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 a 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.’