Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Trampled Under Foot”

“Trampled Under Foot” was included on the 1975 album Physical Graffiti. By the this time criticisms about Led Zeppelin lifting ideas from African American artists were commonplace, regardless of whether these claims had any substance or not, and Led Zeppelin were clearly aware of their reputation as music thieves. As Physical Graffiti was climbing the charts, Led Zeppelin performed at Earls Court Arena on May 17, 1975. Just before they played “Trampled Under Foot” Robert Plant told the audience that Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” had been the source of inspiration for the song. John Bonham then jokingly accused Robert Plant of stealing the lyrics. Led Zeppelin didn’t appear to have a care in the world at this point, though–plagiarism or otherwise. According to his review of the concert in Melody Maker, Chis Welch asserted, “This was the band firing on all cylinders, at their absolute best”.

John Bonham jokingly accuses Robert Plant of stealing the lyrics to “Trampled Under Foot” at Earls Court Arena, London, May 17, 1975

But did Led Zeppelin really steal the lyrics from “Terraplane Blues”?
First a little background. The Terraplane was a car manufactured from 1932 to 1938 by the Hudson Motor Car Company. Recording in 1936, Robert Johnson used this car as a sexual metaphor in “Terraplane Blues”. “Trampled Under Foot” employs a similar device, though not mentioning any model of car specifically. Both songs employ a wide array of things associated with cars as sexual images.

I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
I feel so lonesome, you hear me when I moan
Who been drivin’ my Terraplane for you since I been gone?

I said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won’t even blow
(spoken: Somebody’s been runnin’ my batteries down on this machine)
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won’t even blow
Got a short in this connection, hoo well, babe, it’s way down below

I’m goin’ hoist your hood, mama, I’m bound to check your oil
I’m goin’ hoist your hood, mama, I’m bound to check your oil
I got a woman that I’m lovin’, way down in Arkansas

Now, you know the coils ain’t even buzzin’, little generator won’t get the spark
Motor’s in a bad condition, you gotta have these batteries charged
But I’m cryin’, please, please don’t do me wrong
Who been drivin’ my Terraplane now for you since I been gone?

Mr. highway man, please don’t block the road
Please, please don’t block the road
‘Cause she’s reachin’ a cold one hundred and I’m booked and I got to go

You, you hear me weep and moan
Who been drivin’ my Terraplane now for you since I been gone?

I’m gon’ get down in this connection, keep on tanglin’ with your wires
I’m gon’ get down in this connection, keep on tanglin’ with these wires
And when I mash down on your little starter, then your spark plug will give me fire

Greasy slicked down body, groovy leather trim
I like the way you hold the road, mama, it ain’t no sin

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

Trouble-free transmission, helps your oil’s flow
Mama, let me pump your gas, mama, let me do it all

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

Dig that heavy metal underneath your hood
Baby, I could work all night, believe I’ve got the perfect tools

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

A model built for comfort, really built with style
Specialist tradition, mama, let me feast my eyes

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

Factory air-conditioned, heat begins to rise
Guaranteed to run for hours, mama, it’s a perfect size

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

Groovin’ on the freeway, gauge is on the red
Gun down on my gasoline, I believe I’m gonna crack a head

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…
I can’t stop talkin’ about…

Come to me for service, every hundred miles
Baby, let me check your points, fix your overdrive

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

Fully automatic, comes in any size
Makes me wonder what I did, before we synchronized

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…

Feather-light suspension, coils just couldn’t hold
I’m so glad I took a look inside your showroom doors

Talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout love, talkin’ ’bout…
Oh, I can’t stop talkin’ about love
Goin’ down

Other than the basic theme, the lyrics of “Trampled Under Foot” are completely distinct from “Terraplane Blues”, as the two songs don’t share even a single line. Where Robert Johnson mentions lights, horn, batteries, (electrical) connection, hood, oil, coils, generator, motor, road, speed (“a cold one hundred”–the best line in the song), and wires, Robert Plant sings about body, trim, transmission, oil, gas, engine, hood, air conditioning, freeway, gauge, gasoline, head, service, points, overdrive, suspension, and coils. The only common images between these two songs are coils and oil, and I think Robert Plant outdoes Robert Johnson in both cases. Robert Johnson provides the serviceable line, “I’m goin’ hoist your hood, mama, I’m bound to check your oil”, but Robert Plant comes up with an inspired line, “Trouble-free transmission, helps your oil’s flow”. Also, Robert Plant employs a couple of images that would not have been relevant to Robert Johnson. For example, automobile manufacturers were only beginning to experiment with air conditioning in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1939 that Packard introduced the first automobile with factory-installed air conditioning. Also, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which shows the instance of search terms in books dating back to 1800, shows that the term “freeway” wasn’t in common usage until after World War II.

What’s surprising, given Robert Plant’s habit of freely borrowing blues lyrics, is how little overlap there is between songs. In fact, even the themes of these songs differ–“Terraplane Blues” is about infidelity while “Trampled Under Foot” is about giving in to sexual temptation.

A number of sources have suggested that Led Zeppelin borrowed the music in “Trampled Under Foot”. In Led Zeppelin: The Press Reports . . . Robert Godwin writes, “In fact [Robert Plant] didn’t steal the words, but [Robert] Johnson’s guitar arrangement is curiously similar to the keyboard arrangement of ‘Trampled Underfoot'”. The review of Physical Graffiti that appeared In Rolling Stone suggested that “Trampled Under Foot” owed a debt to Kool and the Gang. I don’t hear either of those, though. A more common reference is the one Chris Welch makes in his book Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, where he mentions the influence of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on “Trampled Under Foot”. On “Superstition,” from the 1972 album Talking Book, Stevie Wonder played a Hohner D6 Clavinet, and John Paul Jones also used the same instrument on “Trampled Under Foot”. Brian Kehew points out, however, that Stevie Wonder had used an earlier model Clavinet (Model C) than the Model D John Paul Jones used. More importantly, while both riffs are funky with a similar pattern, they are readily distinguishable.

Any comparisons that have been made between “Trampled Under Foot” and other songs are just reference points; “Trampled Under Foot” is Led Zeppelin’s alone. While the car as sexual metaphor may have been borrowed from Robert Johnson and the funky electric piano riff inspired by Stevie Wonder, as with all of their best tracks, Led Zeppelin synthesized their influences and produced something original.

6 thoughts on “Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Trampled Under Foot”

  1. The first time I heard Trampled Under Foot, I immediately thought of the Doobie Brothers’ ‘Long Train Running’.

  2. Pretty good assessment John Miller. The Doobie Brothers were popular when I was little and before I started writing songs for the band I named Led Zeppelin. Though, I had many influences in writing the song “Trampled Under Foot”, one being the 1972 song “Let’s Talk About Love” by Jimmy Dean (the sausage king). He had appeared in the 1971 James Bond film “Diamonds are Forever”. Ian Fleming’s character James Bond, is where “Jimmy/James” got part of his stage name. The other being “Patti Page” who recorded the song “All My Love (Bolero)…which inspired me to write the song “All My Love” for the band I named Led Zeppelin. Even though the saying “All that glitters is not gold” was popularized by Shakespeare…it can also be found in “All that is gold does not glitter” a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien included in his fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings, with a contrasting meaning…which I also referenced “Lord of the Rings in the lyrics of “Ramble On”. Though, the original inspiration behind using the saying is due to Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” due to Chris Blackwell of Island Records (who takes credit for discovering Marley) coming into my life. He had connections to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama through his artists Traffic (Steve Winwood’s band) and Jimmy Cliff. This is why I made references to Howlin’ Wolf (Willie Dixon songs “Back Door Man”, “How Many More Years”, “Shake for Me”) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Big Legged Woman & Whole Lotta Shakin Going On) songs who were discovered by Alabama native Sam Phillips…and I am from Alabama. Of course, Chris Blackwell got his start in the entertainment industry working on the set of Dr. No and his mother had an affair with the James Bond author. This is the connection to David Niven in “Stairway to Heaven” (aka A Matter of Life and Death) and the lyrics “’round the world” for the film “Around the World in 80 Days” which Niven also appeared.

  3. Give a listen to Sly and the Family Stone’s performance of “Thank You…” on Soul Train from 1974 and tell me if Sister Rose’s funk riff on the clavinet during the intro doesn’t sound a little familiar to JPJ’s intro to Trampled Underfoot! Interestingly enough, Zep were at Headly Grange recording leading up to that time, but didn’t released Physical Graffiti until early 1975. Sounds like they may have come up with those riffs independent of each other. Your thoughts?

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