Thursday, May 22, 2014

Led Zeppelin and plagiarism

There are recent allegations that Led Zeppelin – specifically, Jimmy Page – nicked a bit:
Accusations of plagiarism in music happen every other day, but what if a song that defined a genre came into question? What if Stairway To Heaven was ripped off another song?Love it or hate it, Led Zeppelin’s 1971 eight minute folk-rock opus is one of the best-known and most covered pieces of modern music. And it is estimated to be worth more than $560 million.The trust of the late Randy California (born Randy Wolfe) from the band Spirit, and the band’s former bassist Mark Andes, want to see California receive a songwriting credit on the coming remastered re-release of the untitled album widely known as Led Zeppelin IV. Their lawyer, Francis Alexander Malofiy, will seek an injunction against the release of the album and also file a copyright infringement lawsuit.

There are also old allegations. The clip below details half a dozen examples of shameless plundering, each time playing the original and then the Led Zep version from their first album. Page plagiarised  minors like Anne Brendon and Jake Holmes and majors like Bert Jansch, Howling Wolf, Albert King and Jeff Beck. It’s a pretty devastating indictment:

The case for the defence is that in the folk and blues tradition you take existing songs and rework them slightly, maybe add a verse here, change a line there, and now it’s your song. The case for the prosecution is that no one was making any money out of songwriting back then and no one got royalties for anything. Led Zeppelin and the equally shameless Rolling Stones were well aware of the value of songwriting credits because they were professional musicians, and the money was huge. To his great credit, Eric Clapton has always been scrupulous about giving writing credits to blues songs he has covered, no matter how different the arrangement from the original. Well, apart from the Albert King solo he copied note for note on for “Strange Brew”.

The Spirit lawsuit is silly. That picking/chord sequence was standard at the time. Led Zeppelin just did better with it than anyone else. It's like suing someone for using C-Am-F-G. Or Neil Young suing Pink Floyd because “Breathe” on Dark Side of the Moon uses the same chord sequence – in the same key! – as his “Down by the River”. These changes were in the air at the time. As an example, the introduction to “Stairway to Heaven” equally derives from Davy Graham’s introduction to his version of “Cry Me a River”:

Let’s leave the last word to Francis Wheen (on Facebook): 
When I started in Fleet Street, soon after the relief of Mafeking, my first editor said to me: “Always remember this simple rule, laddie. ‘Dog Bites Man’ isn’t news. Nor is ‘Jimmy Page Accused of Plagiarism’.”


Phil said...

And for all that - I'd forgotten what a great album Led Zep 1 was

Eric Crampton said...


Last night, I introduced the kids to Zepplin. They liked.

You need to put together a Spotify playlist of the originals and the Zepplin recastings. I'd listen.

Unknown said...

Not a massive Led Zepp fan... But this (and yes, its another rip off) is on my personal top 40 tracks of all time.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks, Eric. Yes a Spotify list would be nice to have. Over to someone with a bit more time on their hands...