, 2013:
Dixon songs (You Shook Me, I Can’t Quit You) were credited to Dixon. Dixon was not credited for WLL cause (Muddy)Waters’ publishing refused to release the rights in spite of Dixon’s legal ownership. In 1998, B.B. King stated, “I don’t think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow.” Though not “virtuous,” many have done it. The fact is Led Zeppelin (finally) made Dixon, et. al., a lot more money than they ever had previously! Do you think Dixon, Howling Wolf, etc., ever used any lines or riffs they had heard before? Some date back before they were born. If the process is so simple to make a lot of money, or big hits by lifting a few lines or cords, or doing a complete cover, then you or anyone else should jump some LZ tracks, (or Dixons) and make a few million of your own. BTW, the Baez song was rewritten by at least three different people.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on March 12, 2013:
Hey, threadogg, a charity concert for the old blues artists sounds like a good idea. Of course, any concert performed by the Zep would be cool, but are these ancient guys up to the challenge? Later!
threadogg on March 11, 2013:
Nothing new here, Zep repeatedly has said they grew up listening to the delta blues kings and borrowed heavy inspiration from them. What they should have done is gone into more detail in their crediting but who did back then? If it was such a fault why didn't anyone care back then? It would be great "if" the Zep concerts of 2014 paid homage by staging a large outdoor concert along the old blues trail for charity and dedicating songs to those original artists as due.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on January 31, 2013:
Thanks for the comment and the compliment, phildazz. Whether or not the Zep stole a little music, most of their tunes are original and classic. Hey, even Shakespeare "borrowed." Later!
Allan Philip from Toronto on January 30, 2013:
Hey Kosmo, reading your Hub made me wish I was a better writer, lol. It's so sad knowing about the rip-offs but I'll always love Led Zeppelin. They were and will for ever be a great rock and roll band.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on October 18, 2012:
Yeah, Shinkicker, I'm afraid the Zep hasn't been entirely honest in the creation of their tunes. And they've paid the price - literally. Later!
Shinkicker from Scotland on October 18, 2012:
I love Led Zeppelin Kosmo but there is no doubt that they stole a lot of ideas. Blatant rip-offs, no question about it and rather tarnishes their reputation in my eyes.
Interesting Hub and voted up.
Robert Douglas on April 29, 2012:
If you listen to this stuff and the Moby Grape song with the line "working from seven, to eleven..." wide-spread plagiarism is clear.
It would seem The Song Remains The Same;
Only the credits change.
Led Head on April 26, 2012:
Nobody would have a problem or think less of Zeppelin, if they credited folks whose creations they claimed for their own.
It's too late now, but not too late to stop the bullshit. Simply say, "We were young and did not understand and we are sorry." And "Here is the list of talented people who helped us become fan favorites" Simple, do the decent and right thing.
It’s important because they’ve drawn their fans into a fraud (as unwitting dupes) by letting us pay them for something that belonged to other people.
I remember when Napster was going strong I refused to download anything I had not paid for or at least went out and bought CDs I could find so artists got paid.
We owe them that and they in turn have covenant with us to sell us goods that are theirs to sell.
There are artists who couldn’t afford to go up against the Zeppelin legal team and had to let outright theft go.
Asking why it took so long or saying they are trying to pad a retirement fund is like saying if I steal the Mona Lisa and don’t get caught for 30 years, anyone trying to get it back is a bad guy. Try that down at the local constabulary!
Dazed and Confused never stopped being Jakes Holmes song—he can ask for recognition anytime he wants in my opinion. He’s not the thief.
We all loved the original sound Led Zep infused into these songs making their catalogue like an audio collage of all eras of traditional and blues music mixed with quintessential rock. Too much probably.
If we were only now learning that one of the band murdered someone and buried them behind their castle 40 years ago, people would be saying, why wait so long? They are just looking for their 15 minutes of fame.
A wrong is a wrong and this is huge and unlike anything ever before in music or film history.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on April 25, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, Led Head. It certainly appears that the Zep wasn't entirely truthful with the attribution on "some" of its music. Shame on them. But I'm still a happy Led Head. Later!
Led Head on April 25, 2012:
To think that Greg Ham (Men at Work) got sued because a fist -full of digits on a bloody flute riff sounded like the Kookaburra song, in a song that was about what it meant to be Australian, makes me actually feel sick in my stomach.
He was much less successful than Page and he was very stressed over it. It very likely contributed to his death. Gregs’ cases could have been an attempt to honor the kids’ song Kookaburra sits in an old gum tree. I don’t think he was a thief and the law and Larrikin Music are both assess in this case.
It looks like Led Zeppelin actually stole other artists creative work, profited hugely and denied (and continue to deny) they did not create it wholly themselves.
They cause creative peers serious financial and creative losses in terms of credit due them. As bad a thieft of material assets in my opinion.
It is shocking to learn this after 40 years of being a complete Led Head.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on April 13, 2012:
Epigramman, I thought you had forsaken me! It's so good to hear from you again. Hey, I'm always interested in talking about music and cinema, so let me know where to click. Of course, I am also a participant of Facebook. Who isn't? Ya wanna be my Facebook friend? Later!
epigramman on April 13, 2012:
..I haven't made a trip for awhile to your hallowed hubspace but you do such a world class job here and I have started a new group at FB called LET'S JUST TALK MUSIC OR CINEMA and would be honored and thrilled if you cared to join - my name is Colin Stewart at FB with the same profile photo as you see here - and I have posted this most interesting hub subject to our group there with a direct link back here so more people can hopefully get turned on by what you do so well
lake erie time 10:19pm
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on March 27, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, scottcgruber. You're right - proving theft in music is difficult, especially with the blues standards, which have been played to death for decades. Of course, back in the 1960s these tunes were much fresher. Later!
scottcgruber on March 26, 2012:
Proving musical theft is pretty difficult, especially in a genre like blues. There are only a finite number of combinations of the five notes of the pentatonic minor scale when jammed into the same twelve-bar chord pattern. Licks and riffs are bound to coincide, even between artists who've never heard each other.
Kelley Marks (author) from Sacramento, California on March 26, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, TheHeavyReview, I'm also a big fan of the Zep. Hey, when I was young and heard their music, I could tell they contained numerous blues references. I thought they were simply paying homage to the bluesmen of the era. Little did I know they may have "borrowed" much more than they should have. My investigation opened my eyes, though the Zep still did numerous tunes that were completely original, as I wrote at the end of the hub. Later!
TheHeavyReview on March 26, 2012:
Great hub! I've always found this topic really interesting, since I'm a big Led Zeppelin fan. Truthfully, I don't really care if LZ copied or not because the songs are still amazing when they play them. Of all these songs, the Led Zeppelin versions are the definitive ones. Regarding the videos, some songs could've easily been rip-offs while others are a mighty stretch. Voted up and interesting!