a.k.a. the evolution of a chord progression….

So have you ever heard songs and you’ve thought “I’ve heard that before, but just can’t place it”.  Chances are it’s because of a copied/inspired/emulated chord or rhythm progression.    That happened recently to me when I was revisiting Led Zeppelin’s first album.  You may have heard the phrase “3 Chords and the truth”.  Well this post is about 5 Chords and the truth.

The song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You Now” has a 5 chord progression that stopped me cold in my tracks.    I said, “Hey! That’s Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”.  Was one inspired by the other? Which came first?  So, having asked the questions I started doing some research.

Actually Led Zeppelin’s version of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You Now” was a cover of the song by singer/songwriter Anne Bredon.   It’s believed to be written around 1959/60 when she first appeared on the folk music radio show called The Midnight Special (not related to the TV series).  Later, Led Zeppelin heard a cover of the song by Joan Baez and decided to cover it on their first album in early 1969. What they did differently was arrange the 5 chords of the song and introduce it as the familiar  “power chords”, that we’ve come to recognize and love, later in the song.

Chicago’s song has the same descending 5-chord progression of power chords (this time way out front) in their song “25 or 6 to 4” from their eponymously titled second album  which came out after Led Zeppelin’s first album late 1969.  The song was released as a single in 1970.  And it is amazing that they were not sued for copyright infringement for using that riff.   By moving the chord progression out front and adding the punchy brass Chicago has shown a much more progressive, aggressive and harder edged use of these chords.   And I never ever thought of Chicago as harder or more aggressive than Led Zeppelin; but in this case I think it applies.

But get this,   Chicago wasn’t the first to copy the riff in one of their songs. None other than George Harrison (that’s right the Beatle’s) used the riff (albeit, a subtler version)  in the song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” recorded in September 1968, around the time Led Zeppelin was recording their first album.  And the Beatles White Album was released in November 1968.

So what is the likelihood of all three supergroups (Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Chicago) being aware of each other use of these 5 chords?    Well,  I would say not at all unless they shared the same recording/engineering personnel.   We have to remember that this was during the analog age, before the internet, social networks etc., and  these bands were all in the studio around the same time, in their respective locations, working on their own albums with no interaction during this time.

According to an article I read this chord progression/riff has repeatedly showed up on many rock songs.  Probably one of the more recent, and famous, ones was “Brain Stew” by Green Day in 1992.  It’s interesting that Green Day “dismantles” the riff keeping the familiar power chords but spreading them out; making it familiar yet distant.

While the songs are all different they are in some ways the same. So enough of the history lesson.  I’ll let you listen for your self.

Anne Bredon – BABE, I’M GONNA LEAVE YOU (the earliest recordings)


Led Zeppelin – BABE, I’M GONNA LEAVE YOU (arguably the most popular version of this song)

Chicago – 25 OR 6 TO 4

And last, but not least…
Green Day – BRAIN STEW

While some may lament that copying a riff or chord pattern reflects a lack of originality. I remember one popular artist that said basically that all artists steal from each other. It’s the old notion of “standing on the shoulders of giants”. So maybe it’s not important to copy something as long as you are able to incorporate into an original expression as these artists have.  After all it doesn’t seem a whole lot different than today’s hip-hop and electronica artists who sample other peoples work.  In fact what happened in this case was less deliberate and more organic than sampling.

Well I hope you enjoyed this post.  My investigation started on the Wikipedia page for Led Zeppelin after which I migrated to the Wikipedia page for Chicago’s song “25 OR 6 TO 4” which led me to an article for the main source of my information – a column written by Andy Hermann from LA WEEKLY called “You Still Can’t Copyright A Riff – And That’s A Good thing”.

Rock on my peeps. Hope the rest of your week goes swimmingly.

what’s in a chord progression…