As the old adage goes, good artists copy, great artists steal. The victims of such artistic theft, however, might contest the veracity of such a statement. And while the musical greatness and innovations of classic rockers Led Zeppelin are an uncontestable fact, so too is it true that they have more than once used other artists riffs and lyrics and failed to properly credit or compensate them. On Monday a Pennsylvania judge ruled that relatives of deceased guitarist Randy California, nee Randy Craig Wolfe, could move forward with a lawsuit claiming Led Zeppelin stole the music from their career-defining 1971 epic “Stairway To Heaven” from his band Spirit’s 1968 recording “Taurus.” The intros of both songs are startlingly familiar, and the band’s were familiar with each other, however actually proving copyright infringement is a harder task.
Generally speaking, in order to prove a musical plagiarism lawsuit, one must prove that the lyrics or main vocal melody were copied. Chord progressions, instrumental riffs, and song titles do not typically receive a copyright. In addition, there is a long musical tradition of players borrowing ideas from each other and incorporating them into new compositions. This was especially true in the blues, on songs such as “Walking Blues” for example, which has been credited to both Robert Johnson and Son House. While Led Zeppelin are far from the only rock band that has claimed a blues lyric or borrowed riff as their own, there are unfortunately some rather egregious examples of the band’s liberal idea of original compositions that demand review in light of current events.
Led Zeppelin “Stairway To Heaven” (1971)
Everyone knows this 8-minute classic rock epic, which regularly tops lists of the greatest rock songs of all time and in many ways is the original power ballad. According to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, the song was composed in 1970, during writing sessions in the Welsh countryside for the band’s fourth album.
Spirit “Taurus” (1968)
Members of this Los Angeles psychedelic rock group claim this instrumental, which is under 3 minutes long, was the basis for Zeppelin’s most famous song. The intros do sound exactly the same, however after that, the similarities between them end. Bolstering their argument though is the fact that the two bands toured together in the late ‘60s and Led Zeppelin was known to jam on Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” live in concert.
Eric Clapton “Let It Grow” (1974)
For historic note, and also to illustrate the way songwriters sometimes unintentionally copy each other, in his 2006 autobiography, Eric Clapton acknowledges this song off his landmark 461 Ocean Boulevard album “totally ripped off” the Zeppelin classic in the verse.
Led Zeppelin “Dazed and Confused” (1969)
The most blatant and true song theft in the Zeppelin catalog, this formative piece of moody proto-metal is indisputably based on a song by the little known folk singer Jake Holmes. However, when issued on Led Zeppelin’s first album, only Jimmy Page was credited as the writer. For inexplicable reasons, Holmes did not sue until 2010. It is assumed the matter was settled out of court and the 2012 live Led Zeppelin concert Celebration Day now credits the song to “Jimmy Page; inspired by Jake Holmes.”
Jake Holmes “Dazed and Confused” (1967)
As heard, Holmes original contains the song’s signature descending bassline, many of the same lyrics, as well as the basic structure.
The Yardbirds “Dazed and Confused” (1968)
Page first heard the original when Holmes opened for The Yardbirds in New York City in 1967. Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty says the band bought a copy of Holmes’ album “The Above Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes and worked up an arrangement which became a staple of their live shows, as seen in this 1968 clip.
Led Zeppelin “Whole Lotta Love” (1969)
Another song that often comes up when discussing Zeppelin’s alleged musical thefts is also one of their signature numbers. While the main riff, chorus and structure of this classic rock radio mainstay are original, the vocal melody and lyrics are not.
The Small Faces “You Need Loving” (1966)
The verse melody, and ending vocal crescendo of “Whole Lotta Love” are a near direct lift of this song by the revered British beat group. Singer Steve Marriott, was allegedly Jimmy Page’s first choice to front the new group he was putting together. Though credited to Faces members Marriott and Ronnie Lane, the lyrics actually were stolen as well.
Muddy Waters “You Need Love” (1963)
Written by the famed blues songwriter Willie Dixon, and originally performed by blues great Waters, this song contains the original lyrics which would be claimed by the above bands as their own. Dixon eventually sued Zeppelin and won monetary compensation and a co-writing credit though never bothered to sue The Small Faces.
Led Zeppelin “Black Mountain Side” (1969)
This number off Zeppelin’s debut album was a showcase for Jimmy Page to flex his acoustic guitar chops. Though credited on the album to Page, once again, its origins can be found elsewhere and are glaringly apparent upon listening to the source material.
Bert Jansch “Blackwaterside” (1966)
This arrangement of the Irish folk ballad “Down By Blackwaterside” appeared on the album Jack Orion, by acclaimed fingerpicking guitarist and pioneering UK folk rock musician, Bert Jansch. Jansch actually considered suing Page at the time of “Black Mountain Side”’s release, however was advised against it since his arrangement was based on a traditional song, whose original author could not be identified.
Davy Graham “She Moved Through The Fair” (1962)
The other source material for “Black Mountain Side” was this arrangement of another traditional folk number, which introduced the DADGAD guitar tuning to a generation of guitar players. Jimmy Page, an avowed Graham fan, has used this tuning on several Led Zeppelin numbers including the epic “Kashmir.”
Led Zeppelin “Since I’ve Been Loving You” (1970)
The opening lick of one of Zeppelin’s greatest blues exercises was familiar to fans of Page’s previous band, The Yardbirds, and some of the lyrics were heard elsewhere before as well. However, the end result was a work that could stand on its own and is vastly superior to the source materal.
The Yardbirds “New York City Blues” (1965)
Recorded before Page joined the group, this song appeared on a single B-side in 1965. The intro guitar lick is nearly identical to “Since I’ve Been Loving You,” however, the similarities end there.
Moby Grape “Never” (1968)
Many of the lyrics of “Since I’ve Been Loving You” originate in this song by the cult San Francisco psych rock band Moby Grape. Robert Plant has often proclaimed his admiration for the band and even covered their number “Skip’s Song” as a solo artist.
Led Zeppelin “How Many More Times” (1969)
This song was the final song on Zeppelin’s debut album and was the closing number in their live sets in their early years. Though drawing from several sources, it is solely credited to Zeppelin members Jimmy Page, John Bonham and John Paul Jones.
The Yardbirds “Smokestack Lightning” (1964)
The main bassline of “How Many More Times” was a riff on The Yardbird’s arrangement of this blues standard by the great Howlin’ Wolf. Page played the song many times during his tenure with the band.
Jeff Beck “Beck’s Bolero” (1967)
Additionally, the middle section of “How Many More Times” quotes from this 1967 Jeff Beck number which Page played 12 string guitar on and allegedly produced. Though credited on Beck’s album as a Jimmy Page composition, Beck has said that while the chord progression was Page’s, the guitar melody on top was Beck’s own.
Albert King “The Hunter” (1967)
After the instrumental breakdown, “How Many More Times” goes into a verse from this soul blues number by Albert King and written by famed Stax soul band Booker T. & The MG’s. The song was popular among many British blues rock groups of the 1960s, however, the band and it’s publishing company never bothered to persue a lawsuit against the band.
Led Zeppelin “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” (1976)
Another blues workout, this song is one of the highlight’s of the band’s Presence album. While there’s no doubt the Zeppelin arrangement is original, it draws much from a previously recorded song.
Blind Willie Johnson “It’s Nobody’s Fault but Mine” (1927)
Led Zeppelin lifted guitar riffs, the title and much of the lyrics from this original recording by Texas bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, who died in 1945 at the age of 48.
Led Zeppelin “Bring It On Home” (1969)
This song closed out Led Zeppelin II in dramatic fashion. While the main section of the song is undoubtedly an original composition, the introduction is a tribute, or copy depending on your perspective, of an early ‘60s number by original delta bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson
Sonny Boy Williamson “Bring It On Home” (1963)
This song was released on the posthumous Williamson collection The Real Folk Blues in 1966. Arc Music, the music publishing company of Chess Records who issued the recording, brought a lawsuit against Zeppelin in 1972. The band settled out of court and though originally credited to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Chess staff songwriter Willie Dixon now receives the full writer’s credit.
Led Zeppelin “The Lemon Song” (1969)
In many ways an original composition, this blues medley quotes freely from several well-known blues classics though was originally solely credited to Led Zeppelin.
Howlin’ Wolf “Killing Floor” (1964)
In 1972, Chess Records’ Arc Music brought suit against Zeppelin saying “The Lemon Song” was actually a cover of this blues classic. Zeppelin settled out of court and Chester Burnett, Holwin’ Wolf’s real name, now receives a co-writing credit. “The Lemon Song” also borrows elements from Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues,” which Zeppelin also covered straight out, and Albert King’s “Cross-Cut Saw,” however no suits have ever beeen brought to bear on their behalf.
Jeff Beck “Spanish Boots” (1969)
Though not credited as such, the main riff of “The Lemon Song” also owes much to this number off Jeff Beck’s sophomore album Beck-Ola, which came out nearly a half year before Led Zeppelin II. Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page grew up together, and Page even got Beck his gig in The Yardbirds, though supposedly the two fell out for several years after Beck felt there were too many musical similarities between his band and Led Zeppelin’s first two albums.