The following is a chapter from my book ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’ that got left on the cutting room floor due to space. For 19 more stories like it, from Hendrix’s “Watchtower” to Devo’s “Satisfaction,” buy the book Variety called “a music snob’s dream come true” at Amazon, IndieBound, Barnes and Noble, or anywhere else.
It’s like if your baby is kidnapped at two-years-old and raised by another woman. All these years later, it’s her kid.
— Jake Holmes
Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album came out 50 years ago today. But if you’ve purchased it more recently, you might have seen the following writing credit under the song “Dazed and Confused”: “By Jimmy Page; Inspired by Jake Holmes.”
Those seven words may seem pretty innocuous on the page, but that phrase is the result of decades of controversy and litigation. Those words reveal questions of what counts as a cover song, how an artist needs to credit a songwriter from whom they draw material, and where the line lies between homage and theft.
Jake Holmes wrote “Dazed and Confused” for his debut album, “The Above Ground Sound” of Jake Holmes. A young California singer-songwriter, Holmes was hotly tipped by the industry to be the next breakout star in the folky Donovan vein. When he wrote “Dazed and Confused,” he knew immediately that it would be a big song. He just thought it would be a big song for him.
On August 25, 1967, Holmes was promoting his new album with a concert at New York’s Village Theater. Also on the bill were two bands with similar names: the Youngbloods (best known for their hit “Get Together”) and the Yardbirds. The latter band may have been the best training ground for budding guitar hotshots in history. Their first guitarist, a young buck named Eric Clapton, had left the band by this point, as had his replacement, Jeff Beck. The Yardbirds had recently hired the third guitarist in this incredible run, a promising session musician named Jimmy Page.
Though the Yardbirds’ series of guitarists seems amazing now, at the time of the show with Jake Holmes it felt like a drag. Tired from all the turnover, the band was struggling to find a rhythm with their newest member. “We were quite stale and stuck creatively” when Page joined, Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty remembers today. “We were still playing really similar things as we had with Jeff Beck. We had very few new things and running a bit low on ideas of songs to cover or songs that we wanted to do.”
Inspiration finally struck at that Village Theater show. Before his band’s set, McCarty stood at the side of the stage watching Holmes play. (Page may have stood there with him; memories differ.) “Now and then you go up and you see who’s playing with you,” McCarty says. “Jake Holmes was playing with two other guys. They were playing sort of jazzy things. I thought the music was quite pleasant, but didn’t think much of it. Then all of a sudden they started to play this riff. And I thought, oh that’s a very good riff, very haunting, quite interesting.”
The riff was Holmes’ new song “Dazed and Confused.” “The following day I went down and got his album at Bleecker Bob’s record store,” says McCarty. “I had a little record player on the road and I played it to Jimmy and the guys and then we said, we should work out a version.”
The band agreed, mesmerized by that same guitar line. “The song had all the feeling of our old material,” McCarty says. “That descending riff is very haunting; it creates an atmosphere. That’s the sort of music we liked, music that’s a little bit dark.”
Hoping this song would stir them out of their creative funk, the Yardbirds worked up a cover of “Dazed and Confused” at their next rehearsal. It was clear from the start this would be an opportunity for Jimmy Page to shine. As a replacement for both Clapton and Beck, the new guitarist had massive shoes to fill. On “Dazed and Confused,” he could show he was equal to the task.
“Anything with a riff like that would be a guitar showcase,” McCarty says. “We worked it up and added other bits. Jimmy added that other riff in the middle [a bridge borrowed from another Yardbirds track, ‘Think About It’]. He played all those nice little wah-wah things. It had all the trademarks of the Yardbirds sound.”
Their arrangement of the song also added something new to the band: a violin bow. Page had begun experimenting with running a bow over his guitar strings in the studio for an ethereal, swirling effect, and found the technique worked perfectly with such a trippy song. What would later become such an iconic part of Led Zeppelin was then just a young and unproven guitarist trying to bring something new to his instrument.
The Yardbirds quickly added “Dazed and Confused” to their live shows and even performed it once on a French TV show. But, in one of music history’s great missed opportunities, they never recorded the song. Though they enjoyed playing it, ultimately the song had not inspired the rejuvenating spark they’d hoped for. They never recorded another album with the Jimmy Page lineup, abandoning a session in New York after only three songs due to exhaustion.
“That was the only really big song we produced with that lineup,” McCarty remembers. “All the others were covers that were more or less the same as the original records. But that was different since we created that arrangement. We created it—but we didn’t really get anything out of it.”
Indeed, the Yardbirds’ cover of “Dazed and Confused” would likely be forgotten today had the band’s latest hotshot guitarist not remembered the song when he began putting together his next group.
They were billed as “The New Yardbirds” on their first tour, but the name didn’t stick long. The quartet Jimmy Page formed with Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham soon adopted their own moniker: Led Zeppelin.
In those early days, though, “New Yardbirds” was not that far off as a description. The group had not yet found its own identity—the four guys barely even knew each other—and this was still very much Page’s show (notably, the press release announcing Led Zeppelin’s formation spends fourteen paragraphs on Page alone before even mentioning Plant, Jones, or Bonham).
Ever the taskmaster, Page decided after only a few shows that the band should record an album. He would select the songs himself.
“For material we obviously went right down to our blues roots,” Page told Rolling Stone in 1975. “I still had plenty of Yardbirds riffs left over. On the first LP I was still heavily influenced by the earlier days. I think it tells a bit too.”
But Page brought in more than just old riffs. He carried with him a number of complete songs he had played with the Yardbirds, often covers. In fact, the first song Led Zeppelin ever played together was the Yardbirds’ version of the 1950s blues song “Train Kept A-Rollin'” (“it was pretty bloody obvious from that first number that was going to work,” Jones said later). They did Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin'” and Garnett Mimms’ “As Long As I Have You,” both songs Page had covered with the Yardbirds. And they did “Dazed and Confused,” essentially doing a cover of the Yardbirds’ cover.
Led Zeppelin’s recording of “Dazed and Confused” shares most of its musical cues with the Yardbirds version, including the violin bow. The lyrics, though, are almost entirely different. Page replaced most of the original Jake Holmes lines with his own (though his new lyrics did not appreciably change the song’s meaning). None of the four were proper songwriters yet—Plant in particular was contributing very little at that point, just singing what he was told to—but Page could paraphrase well enough.
The band recorded “Dazed and Confused” during sessions for their debut album. It’s been said that limited time in the studio has rarely been used more profitably. The whole album took under 30 hours, with Page controlling every aspect: financing the record, dictating the songs and arrangements, and producing it himself.
“Led Zeppelin was created in a very crisp businesslike fashion,” Plant has said of the first album. “Nobody really knew each other. The record and the jamming was what it was, and it was a very swift session.”
Engineer Glyn Johns—later to become a major producer in his own right—agrees. “They were really well-rehearsed,” he said. “They’d picked all the material and they knew exactly what they were doing. So half the job had already been done by them, and probably by Jimmy—who would certainly take the credit for it.”
Though he had little production experience, Page’s years as an in-demand studio musician with the likes of Joe Cocker had given him enough familiarity to record the basic sound of how the band performed live. That was enough to satisfy their modest ambitions; Led Zeppelin had neither the money nor the inclination to tinker in the studio for days. For “Dazed and Confused,” they only did two takes (they released the second), capturing most of it live and later overdubbing Page’s violin-bow solo.
Other than the lyrics, the major difference between the Yardbirds’ version and Led Zeppelin’s came in the vocal delivery. Yardbirds singer Keith Riff’s performances of the song were muscular and straightforward, whereas Plant sang it lighter and looser, playing with the melody and adding plenty of ad-libbed shouts.
Plant’s swooping vocals echo another instrument on the track: Page’s guitar. “I never consciously had the idea of mirroring the guitar work with my voice,” Plant said later, “but I remembered Robert Johnson had done it, and when I started singing with Jimmy, it just seemed natural.”
In later years, though, Plant began to regret singing with his voice careening between notes and octaves. “I think in retrospect I was slightly hysterical,” he said. “I took it way too far with that open-throated falsetto. I wish I could get an eraser and go round everybody’s copy of Led Zep I and take out all that ‘Mmm, mmm, baby, baby’ stuff.”
“Hysterical” vocals and all, the simply-titled album Led Zeppelin came out on January 12, 1969. In a press release, Page proudly announced, “between us we wrote 8 of the  tracks.”
In subsequent decades, other musicians would disagree with this authorship claim.
From the start, Led Zeppelin were accused of being, at best, talented mimics—and at worst, copycats. Rolling Stone‘s (in)famously harsh review of the first album called Page “a writer of weak, unimaginative songs” and Plant “as foppish as Rod Stewart, but he’s nowhere near so exciting.” The album was constantly compared to Cream and, humorously in retrospect, Jeff Beck’s concurrent debut LP Truth (now nearly forgotten, but at the time fans and critics hotly debated which ex-Yardbird’s album would be considered a classic).
And as people listened more closely to Led Zeppelin’s album, some heard more than just aesthetic similarities to other bands. In fact, many thought that entire songs sounded pretty familiar.
Some of the album’s cover songs were credited as such: the two Willie Dixon numbers (“You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) and the folk song “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” (miscredited as “Traditional,” even though the true songwriter Anne Bredon was alive and well). Led Zeppelin didn’t claim to have written those.
Other familiar songs, though, were listed as being entirely original. “Black Mountain Side” struck many listeners as sharing an awful lot with Bert Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional “Black Waterside.” And “How Many More Times” seemed to some ears that it borrowed more than just a few words from Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years.”
And then there was “Dazed and Confused.” On the original album’s back cover, only one line appeared underneath: “By Jimmy Page.” There was no “Inspired By.” The name “Jake Holmes” appeared nowhere. “Dazed and Confused” was not a cover, at least not according to Page.
Crediting a songwriter like Jake Holmes when you cover their song earns that songwriter more than just bragging rights. The songwriter earns royalties from every sale of the cover, which can be substantial. In the late 1960s, Bob Dylan was making so much money off of hit covers that he even attempted to fund his brief retirement after his motorcycle crash by having his manager pitch his songs to more artists to cover.
But Dylan’s name was credited on all of those covers. The disc’s label did not read “All Along the Watchtower (Written by Jimi Hendrix).” So when Led Zeppelin became superstars and album sales of their debut with “Dazed and Confused” kept growing, Holmes never saw a dime.
So did Led Zeppelin deliberately steal Holmes’ song? Jimmy Page would say no. For years, he and his bandmates have aggressively pushed back against accusations of song theft. “As a musician, I’m only the product of my influences,” Page said once when questioned about it. “The fact that I listened to so many various styles of music has a lot to do with the way I play. Which I think set me apart from so many other guitarists of that time.”
In another case, Page pointed the finger elsewhere. “As far as my end of it goes, I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used,” he said. “I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases, you would never know what the original source could be… So most of the comparisons rest on the lyrics. And Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn’t always do that—which is what brought on most of the grief. They couldn’t get us on the guitar parts or the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics.”
The lyrics on “Dazed and Confused,” though, are in fact different. The similarity many heard was in the guitar parts and the music.
Consider one last exchange, in 1990 in Musician magazine:
MUSICIAN: I understand “Dazed and Confused” was originally a song by Jake Holmes. Is that true?
PAGE: [Sourly] I don’t know. I don’t know. [Inhaling] I don’t know about all that.
MUSICIAN: Do you remember the process of writing that song?
PAGE: Well, I did that with the Yardbirds originally…. The Yardbirds were such a good band for a guitarist to play in that I came up with a lot of riffs and ideas out of that, and I employed quite a lot of those in the early Zeppelin stuff.
MUSICIAN: But Jake Holmes, a successful jingle writer in New York, claims on his 1967 record that he wrote the original song.
PAGE: Hmm. Well, I don’t know. I don’t know about that. I’d rather not get into it because I don’t know all the circumstances. What’s he got, the riff or whatever? Because Robert wrote some of the lyrics for that on the album. But he was only listening to…we extended it from the one that we were playing with the Yardbirds.
MUSICIAN: Did you bring it into the Yardbirds?
PAGE: No, I think we played it ’round a sort of melody line or something that Keith [Relf] had. So I don’t know. I haven’t heard Jake Holmes so I don’t know what it’s all about anyway. Usually my riffs are pretty damn original [laughs] What can I say?
Page’s cavalier “What’s he got, the riff or whatever?” does not come close to accounting for the debt Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” owed to Holmes. At least, Holmes didn’t think so.
When asked today, Holmes says he is “not allowed” to talk about “Dazed and Confused.” Not allowed by who? Well, in 2010 he sued Page over the song, and two years later signed a settlement with him for undisclosed terms. But before Holmes signed that settlement, he talked about it plenty.
For years, Holmes didn’t seem to be too bothered by the uncredited cover. He told Zeppelin biographer Mick Wall about his reaction when he first heard their version: “I didn’t give a shit. At the time I didn’t think there was a law about intent. I thought it had to do with the old Tin Pan Alley law that you had to have four bars of exactly the same melody, and that if somebody had taken a riff and changed it just slightly or changed the lyrics that you couldn’t sue them. That turned out to be totally misguided.”
It took him decades to care. But the song wouldn’t go away, and he began to think he was being cheated. Though it was never a single, “Dazed and Confused” became one of Led Zeppelin’s most enduring songs, largely due to their concerts. It runs six minutes on record, but a live version could stretch up to 20 minutes or more with Page’s guitar soloing. In the band’s famous 1976 concert film The Song Remains the Same (an ironic title for a band dodging accusations of sonic plagiarism), “Dazed and Confused” runs for 27 minutes. Holmes didn’t care at first, but over the years he couldn’t escape from their version of his song.
By the time he spoke to Wall in 2008, Holmes’ attitude had changed. “I don’t want [Page] to give me full credit for this song. He took it and put it in a direction that I would never have taken it, and it became very successful. So why should I complain? But at least give me half credit on it. [Page] is gonna be so connected to that song by now, it’s like if your baby is kidnapped at two-years-old and raised by another woman. All these years later, it’s her kid.”
Holmes sued in 2010. The details of the settlement Holmes received two years later are not public. We don’t know what he got (and he won’t discuss it). All we know is that in new Led Zeppelin releases, the songwriting credit “By Jimmy Page” has been changed to “By Jimmy Page; Inspired by Jake Holmes.”
Though we don’t know what Holmes received beyond the credit, in other cases where Led Zeppelin was sued over their songs, we do know what the original songwriters won. Those reveal a lot about what can happen if someone thinks a musician is taking a shortcut with a cover song.
In 2016, another Led Zeppelin lawsuit was in the news. The estate of the late guitarist Randy Wolfe had sued Zeppelin, claiming they had copied his band Spirit’s song “Taurus” for the iconic “Stairway to Heaven” introduction. After two years of litigation, Page, Plant, and co. won the case (at the time of this writing, Wolfe’s estate is appealing). But Led Zeppelin didn’t always win.
That lawsuit included a chart laying out seven prior cover-song lawsuits that Led Zeppelin had lost. The lawyer’s implication was clear: these were habitual offenders. In each case, a court had forced Led Zeppelin to give credit and/or royalties to another songwriter for a track they had billed as entirely original (there are also numerous other alleged infringements where legal action was never taken).
In 1972, Willie Dixon—the blues songwriter Zeppelin covered twice on that debut album (with proper credit)—sued the band, alleging that Led Zeppelin used his lyrics to Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Bring It On Home” for their song of the same name. He won that suit, earning royalties and songwriting credit. Then a decade later, he sued the band again, this time saying their hit “Whole Lotta Love” used lyrics from “You Need Love,” a song he wrote for Muddy Waters. He won again.
Led Zeppelin was sued for “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and lost. They were sued over two separate songs by Howlin’ Wolf’s estate and lost. They were sued over “Boogie with Stu” even though they did credit dead songwriter Ritchie Valens’ mother—because they also credited themselves, and the lawyers argued they hadn’t changed enough to earn any of the songwriting royalties. In fact, each of Led Zeppelin’s first four albums generated cover-song lawsuits over the years.
Led Zeppelin’s many lawsuits bring up the thorny side of cover songs and copyright law. Because these cases were mostly not about Led Zeppelin’s straight covers (“Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Boogie with Stu” being exceptions). In most cases, the charges were that Led Zeppelin had mixed in parts of another song’s melody and/or lyrics with their own contributions. For “Dazed and Confused,” no one disputes that Page did rewrite the lyrics. Accusers argued that it is part cover, part original.
A partial cover – where a musician pulls bits and pieces from another song – is, legally, a very different entity than a full cover. With a full cover, where an artist sings the original words exactly as written, that artist can record it without getting anyone’s permission. They simply have to credit the songwriter and pay the appropriate royalties (it’s called getting a “mechanical license”).
But if you change even a word of the lyrics, you need explicit permission. If Led Zeppelin had sung the same words to “Dazed and Confused” that Jake Holmes did—and if they’d credited him as the writer from the start—they could have avoided any legal issues.
To illustrate the difference, take that blues songwriter who’s come up a couple times, Willie Dixon. He presents a special case because Led Zeppelin both covered him the usual way in two songs and, he says, ripped him off in two others.
Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which Dixon didn’t want Led Zeppelin to record a second of his songs. Maybe he hated the band name, Robert Plant’s hair, whatever. In the case of Led Zeppelin’s first two, properly credited covers, he couldn’t to a thing to stop them except ask nicely.
But in the case of the two songs Dixon sued the band over, songs that incorporated only some of his original lyrics, he would have had total control. In those cases, Led Zeppelin would need his explicit permission to use Dixon’s work. He could have refused and not let the band release them at all. This might be another reason Page never asked in the first place: someone can’t say no if you don’t ask.
This brings us back to those seven words now under “Dazed and Confused”: “By Jimmy Page; Inspired by Jake Holmes.” Though awkward and wordy, the phrase is accurate. Because “Dazed and Confused” isn’t entirely a cover; most of the lyrics are technically different. But, Jake Holmes argued, you can’t exactly call it entirely original either.
Cover-song lawsuits will not be going away any time soon. In fact, the situation may be getting worse.
It is relatively rare that a musician will perform a straight cover without getting credit. That would be easy to catch, especially with the internet, and impossible to argue your way out of. But since the dawn of rock roll, performers like Led Zeppelin have been sued for these more vague semi-covers. Two of the Beatles have lost suits: John Lennon for borrowing from Chuck Berry for “Come Together” and George Harrison for incorporating a Chiffons girl-group song into “My Sweet Lord.” Johnny Cash had to shell out $75,000 to a composer named Gordon Jenkins for borrowing a little too heavily on “Folsom Prison Blues.”
More recently, the number of headline-making lawsuits seems to be increasing. Joe Satriani sued Coldplay, alleging they ripped off his guitar line in their “Viva La Vida.” Marvin Gaye’s family sued Robin Thicke, alleging he and his cowriters copied Gaye in Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines.” And bands like Led Zeppelin are in many cases being sued today for songs that are decades old.
“I don’t think these sorts of cases would have had a chance when the songs were first released,” says Nova Southeastern University professor Jon Garon, a legal expert on copyright and cover songs, “but a lot has changed conceptually in the last five to ten years. Musicians didn’t use to think of things like musical riffs as protectable under copyright. It was that old idea in folk and blues, where musicians like Woody Guthrie think of these things as building blocks anyone can use. But in the ’90s culturally the law started to provide a lot of copyright protection for those kinds of riffs. There has been a re-conceptualization of music because of technology, sampling in particular, and it’s going to keep increasing.”
Another reason for the increase in cover song lawsuits, he says, is simply economics: “The music industry is a shadow of what it was 20 years ago. The ability to shrug your shoulders and move on is lost. When you have so many fewer revenue sources, it makes the stakes much higher.”
In the case of “Dazed and Confused,” Jake Holmes waited over forty years to file his lawsuit about being covered without credit. The fact that he and so many similar accusers have won could mean we will be seeing many more lawsuits—or, hopefully, musicians will get more careful about properly crediting cover songs the first time.
Buy ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’ on Amazon, Indiebound, Barnes and Noble, or anywhere else books are sold.
Unfortunately, the apparent optimism of your last sentence is belied by your analysis of “partial covers.” Because (as you also note) full covers are rarely a problem. It’s the twilight area of “partial covers” that leave musicians open to legal liability. But “properly crediting” songs is not enough: you need permission from the source.
You refer to changing even one word of the lyrics – but more often the problem is changing notes of the music. That is: how close does a song have to be to another song to be considered a “partial cover”…and thereby require permission from the source song? This is by no means a simple issue.
And this is where, sadly, I think your optimism is misguided. If a musician like Robin Thicke can be sued for something as vague as a “feel” (as the Gaye estate did), that’s very hard to avoid. And yes: musicians have always borrowed “feels,” sounds, riffs, etc. (Take a listen to the Elvis Costello catalog, with many such quotations and arrangement-borrowings.)
But if every time you use something even remotely similar to – or “inspired by” – another song, you either need to get permission, or risk a lawsuit…that’s a real chilling effect.
And that would impoverish music. Because the give and take of influence – the way a musician might tip his or her hat to an influence by borrowing an arrangement detail (again, this is usually what Costello was up to) – would now be hemmed in by the threat of legal action. So if you want to pay homage to (say) The Band by having staggered vocal entries on your chorus (like “The Weight”), now you’re gonna think twice. In case The Band’s publishers decide to sue.
Growing up in the 70’s, I never thought led Zeppelin was anything special even when I didn’t have the exposure to realize that they were overt plagiarists. Now I know I was right.
What most people with half a brain fail to realize is that Jimmy Page rules and he didn’t ficking steal anything! It is called modulation on a theme so all of you greedy, whiny, bitter broke musicians need to leave Zeus alone! Get p er or! Music is derivative anyway!
Anyone, who is creative, has influences that they incorporate into their work, and as the bible says, there is nothing new under the sun. Without Bob Dylan, there would be no Along the Watch Tower redone by Hendrix. Hey Joe was written by a California garage band, ripped off by Jimi. Hendrix borrowed tricks and styles from Buddy Guy. Stevie Ray Vaughn used Hendrix guitar licks for his music. Elvis performed over 300 songs and never wrote a single one. Johnny cash stole Folsom Prison Blues. Elvira was performed by Kenny Rogers, and redone by the Oakridge boys. Musicians create, copy, borrow, and steal music. It’s part of the business.
For you who believe its entirely ok to steal someone else’s artistic work and “make it your own,” please send me all your work, I will see if there is anything I can use.