The Controversies Behind Led Zeppelin – Part I: The Plagiarism

Led Zeppelin, arguably one of the most popular and enduring classic rock bands in history, has been subject to a series of fascinating controversies throughout the passing of time. This article is part of a series which aims to shed light on the many controversies that have actually made many people (ranging from mere fans to specialized music critics and even religious or spiritual people alike) ponder on the wide range of mysteries shrouding the careers of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham.

For the first part of the series, we’ll be discussing the plagiarism controversy that’s related to many of the songs Led Zeppelin recorded and released during their early period (more specifically the years spanning from 1968 to 1971), a timeline that also saw the British group steadily propelling to worldwide stardom.

Consequently, one of the most significant issues that subsequently led to a tremendous distrust in the band (even among long-time fans) was the fact that they have taken a lot of inspiration from, most notably, Delta blues musicians and folk artists from both the US and the UK without actually crediting them.

The so-called concept of ‘ripping off’ an artist (or an entire band for that matter) has been henceforth a fiery matter of debate among both listeners and critics, all the more that a band of such notoriety as Led Zeppelin seemed to have resorted to blatant plagiarism in their early days (and, to some extent, later on as well).

It all started on the band’s debut album (i.e. ‘Led Zeppelin I’ ) which was released back in 1969. All 9 songs featured therein were initially credited mostly to Plant (lead vocals and occasional percussion) and Page (lead and rhythm guitars), with Page being credited for the arrangement and Plant for the lyrics. Nonetheless, ‘Led Zeppelin I’ was almost entirely made up of covered versions of already existing songs, either traditional ones (that are consequently part of the public domain) or original ones by other artists (such as Scottish folk guitarist Bert Jansch).

While initially not credited, the earlier artists who originally wrote those songs (either partially or entirely), more specifically Joan Baez, Jackson C. Frank, Bert Jansch, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jake Holmes did receive some mentions and/or partial royalties for most of the songs on ‘Led Zeppelin I’ several decades later.

Bron-yr-Aur cottage near Machynlleth in Wales, United Kingom. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org (licensed CC0)

Moving forward onto the band’s second studio album, ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (released in 1969 as well), consisted of ‘borrow’ riffs and arrangements mainly from other bluesmen, this time with Boby Parker and Sonny Boy Williamson as newcomers to the list of influences (in addition that is to Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon).

On ‘Led Zeppelin III’, released in 1970 and composed at Plant’s former childhood holiday cottage at Bron-yr-Aur near Machynlleth in Wales, Bukka White, Fred Garlach, and Bert Jansch (once again) were the artists that the band had largely taken influence from.

Probably the most iconic case of plagiarism on that album was be the copying of ‘The Wagonner’s Lad’, a traditional Irish song that was initially arranged by Jansch and then converted almost note for note for what would be the band’s ‘Bron-yr-Aur Stomp’.

Furthermore, on ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ (also known as ‘Untitled’), two of the most well know Zeppelin hits, namely ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and ‘When The Levee Breaks’ were allegedly copied in part from Spirit’s ‘Taurus’ and the namesake latter song by Delta bluesmen Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie (which was initially released in 1929).

At last, below you can watch two well documented videos on Youtube detailing the plagiarism cases involved throughout Led Zeppelin’s history, drawing comparisons between the covers and the original songs along most of the band’s career.

Documentation sources and external links:

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