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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