For some readers, this may be old news. For others, this will be a tough pill to swallow. But here it is–the dudes from Led Zeppelin were the biggest thieves in rock history.. They were British gangsters who made their fortune strong-arming others out of their rightfully earned royalties.
Led Zeppelin wielded the thunder of the gods, and consumed women and libations with the appetite of Norse warlords. They plundered and pillaged like vikings, taking ruthlessly from others and hoarding the riches that followed.
It was a dick move when the vikings did it. And it was a dick move when Zeppelin did it.
But how deep does Zeppelin’s theft really go?
Man…it’s pretty deep.
Before we get to the facts of the case, let’s get something out of the way. This is not about how good Zeppelin was or wasn’t. Check out my ranking of the best rock bands of all time. Zeppelin makes #4 on my list.
Objectively speaking, they were the mightiest of outfits. Together, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham channeled a kind of power, musicianship, and showmanship with no equal. Even as they shamelessly grifted songs from others, they dressed their ill-gotten gains in innovative arrangements, added their own instrumental inventions, and pushed new boundaries in studio and onstage.
And in most cases, when you hold Zeppelin’s version side by side with the original, it’s easy to see how the former succeeded in raising a song’s profile where the latter did not. If Led Zeppelin never stole “Dazed and Confused” from an otherwise unknown folk singer named Jake Holmes, it would still be an obscurity today.
In other words, this article is not an indictment of Led Zeppelin’s music. It is an indictment of their character.
Led Zeppelin made awesome, groundbreaking music. And they failed at nearly every point to give credit where credit was due.
This was not merely a symbolic failure. There were many victims left in Zeppelin’s wake. Quite a few of them actually crossed paths with the band during its ascension. As they passed, they were pickpocketed.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Jimmy Page on more than one occasion stole songs from his own opening acts shortly after performing alongside them. When it comes to intellectual property, that’s about as close to a physical robbery as you get.
By the time they arrived in the studio to record their debut in 1968, half of the band’s live repertoire was borrowed. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.
What is wrong is that they gave themselves writing credits for all of it. They cast themselves as the lone recipients of royalties for songs with transparently borrowed instrumental passages, lazily reconfigured lyrics, or slightly altered chord structures. In some cases, they dispensed with the charade altogether, instead simply taking, re-titling, and claiming wholesale songs which were not their own.
Jimmy Page once sheepishly admitted that it was Plant’s job to rewrite lyrics of “borrowed” tunes, but that he sometimes just…forgot.
From a copyright standpoint, that’s pretty convenient.
In their prime, Page and Plant were derisively referred to in the music press as “thieving magpies.” Quite the British insult, and well-earned at that.
They also earned their fame, their success, their enormity, and their unmatched reputation for debauchery. But the same can’t be said for their fabulous wealth, so much of which was copyrighted under false pretense.
Many of their victims have since been compensated, but usually after toiling in anonymity for 30 years. Some died in the midst of that toil.
Try not to let that ruin it for you.
Anyhow, here we go…
9 Songs That Zeppelin Straight Up Stole
1. Dazed and Confused
This is one of the very first songs Zeppelin taped upon arriving at Olympic Studios in London to record their debut. It’s fitting in a way, because this is kind of the template for how Zeppelin knowingly ripped off artists of smaller stature.
This story begins in 1967, when the Yardbirds toured the U.S. With Jimmy Page at the helm, the British blues band began moving in a heavier, more experimental, and more psychedelic direction. Among their openers on this tour was a folk singer named Jake Holmes. Only Jim McCarty—the Yardbirds drummer—witnessed Jake’s opening set on an August night in Greenwich Village.
As Holmes sarcastically recalls, “That was the infamous moment of my life when ‘Dazed and Confused’ fell into the loving arms and hands of Jimmy Page.”
Jim McCarty went out and bought Jake’s album the next day and played it for the band. Almost immediately and without permission, the Yardbirds adapted a version of “Dazed and Confused” for their own set. When the Yardbirds splintered the following year, Page carried Jake’s song into the studio with him. Adding additional guitar parts, tweaking the lyrics, and doubling the bass, he decided the song now belonged to him. And that’s how it appeared on the band’s debut album.
Holmes was made almost immediately aware of it, and attempted without success to contact Jimmy Page on multiple occasions for restitution. Finally, in 2010, Holmes sued the band, leading to an out-of-court settlement. Today, releases credit the song to “Page as Inspired by Jake Holmes”.
2. Black Mountain Side
This lovely Celtic instrumental, which also appears on Zeppelin’s debut album, is another template setter for future song heists. Here, they merely altered the title of a folk song with no official authorship claim, then called it their own.
But the trail from traditional arrangement to its appearance on Zeppelin’s debut album is very easy to trace. The composition more than likely originated out of Northern Ireland. It began to surface in compilations of Celtic folk by the late 1940s but is certainly decades older at least.
Legendary Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch was among those to record his own variation on a song called “Black Water Side.” It appears on Bert’s 1966 album Jack Orion. The album describes the song as “Traditionally arranged by Bert Jansch.”
“Traditionally arranged” is a common designation of authorship for folk songs whose original authorship is unknown.
Prior to recording “Black Water Side,”, Jansch was already playing his version in live performances as early 1965. Singer-Songwriter Al Stewart (later known for 1977 Top Ten “Year of the Cat”) intersected with Jansch during their shared time in the growing British folk revival scene. He was so taken by the melody, that he taught the song to the session guitarist on his sophomore record–Jimmy Page.
The original chord structure was altered slightly in translation, but an inescapably similar song called “Black Mountain Side” appeared on Zeppelin’s debut, credited entirely to Jimmy Page.
As Jansch once observed, Jimmy Page “ripped me off, didn’t he? Or let’s just say he learned from me.”
At one point, Jansch considered but ultimately decided against legal action. The traditional origin of the song made his ownership claim over the stolen arrangement murky at best.
3. Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
In fairness to Zeppelin, this wasn’t actually stolen. It was just inaccurately attributed. By most accounts, a folk singer named Anne Bredon first conceived and recorded this haunting melody in 1959.
However, it was Joan Baez who popularized the tune with her 1962 recording. Having learned the song from a secondary source, she cited it on her album as “Traditionally Arranged by Joan Baez.” When Zeppelin included it on their first album, they followed suit, identifying it as “Traditionally Arranged by Jimmy Page.”
Amazingly, it was not until the 1980s that Bredon learned of her song’s use and mis-attribution. Beginning with a legal arrangement in 1990, Bredon’s name now appears alongside Page and Plant on subsequent Zeppelin releases. She also received a boatload of money for unpaid royalties, and lived out her years as a highly skilled Navajo basket weaver in North Fork, California. Bredon passed away at age 89 in 2019.
4. Whole Lotta Love
Led Zeppelin kicked off 1969 with their debut album, and ended it with their sophomore release. Led Zeppelin II hit shelves in October and gave the band its first #1 record. The lead track also became a Billboard Top 5 in the U.S..
“Whole Lotta Love” rightfully holds its place in the pantheon of hard rock blueprints—a masterpiece of riffage, overdubs, echoes, and howls. It qualifies as an important piece of the rock and roll puzzle, and a lot of what makes it consequential comes from the band’s own invention.
But…it’s also one of the more consciously committed acts of atrocity in the band’s catalog.
In 1962, Delta-born blues legend Muddy Waters recorded a single called “You Need Love.” Like a lot of Muddy Waters staples, it was composed by songwriter and Chicago Blues architect Willie Dixon.
Its lyrics would feature prominently in “Whole Lotta Love.”
Robert Plant has stated openly that he knew precisely what he was doing. He once recalled,
“Page’s riff was Page’s riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, ‘well, what am I going to sing?’ That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that … well, you only get caught when you’re successful. That’s the game.”
Anyway, the happy payment Plant references came in 1985, when Dixon sued the band, and received partial credit and royalties in an out-of-court settlement.
5. The Lemon Song
The story behind “The Lemon Song” is remarkably similar to that of “Whole Lotta Love.” Here, they targeted the work of another legendary bluesman. Like most British musicians of the 60s, Zeppelin incorporated a fair amount of Chicago Blues material into their early setlist.
One of those was a well-known 1964 tune from Howlin’ Wolf called “Killing Floor”. Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf was a bluesman from the Mississippi Delta who traveled north to help define the Chicago sound. Speaking of, he is also joined here on guitar by a young future legend named Buddy Guy.
It’s more than likely that Page picked the tune up around ’66 or ’67, courtesy of the emergent Jimi Hendrix Experience. “Killing Floor” was a standard for Jimi in those early performances. By their first tour in 1968, Zeppelin was playing the song regularly as well, and introducing it by its proper name…and identifying it as a Howlin’ Wolf song.
That all changed when it came time to sort out authorship on their second record. With “The Lemon Song,” Zeppelin essentially renamed the original Wolf tune, interspersed a few other borrowed lines from songs by Robert Johnson and Albert King, then claimed it as their own.
In 1972, Arc Music—owner of Howlin’ Wolf’s publishing rights—sued Zeppelin and received an out of court settlement. Wolf received a sizable check for unpaid royalties and all subsequent releases have listed him as a co-author.
6. Moby Dick
“Moby Dick” is not an egregious act of intellectual theft. We’ll chalk this one up to genetic lineage.
The riff that drives “Moby Dick” bears striking similarity to the riff from Louisiana-born bluesman Bobby Parker’s 1961 hit “Watch Your Step.” Recording on a small Philly-based label called V-Tone, Parker peaked at #51 that summer.
In spite of its relatively modest chart performance, Parker’s guitar riff found its way into rock and roll’s core DNA. First covered by a wave of British Invaders like Manfred Mann and the Spencer Davis Group, it was eventually (and explicitly) copped by the Beatles. John Lennon openly admitted that he loved the riff, which you can hear on songs like “Day Tripper” and “I Feel Fine.”
On their second album, Zeppelin included their own adaptation, which is mostly distinguished from the original by John Bonham’s utterly distinctive drum solo.
This instance of petty theft would not warrant legal action on Parker’s part. In fact, in discussing his own inspiration for the song, Parker admitted that it evolved out of his own attempt to steal Dizzy Gillespie’s riff from the song “Manteca.”
7. Bring It On Home
With “Bring It On Home,” Zeppelin claims that it had the best of intentions.
But it feels like there are a few holes in that story.
Let’s start here. Blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded the original “Bring It On Home” in 1963. Once again, the composition was provided by the illustrious Willie Dixon.
When recording their own song by the same name, the members of Led Zeppelin collaborated on the composition of the song’s middle passage. The intro and outro were identical to those from Sonny Boy’s song which, again, had the exact same title. Naturally, authorship was credited entirely to the band members upon its release on Led Zeppelin II.
When Arc Music sued them for copyright infringement, Led Zeppelin argued that the stolen passages were meant as an homage to Sonny Boy Williamson. For some reason, they assumed this gave them the right to claim full authorship.
In fact, it didn’t. At some point, both sides reached an undisclosed out-of-court settlement. Whatever transpired there, the song has been credited to only Willie Dixon since at least 2003.
8. Since I’ve Been Loving You
This one sounds like another song lifted from a legendary bluesman. But in fact, this is one that Led Zeppelin stole from a direct contemporary. There’s not much of a story to this one. It showed up on Led Zeppelin III (1970) as a slow blues burner in the Key of C called “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
But it’s pretty obvious that the influential Bay Area hippie band Moby Grape also recorded it, in 1968, as a slow blues burner in the Key of C called “Never.”
After years of legal wrangling, Moby Grape’s Bob Mosely finally received some form of out-of-court compensation in 2005. However, in order to receive this undisclosed amount, Mosely was forced to surrender any claims of authorship in perpetuity.
9. Stairway To Heaven
It is a fact that “Stairway to Heaven” is—as a whole—an original invention, a landmark studio achievement, and the height to which every greasy-haired, Tolkein-loving, AV Club-president-turned-heavy-metal guitarist aspires. “Stairway to Heaven” is ground zero for the decade of hard rock and progressive shredding that followed.
It is a fact that Page and Plant were the architects of this sonic temple.
It is also a fact that they used recycled pieces for the front door, and they did it without asking. This time, the victim was Spirit— an American West Coast band with a strong psych-blues resume.
Spirit’s 1968 self-titled debut includes a whimsical instrumental passage called “Taurus,” credited to guitarist Randy California. By striking coincidence, Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit during their first swing through the U.S. that very year.
And as Randy California would note on the subject, Zeppelin played its own live version of Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” in some early shows. The band’s awareness of Spirit is well-established.
Thus, the similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway” are hard to shake. Jump to about the 0:45 mark on “Taurus” and you may hear one of history’s most famous descending chords.
Though Randy California passed away in 1997, his estate continued the legal pursuit of co-writing credit up until only pretty recently. It was not until 2016 that a judge agreed to hear the case. Jimmy Page answered questions on the stand for several hours, but ultimately, a jury deliberated for just one hour before finding in Zeppelin’s favor.
Appeals reached a dead end in 2020, when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The song will remain credited entirely to Page & Plant in perpetuity.
Again, none of this is meant to understate Led Zeppelin’s greatness. Instead, it is to point out that they would have been equally great–if perhaps a few million dollars less wealthy–had they simply given credit where credit was due.
But to show you that I’m a good sport, here’s a killer playlist of Zeppelin songs that the band actually wrote.