Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism?

One of the most successful groups of all time, Led Zeppelin has often been taken to task for using the work of other artists without citing the source, particularly blues artists. Critics have also drawn attention to Zep’s use of the work of folk and rock artists, as well. This raises an interesting question: when is an artist’s work original and when it is plagiarism? Opinion is divided on Led Zeppelin’s relationship to their influences. On one side are those who express the attitude that Led Zeppelin are simply music thieves.  On the website Perfect Sound Forever Will Shade refers to Jimmy Page and company as “Thieving Magpies,” and cites several instances where Led Zeppelin’s records bear a strong resemblance to earlier recordings.  According to Short, that Led Zeppelin released these records without proper songwriting credits amounts to outright theft.  This sentiment is echoed by rock critic Richard Meltzer, who contends “there is NOTHING original” about Led Zeppelin, but this sort of hyperbole adds little to the discussion of ensuring proper acknowledgement and compensation for creative work.

On the other side are Led Zeppelin’s defenders, such as Chris Welch, author of Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused – The Stories Behind Every Song.  According to Welch, “Led Zeppelin were constantly being sniped at by nit-pickers and probed by musicologists.”  Though Welch concedes that Zep were “careless in crediting their sources of inspiration,” he argues that it would be difficult to track down the true creators of the blues songs Led Zeppelin incorporated into their work.  And besides, continues Welch, “if this album [referring specifically to Led Zeppelin II] had sold three copies in a junk shop, nobody would have noticed references to Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Killing Floor’ during ‘The Lemon Song.'”  And this is OK because “the average record buyer was happy simply to be swept along with the excitement created by this shameless outburst.” Welch’s rationalizations are frustrating and exacerbated by the generally poor writing throughout the book.

Allegations of plagiarism against Led Zeppelin have been around since the early days of the band, but the internet has become an echo chamber for misinformation on this issue. My main purpose in writing “Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism?” was that I wanted to put any and all claims of plagiarism against Led Zeppelin’s music to the test. I listened to the tracks that Led Zeppelin was accused of stealing from and tried to make an impartial assessment of whether or not Led Zeppelin’s music constituted original work. I tried to identify those instances where they borrowed heavily enough from their influences to warrant crediting the source. My general conclusion was that Led Zeppelin drew on an eclectic array of sources to produce a large body of original and vital music, but that in several instances they were so close to their influence that they should have given them songwriting credit. Led Zeppelin did, in fact, give credit where credit was due for some tracks (“You Shook Me”, “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, “When the Levee Breaks”, and a half-hearted attempt with “Boogie with Stu”), but not in all cases. To my ears, 13 of Led Zeppelin’s songs should have some sort of songwriting credit change (that is, eight in addition to the five that have already been changed due to the threat of legal action). Because Led Zeppelin almost always brought a substantial amount of originality to their work, in most cases it would be fair to simply add the influence’s name to Led Zeppelin’s original credits, but “Dazed and Confused” (original by Jake Holmes) and “Boogie with Stu” (“Ooh My Head” by Ritchie Valens) are merely cover versions and the songwriting credits should be changed entirely to reflect that. The list below contains the instances where songwriting credits should be changed, and those that have already been changed on recent Led Zeppelin reissues are marked with an asterisk.

Led Zeppelin Title Year Credit due to Title Year Span
Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You 1969 Anne Bredon Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You 1960 x 9
Dazed and Confused 1969 Jake Holmes Dazed and Confused 1967 x 2
Black Mountain Side 1969 Bert jansch Blackwaterside 1966 3
How Many More Times 1969 Howlin’ Wolf No Place to Go 1959 10
How Many More Times 1969 The Yardbirds Smokestack Lightnin’ 1965 4
Whole Lotta Love 1969 Willie Dixon You Need Love 1962 x 7
The Lemon Song 1969 Howlin’ Wolf Killing Floor 1966 x 3
Bring It On Home 1970 Sonny Boy Williamson Bring It On Home 1963  x 7
Hats Off to (Roy) Harper 1970 Bukka White Shake ‘Em On Down 1937 33
Hats Off to (Roy) Harper 1970 Oscar Woods The Lone Wolf Blues 1936 34
Since I’ve Been loving You 1970 Moby Grape Never 1968 2
Stairway to Heaven 1971 Spirit Taurus 1968 3
Custard Pie 1975 Sleepy John Estes Drop Down Mama 1935 40
Custard Pie 1975 Blind Boy Fuller I Want Some of Your Pie 1940 35
In My Time of Dying 1975 Josh White Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed 1933 42
Boogie With Stu 1975 Ritchie Valens Ooh My Head 1959 16
x – Songwriting credits have been changed on recent Led Zeppelin reissues

The cover story for the April/May, 2010, issue of Blues Matters magazine showed a picture of Led Zeppelin above the Jimmy Page quote, “It was always the blues.” In a magazine devoted to the blues, I was expecting to find an article about Led Zeppelin’s debt to the blues, particularly after reading the teaser on the table of contents page next to a graphic that reads “The Roots of Led Zeppelin,”

Many of their signature numbers are based on ancient blues riffs, ‘Dazed and Confused’ borrows heavily from Howlin’ Wolf and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is Willie Dixon’s ‘You Need Love’ on permit.

The article by Richard Thomas, however, was just a brief overview of Led Zeppelin’s career with little information about their influences. The above quote appeared at the end of the article, probably because it was an afterthought, not to mention that it’s almost entirely wrong. I take issue with this statement on a number of points. First of all, the idea that “Dazed and Confused” “borrows heavily from Howlin’ Wolf” is absurd. If you’re going to state that an artist’s work is not original, at least get the source right. Poor Jake Holmes. He wrote one of the most instantly recognizable, iconic songs of his time, but he would seem to be forever doomed to obscurity. And second, “ancient blues riffs”? Even if you allow for poetic license or just write off this sort of language as hyperbole, this statement is way off the mark. The column on the right on the table above shows the number of years between the original recording and Led Zeppelin’s release. In most cases, Led Zeppelin was drawing on recent music, and that includes many of their blues influences. Muddy Waters’s recording of “You Need Love” was released only seven years before “Whole Lotta Love.” Several of these songs did indeed originate before World War II, but here’s the interesting thing: Led Zeppelin’s records are older now than the blues records they were listening to when the band was formed in the late 1960s.  Does that make Led Zeppelin’s riffs “ancient”?  And third, most of Led Zeppelin’s excessive borrowing from the blues was in Robert Plant’s lyrics and not Jimmy Page’s riffs, such as “Whole Lotta Love”. Jimmy Page’s thefts tended to come from contemporary rock and folk performers.

Led Zeppelin certainly owes a debt to the blues, but so much misinformation has been repeated as true that it’s important to separate fact from fiction.  Allegations have been repeated as fact either with no supporting evidence or delivered with little critical restraint, such as Howard Stern’s exercise in outrage.  The most evenhanded observation about this issue came recently from a rather odd source.  Malcolm Gladwell‘s book What the Dog Saw includes a chapter entitled “Something Borrowed: Should a Charge of Plagiarism Ruin Your Life?” After listing a number of examples where one artist borrowed from another, Gladwell pointed out that while allowing artists to simply copy another’s work “inhibited true creativity… it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression, because if Led Zeppelin hadn’t been free to mine the blues for inspiration, we wouldn’t have got ‘Whole Lotta Love’….”  Gladwell drew a distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is derivative.  For all the borrowing that Led Zeppelin did, they were certainly transformative artists.

28 thoughts on “Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism?”

  1. Actually, Jimmy Page was playing Dazed and Confused before Led Zeppelin. There’s a semi-bootleg album called “Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page” recorded March 30, 1968, though not released until 1971 to take advantage of Zeppelin’s popularity. It has a song called “I’m Confused” which is obviously Dazed and Confused. The record company released it without Page’s authorization, and withdrew it after Page complained. The recording date reduces the time lag after Holmes’s recording to only a year. Obviously Plant had nothing to do with this one! As a side note, the present Yardbirds lineup still plays the song. Last time I saw them, Jim McCarty introduced the song by mentioning that “Jimmy also recorded this song with his other band”.

  2. I notice your list doesn’t include the sings “borrowed” from Blind Willie Johnson, arguably the greatest ever gospel blues singer/guitarist. Listen to his original recordings of “Jesus gonna make up my dying bed” (renamed In my time of dying by Led Zep) & “Nobody’s fault but mine”, both recorded in the 1920’s.
    Led Zep settled a plagiarism suit out of court & paid BWJ a pittance.

  3. I am a life long Led Zeppelin fan and musician, and I have been very taken back by all of this, because i feel like music should be created as original or simply credited as a re-make. If someone took my song and changed it up a little and never gave credit, i would fight until MY time of dying to receive credit for the original creation. Other artists created the songs and then Zeppelin made millions off them. Zep will always be on my playlist, but i have come to the conclusion that they were indeed hacks, which has been very upsetting.

  4. Guys, with all due respect, this is bullshit. Everybody was “stealing” from everybody all the time. The black blues guys were stealing from each other. And by the way, what gives them preference simply because they were old and black? Wise the fuck up and give up the ghost. You’re insufficiently informed. And fuck the lawyers because all they’re doing is trying to descend on a $$$ making opportunity. Peace out.

    1. There is one difference between Zep and other bands.
      Stones, Clapton etc. all borrowed licks and riffs from the masters, but they credited the original artists. Look at the back of Rolling Stones’ first album: The songs are credited to all the old blues masters. Only one song is credited Jagger/Richards. Zep stole other artists material and never credited them – and made a fortune. That’s theft.

  5. First, apologies for use of the eff word. I don’t care how incensed I was at the time. Very sorry.

    I have trouble with the word ‘theft’. I agree that in those cases where they did not credit the black blues guys they were 100% guilty of a moral wrong. But whether it’s actual legal thievery I believe is still a stretch. Perhaps it’s a matter of intent. I do not believe that Page/Plant sat down with the sheets for ‘Dazed and Confused’, e.g., and Plant turned to Page and said “see here we can just lift this right here.” and then proceeded to copy the song measure for measure. And then there’s the whole atmosphere of the time when everyone was “stealing” from everyone including the black blues guys from each other. Be that as it may, the Stones were certainly superior in this regard; I believe Zep just blew the permission process off probably out of haste and ignorance. Legal thievery? Not sure, although I do see Zep has compensated the authors quite amply.

  6. I love how no one mentions possibly there most obvious rip off which im guessing is because very few people know the song they ripped off because its from a very underrated legendary Canadian Band. Anyways, listen to “Weeping Widow” by April Wine & Then listen to “No Quarter” By Zeppelin and judge for yourself. to me its so blatant, April Wine is my favourite band of all time and ive always said they are like the canadian led zeppelin, maybe plant/page thought the same thing and could get away with it at the time

    1. Joey, I think you are way off base with the Weeping Widow/No Quarter allegation. I listened to them and they sound nothing alike! Not only that, they were released the same year (1973)!

  7. I think with all this plagiarism stuff going on people forget all the great songs they actually wrote (good times bad times, immagrent song, rock n roll, black dog, over the hills and far away etc..) there were only a couple of songs that were totally ripped off and these are obvious but the comparisons people are making are obssured.

  8. Stairway to heaven in its musical construction is not at the same as Spirits song. Also Custard Pie while related to the earlier versions is stand alone original. same with In My Time of Dying this music all is entirely different. These three should be taken of the list

  9. They are absolute frauds. They stink and they suck. They have a few good songs, but who knows for sure if they didn’t rip them off somewhere; only page & plant know for sure. To me, they never were in the same league with the Beatles, Stones, Sabbath, Cream, The Who, Floyd and probably at least 10 other US & British bands even while stealing. In the end, probably now and certainly when they’re dead, the first thing people will remember upon hearing led zeppelin will be there plagiarism.

    1. What utter garbage, if you have Nothing constructive to say don’t say it at all , the band’s you mentioned, are not even in the same league as Led Zeppelin, they will be remembered for being the greatest rock band the world has ever seen and will ever see , for the record excuse the pun, led did them songs justice.

  10. That’s what haters all over the world say… You all seem to care so bad about so many artists you didnt even know at first place, but hey,”why everyone seems to love Led Zeppelin and not my favorite band – let s call it w/e you want – so let us defame them a bit in legal terms, because we cant find any other flaw in music terms”

    My point is this. Let s say that everything you say is correct. I bet you people are all so moral in your lives, that this surprise you right? IMO, as long as they pay anything illegal, they can keep doing this… If i can get on a bus without ticket and each time they catch me i can pay the fee, i see no reason why other people should cry about it…. Just do the same. Aw no wait, you (your bands) do the same thing, you just take “disability leave” so you pay less…or nothing.

    My point for the less intelligent, everyone has been plagiarit. (Rolling stones, deep purple, lynyrd skynyrd, eric clapton and so on…) Your whole point , that makes you so “affective and caring people” is that they didnt give their credits to specific people. So better change the title in this tag and rename it : “LED ZEPPELIN:No Credits?” or something like that. Because even less intelligent people, will understand they were mere copycats.. and by this let me conclude with the “ironically” lyrics of the more “ironic” song remains the same.. :

    “Hear my song. People won’t you listen now? Sing along.
    You don’t know what you’re missing now.
    Any little song that you know
    Everything that’s small has to grow.
    And it has to grow!”

    I hope this will really make sense to you someday, and dont forget to be always grateful to those people that without them you wouldnt be able to know all these people you are fighting for their own rights and credits, at the first place.

  11. JAZZ: have you ever listened to a jazz program on the radio where they compare different versions by various artists of a jazz standard?
    They do not even imagine NOT attributing properply the original authorship. Sometimes the musicians will tip their hat to previous version’s chords or cite a related tune.
    In fact the real problem is in the level of musicianship of the musicians, and the level of musical knowledge of the listeners.

    By the way, why was it so important for Plant to do up his hair, (literally) bear his chest and wear tight-pants?
    Part of the scam was the macho posturing as they catered to the (now eternal) adolescent in many of us.

    Recently, on BBC JImmy Page says in an interview about Stairway to ‘eaven that they were playing with great honesty and authenticity; what a theiving liar! On thing is to be a talented musiciam and another thing is to have original musical and lyrical ideas.

  12. I think part of the lead riff in No Quarter is borrowed from Hendrix’ Machine Gun. Not worth a credit but it’s a main theme of the song. Jimi borrowed from Jeff Beck on In From the Storm so they all took license now and then!

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