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,”
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.