As Led Zep Turns 50, A Look Back at Half a Century of Song Theft

On August 12, 1968, Led Zeppelin rehearsed for the first time. As the newly assembled quartet ran through the Yardbirds’ live staple “Train Kept a Rollin,” the band’s chemistry was evident almost immediately. As Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones would later say, the “room just exploded.”

It’s fitting the band started their career with a cover, as they’d go on to produce a long string of unoriginal compositions.

Led Zep’s serial song theft has been in the spotlight since 2014 when the California jazz-rock group Spirit accused Led Zep of stealing the guitar intro of “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus.”

Zeppelin prevailed in court but the case was appealed. While Jimmy Page can legally say he wrote “Stairway,” the authorships of a surprising number of Led Zeppelin songs were contested in court, including signature hits like “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love.”

The first major copy-paste Zeppelin project was their first album classic “Dazed and Confused.” Page copied the iconic descending bass line and a vast majority of the words from folk singer Jack Holmes, performing it first with his band the Yardbirds and then with Led Zeppelin.

“Dazed and Confused” isn’t a one for one rip-off of Holmes’ original. It’s a cover and a remix of sorts, with the Zep version adding a long section of dramatic bowed guitar strings and heavy riffage to the folk original. But that makes it all the more maddening that they committed the theft at all when they were halfway to writing a new song anyhow.

Holmes sued in 2010 but dropped the case in 2012; many observers assumed an undisclosed settlement accompanied the dismissal. But undisclosed means undisclosed, right? We’ll most likely never know but current pressings of the album now lists the song credit as Jimmy Page; Inspired by Jack Holmes.

Anne Bredon, the folksinger who wrote “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” acted faster than Holmes and has enjoyed a Led Zeppelin co-writing credit since the ‘80s.

Bert Jansch, whose delicate guitar work Jimmy Page copied and pasted for Led Zeppelin I, didn’t have the same luck or legal timing, sadly enough.

Willie Dixon was even quicker on the draw than Bredon. The famed blues Chicago bassist and songwriter sued Zeppelin in 1972 for lifting his composition “Bring it on Home” for the song of the same name on Led Zeppelin’s debut and his “You Need Love” for “Whole Lotta Love” on Led Zeppelin II.

“Whole Lotta Love wasn’t the sole alleged retread on Led Zeppelin II. At about 1:30, “The Lemon Song,” becomes a noisy, distorted cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” Zep defenders will say there’s no harm in reworking a classic blues song. And they’re right to say that; like when the band dusted off a forgotten 1929 delta blues deep cut and reanimated it for the Frankenstein’s monster of “When The Levee Breaks.” The problem is that “Killing Floor” wasn’t recorded in 1929. It was released in 1964, a mere five years before Led Zeppelin II and was a huge radio hit. It would be like someone releasing a song in 2018 with the same melody as “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk or “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus.

Also, the “Moby Dick” riff sounds a lot like the Bobby Parker soul song “Watch Your Step,” which was released only eight years before Led Zeppelin II.

To their credit, at least according to the courts, from Houses of The Holy onwards Led Zeppelin mostly stuck to original compositions and songs in the public domain. The sole exception was the Physical Graffiti song “Boogie With Stu,” which borrowed heavily from the Richie Valens song “Ooh, My Head” and led to a legal settlement with Valens’ widow.