Listen Like Thieves: How Led Zeppelin Stole its Debut Album From Everywhere

Image via MTV


Image via MTV

Image via MTV

By Daniel Margolis

On “How Many More Times,” the last song on Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album, Robert Plant sings, “Steal away now, steal away. Steal away, baby, steal away.” That they did. Led Zeppelin was notorious for covering songs and then simply saying, on their albums’ packaging, that they’d been written by the band or just Jimmy Page himself. They borrowed liberally from bluesmen, contemporary folk artists, and even their friends in other British rock bands. But the thing was, when fused into a coherent whole, they arrived at music that was more effective and perhaps even better.

Let’s consider, first off, “How Many More Times” as an example. This song has its basis in Albert King’s “The Hunter,” which itself was written for King by Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Listen to the original and you’ll be treated to a quaint blues number that clocks in around 2:45. Led Zeppelin took this and credited it to Page, bassist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, tellingly cutting out Plant because the lyrics adhere so closely to the original.


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But, as for the music itself, it’s patterned on King’s riff, but in a different key. And from there, Zeppelin runs wild with it. King sang of being sexually deadly over an incongruously comforting accompaniment. Led Zeppelin wants no part of this; it’s terrifying wah-wah runs and vocal shrieks from the get-go. From there, they nearly triple the length of “The Hunter” by at first barnstorming the song itself and then breaking it down to its component parts and putting in back together in a bridge that concludes with Bonham practically playing breakbeats. Now, was this thievery, or conception?


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The other blues covers on Led Zeppelin’s eponymously titled debut play out in similar fashion. Zeppelin’s cover of “You Shook Me” accurately credits Willie Dixon as its composer (the 2014 reissue also credits J.B. Lenoir). Listen to either Dixon or Muddy Waters’ versions and you’ll hear a soothing song sung from the perspective of a man who has been moved by a woman. Listen to Led Zeppelin’s take on it at full volume and you’ll have the palpable feeling that sex has just occurred. At over double the length of Waters’ version, via Page’s slippery slide leads, Jones’ organ solo and Plant’s harmonica, Zeppelin elevates the just-been-fucked vibe to a high level of melodrama. Plant borrows further by throwing in Robert Johnson’s line, “I have a bird that whistles and I have birds that sings.” Fifty seconds before the end of the song, Page stops the show entirely to trade mimicked notes with Plant. This is a gimmick, sure, but one neither Dixon nor Waters thought of.


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But there’s yet another version in play. Nine months before Led Zeppelin released its debut, Page’s childhood friend Jeff Beck released his—Truth. This, also, contained a cover of “You Shook Me,” credited to “W. Dixon – J.B. Lenore.” The Jeff Beck Group’s cover—Beck boasted on the album’s sleeve it was “probably the rudest sounds ever recorded, intended for listening to whilst angry or stoned”—is less effective than Zeppelin’s, but the fact remained that Beck was there first. Page claimed his decision to cover the same song was mere coincidence, but given that Jones played organ on Beck’s version as a session musician, and contributes similarly to his band’s version, this seems a dubious claim. Further, Truth overall seemed to serve as a blueprint for Zeppelin’s debut.


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Another song on the album accurately credited to Willie Dixon, “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” was originally best known as performed by Otis Rush. Rush’s rendition is a soothing ode to a woman who is apparently quite addictive. Zeppelin’s version depicts an uneasy decision to walk away from a self-destructive, toxic relationship – and does it with such force that it puts the fear of God in the listener. Page steps through the entire thing in a commentary-like tone reminiscent of B.B. King, but plays circles around him and brings the song to a stop-and-start climax revolving around his guitar.

White Summers and Black Mountain Sides

The knock on Led Zeppelin can get somewhat racially charged; that this was white musicians stealing from black bluesmen – and making a great deal of money doing so. A fair point (though one we could level at almost any British band of the 1960s), but Zeppelin was equal opportunity in its thievery. The second song on the band’s debut, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” began its life as a composition by a white, female folk singer named Anne Bredon (the credits in the 2014 reissue finally acknowledge her, but still also credit Page and Plant). This was then covered by Joan Baez on her 1962 album Joan Baez In Concert. Zeppelin took this tiny wisp of a song and exploded it, again doubling its length into an ode to planning to get away from a stalled relationship that absolutely rocks the listener, all mostly oriented around acoustic guitar.

Another acoustic song on Led Zeppelin’s debut, “Black Mountain Side,” grew out of an instrumental on the briefly Page-helmed Yardbirds’ 1967 album Little Games—“White Summer.” Credited to “J. Page,” this was actually entirely derived from a British folk guitarist named Davey Graham’s arrangement of a traditional Irish folk song called, “She Moved Through the Fair.” In an old television clip of Graham playing this, easily found on YouTube, Page’s arrangement is nakedly on display – the song’s initial steady gallop; the way he slows the song down to play around with the melody, crash chords and bend notes; everything.


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The eastern-textured instrumental “Black Mountain Side” contributed a similar vibe to Zeppelin’s first album. Again, this was credited to Jimmy Page. But did he write it? Nope. It’s, again, an arrangement of a traditional Irish folk song, “Down by Blackwaterside,” this time taken from Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch’s 1966 album Jack Orion, on which it was called “Blackwaterside” and Jansch actually sings the song.


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But Page gave these two songs a longer life than they ever would have had via Zeppelin’s live shows. As heard played on the BBC in 1969 and released on the band’s 1990 box set; in 1970 on the live Led Zeppelin DVD released in 2003; and on the 1969 Paris concert that makes up the bonus disc accompanying the 2014 reissue of the debut, Page, playing a black Danelectro guitar, sitting down, rams “White Summer” and “Black Mountain Side” into one long, spellbinding sequence. He may have ripped off the arrangements and the songs themselves, but in doing so he broadcast them to new audiences for the next 45 years. Without him, these songs would likely be lost in time.

I’m Confused

The largest act of thievery on Led Zeppelin’s debut was from the unlikeliest of sources. Jake Holmes was an American jingle writer who in 1967 had the fortune, or misfortune—depending on how you view this little tale—of opening for the Yardbirds in New York City. Page liked his song “Dazed And Confused,” and the next day went to a record store buy Holmes’ debut album—“The Above Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes. The Yardbirds then rotated the song into their repertoire as “I’m Confused,” with its lyrics slightly rewritten by lead singer Keith Relf and all of the song’s riffs embellished by Page—with some bowed guitar passages introduced for a good measure of psychedelia. When it came time to record Zeppelin’s debut, Page reintroduced the song with slightly more misogynistic lyrics (“soul of a woman was created below”). Perhaps because the song began its second life as a Yardbirds number, Page lifted his solo from their song, “Think About It” (not that you can really fault a man for stealing from himself).


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Holmes’ original composition pretty much plays like a demo for Zeppelin’s song—though that was credited, as always, to Jimmy Page. But it’s all there; the descending riff, the evident loathing toward a woman torturing the song’s narrator, the way the bridge teases out the central theme and then builds to an air of menace. Holmes was aware of this when Zeppelin’s debut was released, but did or said nothing. He contacted Page in the early 1980s asking for credit and payment and got no response. He sued in 2010. This was settled out of court in 2012.


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This was pretty much inexcusable, but, again, a case can be made for it based on how Zeppelin exploded the song in concert. Holmes’ original version is under four minutes long—just a simple little song. Clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes on Zeppelin’s debut, it grows in length and scope from there. On The Song Remains The Same, the 1976 soundtrack to a concert movie capturing a show played in 1973; the 2003 release How The West Was Won, which captures a series of shows from 1972; the Led Zeppelin DVD; and the 1969 Parisian live show accompanying the 2014 reissue of the debut, “Dazed And Confused” fluctuates between 15 and 27 minutes. No two versions are alike. All involve the band throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. They may have started with Holmes’ song, but over the years got far from it.

The Song Remains The Same

On Bob Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times, he borrowed lines from the 19th-century poet Henry Timrod and the New York Times ran an article exposing these similarities. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan was asked about this. He responded: “As far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

A valid point, and one quite germane in considering Led Zeppelin’s debut. Sure, Page borrowed and in some cases even stole from a half-dozen sources to build Zeppelin’s first album, but if he hadn’t, these compositions would be far less considered today. It’s like Stetsasonic once said: “Tell the truth, James Brown was old, ‘til Eric and Ra came out with ‘I Got Soul.’”

 Listening to the sources Zeppelin drew from to construct their debut doesn’t hold a candle to playing the finished product.

All of this is much like the criticisms leveled at hip-hop over sampling. Some try to say that if rap music is derived from earlier recordings, then listening to those earlier recordings is the same as listening to the rap music utilizing it. This is, obviously, not true. De La Soul’s debut Three Feet High And Rising is full to the brim with samples—nearly 100 (including a Led Zeppelin sample). Finding and listening to all those samples would be a pedantic, dull process, and one that wouldn’t remotely resemble the thrill of listening to the album itself. Similarly, listening to the sources Zeppelin drew from to construct their debut doesn’t hold a candle to playing the finished product.

This also resembles much of the debate that surrounds Quentin Tarantino’s movies. Walk into any video store (the few that still exist) or collegiate film department and you’ll quickly find a guy who will talk your ear off about how some scene in a Tarantino film came from here, another plotline came from there. So what? This is strictly the realm of those who have the time to view hundreds to thousands of obscure movies. Even if borrowed, Tarantino takes this imagery and these stories and places them in multiplexes across the globe. His end result is always astounding, regardless of what may have inspired it.


It should be said that not all of Led Zeppelin’s debut was flagrantly borrowed. “Good Times Bad Times,” with its carefully placed chords, hooky riffs, funky rhythm section and wise-beyond-their-years lyrics, is probably one of the best first songs on a first album in rock history and wholly original. The same goes for the breezy yet vengeful “Your Time Is Gonna Come,” though this does take a line from Ray Charles (“One of these days and it won’t be long. You’ll look for me but baby I’ll be gone.”). And while the uptempo “Communication Breakdown” has a close cousin in the Beck-led Yardbirds’ R&B cover “Train ‘Kept A-Rollin’,” ultimately it’s from nowhere and kills.

Led Zeppelin stole much less on subsequent albums. On their second album, “Whole Lotta Love” borrows its central riff and lyrics from “You Need Love” by Muddy Waters (written by Willie Dixon, credited by Zeppelin to “Page-Plant-Jones-Bonham”). But on record, the band adds a psychedelic mid-section to stretch the song to nearly six minutes, and in concert this grew to 24 minutes—no longer just a blues cover. “The Lemon Song,” which the band again credited to its members, has its basis in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” and, for its title, borrows Johnson’s line, “Squeeze my lemon ‘til the juice runs down my leg” (kind of gross, actually). Wolf’s original is undeniable, but Zeppelin takes it and turns it all into a much more present blast of rock. And “Bring It On Home” (credited to Dixon) is practically a Xerox of Sonny Boy Williamson’s original until Zeppelin adds an explosive mid-section all their own.

From there, Zeppelin’s discography takes on a different character. They’d generally just throw in one cover per album—even on the double-length Physical Graffiti. Their eight studio albums (nine, including Coda) evidently resonate with today’s marketplace well enough to justify a recently launched wave of reissues of their entire catalog, with three different versions of each album being made available. So who cares if Page had to borrow liberally to get this lead balloon off the ground? Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.