Led Zeppelin’s Copyright Blues


It’s always fascinated me that Led Zeppelin’s music could be so far ahead of it’s time, and at the same time owe such a monumental debt to the music that came before it. Over the years it’s come to light that a significant portion of Zeppelin’s catalog is comprised of songs pieced together out of bits of this or that blues song, and the band has been called on to pay that debt– literally, several times over the decades. For those unaware of this ugly aspect of the Zeppelin legacy, here’s a quick rundown of Zep’s previous brushes with the law over copyright infringement:

“Dazed & Confused”: a re-written version of a song by Jake Holmes, an American folk singer that Jimmy Page’s previous band the Yardbirds played with in 1967. Page first reworked the song for the Yardbirds, altering the melody and the lyrics, but eventually recorded a version for Led Zeppelin’s first album, without crediting Holmes. Holmes finally sued Page for copyright infringement in 2010, and the songwriting credits now read “Page; inspired by Jake Holmes”. Zeppelin still holds a separate copyright for their version of the song.

“Bring It On Home”: The intro is a tribute to “Bring It On Home” by Sonny Boy Williamson, written by Willie Dixon, while the middle section was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The entire song was originally credited to Page and Plant, but was corrected in 1972 to include Dixon’s name, after Arc Music, Dixon’s publisher, brought a lawsuit against Zeppelin, which was settled out of court.

“Whole Lotta Love”: Zeppelin was sued over this song in 1985, and again the lawsuit was settled out of court. Lyrically, the song is based around “You Need Love”, written by Willie Dixon; Dixon is now included in the songwriting credit, and once again the case was settled out of court.

“How Many More Times”: Originally credited to Page, Jones, and Bonham. Since 1993, the song has included a credit for Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), whose “How Many More Years” shares a lot of lyrics with the Zep tune. Burnett’s estate settled out of court and demanded several credits in the Zeppelin catalog be corrected, including “The Lemon Song”, which includes several elements of Burnett’s “Killing Floor.” (That song’s “lemon” lyrics are taken from another old blues song: Robert Johnson’s “Travelling Riverside Blues.”) “How Many More Times” also includes uncredited passages from “The Hunter”, written by Jones, Cropper, Dunn, Jackson, & Wells in 1967 and recorded by Albert King. No legal action was ever taken over this.

“Hats Off To (Roy) Harper” is a sort of medley made up of pieces of blues songs and lyrics, including “Shake ‘Em on Down” by Bukka White, to name just one. It’s unclear if Zep claimed ever profited from this amalgam of established, legally held songs; the song’s credits read “Trad. Arrangement: Charles Obscure”. Mr. Obscure is none other than Jimmy Page. So, ya, they probably did.

“In My Time of Dying”: A tradition gospel song in the public domain and with no legal authorship, the song is nonetheless credited to all four members of Zeppelin. “…Dying” is a prime example of Zeppelin’s overall arrogance, in that it claims sole authorship (and ownership) of a song in the public domain to the tune of millions of dollars. A ballsy move; at least there were no actual copyright holders getting screwed.


In Zep’s defense, I’m gonna quote some experts who make a very valid argument in the band’s favor:

Noted blues author and producer Robert Palmer has said “It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own”.

Folklorist Carl Lindahl refers to the recycling of lyrics in songs as “floating lyrics”. He defines it within the folk-music tradition as “lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics”.

In this context, Zep’s shameless pilfering of the blues can be viewed as a musically valid form of participation in ages-old musical tradition. The problem is, the original writers of much of this material and the fledgling publishing companies that administered royalties ‘back in the day’ earned a mere pittance from their work when compared to Led Zeppelin’s earnings during the album era. The music business didn’t really become The Music Business until the mid-to-late 60’s… right about the time Led Zeppelin came along. Zep’s claiming owner/authorship of material that was generally accepted as ‘community property’ places the band well outside of Palmer and Lindahl’s safety zone.


To me, the single most fascinating chapter in this sordid saga involves a band from Atlanta, GA called Mother’s Finest. MF were an unlikely (at least in the mid-70’s) combination of hard rock and hard funk. Despite touring as openers for Aerosmith, AC/DC, Ted Nugent, and Black (!) Sabbath, and their excellent Tom Werman-produced third album, ‘Another Mother Further’ (Epic 1977), the band never broke through commercially; MF’s music was too white for black audiences and too black for white audiences. ‘Another Mother Further’ began with a version of The Miracles 1963 Motown hit “Mickey’s Monkey”, and it kicks major ass, but… hold on a second…


The Mother’s Finest version of “Mickey’s Monkey” is a cleverly-assembled amalgam of Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie” and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey”, with “Custard” serving as the backing track and The Miracles’ lyrics arranged on top. The mash-up works well musically, but also makes an important point. By 1976-77, Led Zeppelin had largely gotten away with stealing licks and lyrics from blues artists at will, plundering the rich history of black music, creating ‘new’ works from them, and making millions in the process. Mother’s Finest was clearly looking to provoke, to challenge; their blatant steal of the Zep song, performed note-for-note, and identical in key, tempo and arrangement, completely uncredited to Zeppelin, was a response to Zeppelin’s blatant theft of black music. Here was a band that identified as Black (their 2nd album contained a song entitled “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock ‘n’ Roll”) stealing from a mega-band that arguably built its career on the uncredited appropriation of black music…


The tables had been turned. The question so provocatively posed by Mother’s Finest was: How would Led Zeppelin respond to their music being stolen by black musicians? An absolutely brilliant move, ingenious in it’s construction, and, imho, 100% punk rock. It’s now 35 years later, and Led Zeppelin never challenged MF on their use of “Custard Pie”; no legal action has ever been taken. Zeppelin’s non-response can be viewed several different ways: as an admission of guilt, an atonement for past sins, or as an apology. Make of it what you will.

In the present day, Led Zeppelin is vehemently refuting claims that their magnum opus, “Stairway to Heaven”, was stolen from Spirit; the legal action is moving forward, and gaining momentum daily. A cursory listen to audio samples of both songs reveals a stunning similarity… Is it any wonder?

Electric Funeral

September 15, 1974; Moody Coliseum, Dallas, Texas. Uriah Heep is touring the US promoting their 7th album, Wonderworld. About midway through the set, during the epic ‘July Morning’, Bassist Gary Thain suddenly vaults 3 feet off into the air, collapses to the floor unconscious, lying face-first. Uriah Heep’s 1974 US tour is suddenly over.

“All I remember is going to the amplifier to adjust the equalisers, the next thing that happened was I blacked out.”

Thain is rushed to a local hospital, where he is treated for symptoms of electrical shock, including severe burns to both his hands. Thain’s bass rig was poorly grounded, jolting the native New Zealander with enough electricity to end his career. Thain would never fully recover from his injuries, and was fired from Uriah Heep about 4 months later. He was now free to fully indulge his drug addiction, and it killed him.


Gary Thain died of an respiratory failure due to an overdose of heroin in December of that same year, at that magic rock n’ roll age of 27. He was a fantastic player; next time you hear Heep’s “Easy Livin'” be sure to pay extra attention to the hypnotic, fluid bass parts, which nimbly drive the song forward… Or the bluesy throb that cralws around underneath “Stealin'”, from the ‘Sweet Freedom’ album; yeah, that’s him too.

While it was Gary Thain’s drug use that ended his life, I’d argue that his bass rig was an accessory before the fact.

The name Keith Relf probably isn’t too familiar to with the average rock fan, although his band the Yardbirds were hit makers in the mid 60’s and are often credited as being one of the forerunners of Heavy Metal. If you’re familiar with Yardbirds classics like “Shapes of Things” and “Over Under Sideways Down”, then you’ve heard Relf’s vocals; he also wrote those songs, and many aothers. Not long after guitarist Jimmy Page (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) re-built the Yardbirds as the New Yardbirds, which quickly morphed into Led Zeppelin, Relf found himself in a folk-rock band with his sister Jane called Renaissance.


On May 14, 1976, Relf was demoing material in his basement recording studio for a reworked version of his group Renaissance. He picked up a guitar that was not grounded properly, and he was electrocuted. His son found him on the floor and brought him to the hospital, where he died soon after. He was 33.

Damn, electricity!

The late, great Jimmy Dewar wouldn’t have been available to join Robin Trower’s band if electrocution hadn’t intervened. Dewar was in a band called Stone the Crows, with singer Maggie Bell and her husband, Les Harvey (brother of Alex Harvey of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band). Stone the Crows were one of those bands that were 6 degrees from stardom; besides the Trower connection, the band was managed by Peter Grant, Les Harvey’s brother Alex would make waves in the UK with his own band, and Maggie Bell would later sing on Rod Stewart’s ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ lp.


On 3 May, 1972, as the Stone the Crows soundchecked before a set at Swansea’s Top Rank Ballroom, guitarist Les Harvey touched his lips to a badly grounded (or ‘earthed’ as they say in the UK) mic. The 27 year old (seriously?!) guitarist was killed instantly on stage with his wife standing right beside him.

Instantly. This electricity thing doesn’t fuck around.

There is only one musician that I know of who mainlined the lightning and survived unscathed, and that’s Ace Frehley, of Kiss. During the Lakeland, FL stop of their ‘Rock and Roll Over’ tour in ’76, The Space Ace was starting his walk down from the riser where the band had played it’s opener ‘Detroit Rock City,’ and touched a handrail on the light-up stairs. Something in that electric death-trap of a stage set wasn’t grounded right, and he was immediately zapped with a gazillion volts of the good stuff. His body clentched and convulsed, and for a few several seconds he couldn’t let go of the rail. He eventually broke loose and fell backwards off the rear of the platform to the stage below.


Who knows how many volts the Spacemen took at that moment? A Kiss show in the late 70’s looked like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. But Ace Frehley simply shook it off. After a mere 10 minutes backstage, and with no feeling in his left hand, he re-took the stage and played the rest of the set. Ace later wrote a song about the incident, called “Shock Me”, laughing in the face of near-death and taunting electricity to go ahead and try it again.

There is only one explanation: Clearly space travelers from the planet Jendell process electricity through their alien bodies differently than we humans do. I believe that Ace actually absorbed the electricity. According to the Wikipedia entry for ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’:

“Frehley has the ability to shoot lasers and to teleport by making a ‘hitchhiking’ gesture with his thumb.”

But seriously, who really knows how this stuff works, anyway? Amps, volts, watts, ohms… After writing this piece, as a musician who’s played almost 200 gigs, I feel lucky to be alive. I had no idea that a lethal jolt of crackling electric death was always lurking within the wires, waiting for the opportunity to strike. It’s almost enough to make a guy go accoustic.


The Song Remains… Completely Different

Let’s face it: Led Zeppelin peaked with ‘Led Zeppelin IV’. Or whatever you choose to call it.

‘Houses of the Holy’ was a bit of a come-down, with Plant’s high-register vocals sounding comical in places, and two throwaway tracks, “The Crunge” and “D’yer Mak’er”, wasting about 7.5 minutes of the record. And no one’s ever going to convince me that ‘Presence’ is a great or even good album. The band sound thin, tired, and worn-out, and the songs (yes, with a few exceptions) are weak. ‘In Through the Out Door’? Please.

Many would argue that the mighty Zep peaked with ‘Physical Graffiti’, often referred to as Led Zeppelin’s tour de force, their magnum opus, their epic masterwork. I agree with all the hyperbole; the record, as delivered, is amazing, and perhaps their definitive work. But there’s another album hidden inside ‘Physical Graffiti’, an album that is seldom acknowledged when this record is discussed. Of the 15-tracks on this sprawling 2-record set, only 8 were recorded for at Headley Grange in early 1974 for Led Zep’s sixth studio album. It’s these 8 songs that make up the real ‘Physical Graffiti’.


Why pick it apart? For those interested in following Led Zeppelin’s career trajectory, or their creative arc, the version of ‘Physical Graffiti’ that we all know and love does not paint an accurate picture of where the band was in terms of songwriting or musicianship in 1974, as it contains 7 songs (almost half of the album) that were recorded years before the ’74 sessions; some as far back as 1970. While there’s no doubt that Zeppelin’s outtakes and throwaways are far superior to most bands’ best material, the inclusion of so many older songs here obscures what was really going on with the band musically and creatively at this period in their history. Dealing with the material from the ’74 sessions exclusively is the only way to truly understand and appreciate Led Zeppelin’s 6th studio album.

So what have we got here? The eight songs at the heart of ‘Physical Graffiti’ (in order of their appearance on the album) are:

Custard Pie
In My Time of Dying
Trampled Under Foot
In the Light
Ten Years Gone
The Wanton Song
Sick Again

This ‘album’ clocks in at a little over 53 minutes, which is why the band, rather than cut out 10 minutes of new material, opted instead to expand the project to a 2-record set by adding some leftovers from previous sessions. This moved the album away from being a major statement like ‘Exile on Main Street’ or the ‘White Album’ and into compilation album territory. But with the older songs eliminated, one can appreciate the record in an entirely new and different way. I have the songs set up this way in my iTunes, without all of the extraneous material, and have been listening to this version of the album for a few years, long enough to have fooled my brain into perceiving it in the same way it perceives ‘Houses…’ or ‘Presence’ or ‘III’. For me, this is Led Zeppelin’s 6th album… This is ‘Physical Graffiti’.


The verdict? No surprises here; it’s still great. But removing all of the extraneous material reveals what could easily be considered Led Zep’s heaviest album. It’s certainly their last great one. Any band would kill to sound this vital, this dangerous, on their sixth studio album. The production is a little ragged (Plant himself called the sessions ‘really raunchy’); however, the lack of the fourth album’s production polish suits the material. Many of the vocals were cut live and are a tad low in the mix, perhaps to hide the rough edges evident in some of the performances. Page’s multi-layered guitar arrangements, at the forefront on ‘Houses…’, are in evidence everywhere. John Paul Jones, Zep’s secret weapon, shines on keyboards in several songs, most notably on “In the Light” and “Trampled Under Foot”. Bonham sounds absolutely massive, as ever. The songs are at once hard-hitting and dynamic; crushing blues, wistful balladry, Middle Eastern prog, and razor-sharp hard rock— the only thing missing is an acoustic number. But what this version of the record lacks in scope when compared to the double-album version, it makes up for in raw creativity, not to mention raw power. It makes perfect sense as a successor to ‘Houses…’, has its own distinct personality, and is more than worthy of recognition on its own without all the extra baggage.

Zep Fans: Take a few minutes and set up the real ‘PG’ in  your mp3 player and check it out with fresh ears; revisit the classic record and discover the buried treasure within. I still think they peaked with ‘IV’. But the true ‘Physical Graffiti’, not that overblown yard sale of a 2-record set, is my favorite Led Zeppelin album. After all, I ‘produced’ it myself.