If you’ve bought a copy of Led Zeppelin’s seminal self-titled debut album in the last decade or so, you’ll find a track under the heading ‘Dazed and Confused’ with the additional note: “By Jimmy Page; Inspired by Jake Holmes.”
While these words might seem relatively meaningless on the surface, they reveal a complex debate surrounding intellectual property. Because those seven words ask a question that has plagued the music industry for decades: where do we draw the line between inspiration and outright theft? Well, Jake Holmes, who sued Led Zeppelin for stealing one of his songs, certainly had one or two ideas.
In 2010, Holmes filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin that cited a 1967 copyright registration for ‘Dazed and Confused’, which was renewed in 1995. The San Francisco-born musician wrote the track for his 1967 debut album, The Above Ground Sound. In the late ’60s, Holmes was a rising star in the California music scene, labelled as a ‘one to watch’ by record executives, music critics, promoters, and fans alike. After writing ‘Dazed and Confused’, even Holmes himself felt he was on the cusp of greatness.
Not long after finishing the track, Holmes opened for a small band known as The Yardbirds at a Greenwich Village gig in August 1967. Whilst many guitarists revere The Yardbird’s roster of talented guitarists, according to Holmes, the group suffered from the constant turnover of musicians. From the wings, Holmes looked on as The Yardbirds struggled through their set, seemingly unable to find their groove or listen to one another as musicians should. Their new guitarist, Jimmy Page, while clearly talented, seemed entirely at odds with his bandmates. “We were quite stale and stuck creatively,” The Yardbirds’ drummer Jim McCarty recalled of that time. “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.”
Well, you know what they say, desperate times call for desperate measures, and The Yardbirds were certainly desperate. Prior to their set McCarty and Page were hanging around the venue and decided to watch Holmes’ set. As McCarty remembered: “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.” As Holmes later noted in an interview conducted after the musician had filed his copyright suit against Zeppelin “That was the infamous moment of my life when ‘Dazed and Confused’ fell into the loving arms and hands of Jimmy Page.”
“The following day,” McCarty continued, “I went down and got his album at Bleecker Bob’s record store. 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 rest of the band were clearly mesmerised by Holmes’ composition, as had Page and McCarty. “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,” the drummer continued.
Seeing an opportunity, The Yardbirds made the song their own, with Jimmy Page putting his own spin on Holmes’ folky original: “We worked it up and added other bits,” McCarty said. “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”.
When The Yardbirds parted ways soon after, Page bought the song to Led Zeppelin, who released it on their debut LP. For many years, the influence of Holmes’ song was common knowledge. However, it was never officially honoured, meaning that Page was frequently credited as the sole songwriter. The guitarist certainly never made much of an effort to put the record straight. In a 1990 interview, for example, Page responded to a question about the song’s origins with: “I don’t know about all that. I’d rather not get into it because I don’t know all the circumstances. What’s he got – the riff or whatever? I haven’t heard Jake Holmes so I don’t know what it’s all about anyway. Usually my riffs are pretty damn original”.
Page clearly didn’t believe he owed Holmes anything. Of course, Holmes himself couldn’t have felt more differently. His suit, filed a whole 40 years after Zeppelin’s ‘Dazed and Confused’ was released, accused Led Zeppelin of rampant plagiarism, claiming that his original song gave the band one of their most successful and enduring hits. But, according to Page: “As a musician, I’m only the product of my influences. 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.” So, the question remains: If Led Zeppelin’s take on ‘Dazed and Confused’ contains all the same chord patterns but entirely different lyrics, is it a different song? It’s like that old paradox that asks whether a ship, which has had all of its constituent parts replaced over a period of time, is still the same ocean-bound vessel it was when it was newly made. For me, I think it’s absolutely right that Jake Holmes is fully credited. But what about all the other artists that Led Zeppelin – and pretty much every other band – have ‘taken inspiration’ from in some form or another? What about them? The debate continues.