How Led Zeppelin Stole Their Way to Fame and Fortune

When Bob Dylan released his 2001 album Love and Theft, he lift­ed the title from a book of the same name by Eric Lott, who stud­ied 19th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music’s musi­cal thefts and con­temp­tu­ous imper­son­ations. The ambiva­lence in the title was there, too: musi­cians of all col­ors rou­tine­ly and lov­ing­ly stole from each oth­er while devel­op­ing the jazz and blues tra­di­tions that grew into rock and roll. When British inva­sion bands intro­duced their ver­sion of the blues, it only seemed nat­ur­al that they would con­tin­ue the tra­di­tion, pick­ing up riffs, licks, and lyrics where they found them, and get­ting a lit­tle slip­pery about the ori­gins of songs. This was, after all, the music’s his­to­ry.

In truth, most UK blues rock­ers who picked up oth­er people’s songs changed them com­plete­ly or cred­it­ed their authors when it came time to make records. This may not have been tra­di­tion but it was eth­i­cal busi­ness prac­tice. Fans of Led Zep­pelin, on the oth­er hand, now lis­ten to their music with aster­isks next to many of their hits — foot­notes sum­ma­riz­ing court cas­es, mis­at­tri­bu­tions, and down­right thefts from which they prof­it­ed. In many cas­es, the band would only admit to steal­ing under duress. At oth­er times, they freely con­fessed in inter­views to tak­ing songs, tweak­ing them a bit, and giv­ing them­selves sole cred­it for com­pos­ing and/or arrang­ing.

A list of ten “rip offs” in Rolling Stone piece on Led Zeppelin’s pen­chant for theft is hard­ly exhaus­tive. It does not include “Stair­way to Heav­en,” for which the band was recent­ly sued for lift­ing a melody from Spirit’s “Tau­rus.” (An inter­net user saved the band’s case by find­ing that both songs used an ear­li­er melody from the 1600s.)

Dur­ing those recent court pro­ceed­ings, the pros­e­cu­tion quot­ed from a 1993 inter­view Jim­my Page gave Gui­tar World:

“[A]s far as my end of it goes, I always tried to bring some­thing fresh to any­thing that I used. I always made sure to come up with some vari­a­tion. In fact, I think in most cas­es, you would nev­er know what the orig­i­nal source could be. Maybe not in every case – but in most cas­es. So most of the com­par­isons rest on the lyrics. And Robert was sup­posed to change the lyrics, and he didn’t always do that – which is what brought on most of the grief. They couldn’t get us on the gui­tar parts of the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics.”

The blame shift­ing was “not quite fair to Plant,” the court found, “as Page repeat­ed­ly took entire musi­cal com­po­si­tions with­out attri­bu­tion.” He stood accused of doing so, for exam­ple, in “The Lemon Song,” lift­ed from Howl­in’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” After a law­suit, the song is now co-cred­it­ed to Chester Bur­nett (Howl­in’ Wolf’s real name). For his part, Plant read­i­ly blamed Page when giv­en the chance. In his book Led Zep­pelin IV, Bar­ney Hoskyns quotes the singer’s thoughts on the “Whole Lot­ta Love” con­tro­ver­sy:

I think when Willie Dixon turned on the radio in Chica­go twen­ty years after he wrote his blues, he thought, ‘That’s my song.’ … When we ripped it off, I said to Jim­my, ‘Hey, that’s not our song.’ And he said, ‘Shut up and keep walk­ing.’

Led Zeppelin’s musi­cal thiev­ery does not make them less tal­ent­ed or inge­nious as musi­cians. They took oth­ers’ mate­r­i­al, some of it whole­sale, but no one can claim they didn’t make it their own, meld­ing Amer­i­can blues and British folk into a tru­ly strange brew. The Poly­phon­ic video above on their use of oth­ers’ music begins with a quote from “poet and famous anti-semi­te” T.S. Eliot, express­ing a sen­ti­ment also attrib­uted to Picas­so, Faulkn­er, and Stravin­sky:

Imma­ture poets imi­tate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into some­thing bet­ter, or at least some­thing dif­fer­ent.

As far as copy­right goes, Zep­pelin didn’t always cross legal lines. But as Jacqui McShee said when Page reworked a com­po­si­tion by her Pen­tan­gle band­mate, Bert Jan­sch, “It’s a very rude thing to do. Pinch some­body else’s thing and cred­it it to your­self.” Maybe so. Still, nobody ever won any awards for polite­ness in rock and roll, most espe­cial­ly the band that helped invent the sound of heavy met­al. See a score­board show­ing the num­ber of orig­i­nals, cred­it­ed cov­ers and uncred­it­ed thefts on the band’s first four albums here.’

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

Zep­pelin Took My Blues Away: An Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Zeppelin’s “Copy­right Indis­cre­tions”

How Led Zeppelin’s “Stair­way to Heav­en” Recre­ates the Epic Hero’s Jour­ney Described by Joseph Camp­bell

When Led Zep­pelin Reunit­ed and Crashed and Burned at Live Aid (1985)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Doug Arrowsmith says:

    Zep­pelin “steals” while mod­ern artists “sam­ple”?

  • Christine Elgumati says:

    Led Zep­pelin were NOT sued over Stair­way to heav­en. It was twice reject­ed by a court of law twice!

  • MrZoSo says:

    Since for­ev­er musi­cians have been cred­it­ing orig­i­nal inter­pre­ta­tion
    as “stan­dards”

    Led Zep­pelin took fair share and yes, they took cred­it. Let me be the first to say they deserved to do so.

    While MANY claim they were first…just as good…were doing the same thing…
    No one before or since could touch Zep­pelin.
    Not even close.

    Lis­ten to orig­i­nal record­ings from 69 and they stand the test of time. In fact they exceed it.

    So while oth­ers talk…accuse…and try to incrim­i­nate, it always comes back to orig­i­nal.
    Led Zep­pelin.

    To take a real quote from Robert Plant talk­ing of Jim­my Page…
    “You made music beyond music”

  • Mr zepics says:

    There’s always been alot of pro­fes­sion­al jeal­ousy when it comes to a band so pro­lif­ic as led zep­pelin keep dream­ing pre­tenders

  • william tobin says:

    MR.ZOSO You Sir are abso­lut­ly correct.Everything on the plan­et has been copied and re worked for a bet­ter prod­uct. From cars to planes to clothes, and FEW peo­ple EVER SAID ‚i took this and made it better..When 4 extrem­ly tal­ent­ed men got togeth­er, worked hard and re worked some music that with­out a doubt, just BLEW EVERYBODY AWAY, WELL all ive got­ta say is GOD BLESS LED ZEPPELIN.Im push­ing 60 and ill NEVER STOP lov­ing their diver­si­fied music…till the day i die…

  • John says:

    .…how Zepp ‘stole’ their way.…etc etc etc! The jeal­ousy sur­round­ing this band is so acute it’s just a tes­ta­ment of how great in fact they real­ly are! No one not even the band them­selves had any idea ig they would become back in the ear­ly days and using oth­er artist’s work was com­mon­place back in the 60s!It’s because of there mas­sive suc­cess have music crit­ics and indus­try heads come out attack­ing them!

  • Jay Florida says:

    Bor­rowed as an homage perhaps,and made vast improve­ments.

  • Åge Martinussen says:

    Spir­it can go and .… them selves.

  • Jeff Seltzer says:

    Count­less bands and solo artists from The Stones to Jay Z have “sam­pled” or record­ed oth­er artists mate­r­i­al.
    Yet it’s always Led Zep­pelin who gets the brunt of ill-informed and jeal­ous writ­ers opin­ions. If you take issue with Zep­pelin then DON’T LISTEN to them and put on your Justin Bieber CD. Btw, he’s guilty of pira­cy as well and has been sued.
    Tak­ing in the total­i­ty and diver­si­ty of Zeps cat­a­log, dis­miss­ing them is ridicu­lous. Their COMPLETE dom­i­nance of the 70’s is undis­put­ed.

  • Jim B says:

    Zep may have used oth­er musi­cians’ work as a basis for theirs, but Zep’s prod­uct was only nom­i­nal­ly sim­i­lar to the orig­i­nal due to their rearrange­ment and pre­sen­ta­tion in the way only Zep could do. In their day, nobody could be Zep but Zep and that con­tin­ues to be true today. They’re the GOAT plain and sim­ple.

  • Libby Esther Berman says:

    Got­ta love how bla­tant a steal ’ Black Moun­tain Side’ is to Bert Jan­sch’s ’ Black­wa­ter­side’. Page could at least have var­ied the arrange­ment. They owe huge amounts of mon­ey to var­i­ous estates, and song­writ­ers. Jim­my Page could nev­er look Bert Jan­sch in the eye, which is admit­ting guilt. Why are these peo­ple allowed to pla­gia­rize so freely?

  • Libby Esther Berman says:

    So nice to know that Jim­my Page had at least twinges of con­science where Bert Jan­sch was con­cerned. Just not enough to pay the man.

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