Wait a minute. Spirit gets to sue Led Zeppelin and generations of Mississippi Delta blues musicians don’t?
A US district judge in Los Angeles has issued a ruling stating that “Stairway to Heaven” — the deathless 1971 Led Zep chestnut, classic-rock radio staple, and a middle-school rite of passage for any ’70s teen who wanted to slow dance into a reasonable simulacrum of vertical sex — has enough similarities to the 1966-67 Spirit instrumental “Taurus” to proceed to a jury trial, which will be held May 10.
The reaction has been, um, varied. Over in one corner are all those graying Led Zeppelin meatheads — we know who we are — who contend that “Stairway to Heaven” can’t possibly have copied another song because IT RULES. In another corner are legions of wonky prog-rock experts parsing how similar one A-minor chord with a descending bassline is to an A-minor chord with a slightly different descending bassline.
Michael Skidmore, trustee for the late Spirit leader and “Taurus” composer Randy California (born Randy Wolfe), who drowned in an accident in 1997, wants recognition and a whole lotta restitution. Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist who composed “Stairway to Heaven” with singer Robert Plant, stated in a February hearing that “I know I did not hear ‘Taurus’ until 2014.”
Then there are the millions who just don’t care, or who allow that bands have always influenced one another, especially in the wild and woolly ’60s, when ripoffs had yet to be called homages. Led Zeppelin performed with Spirit in 1968 and 1969, and the judge ruled that circumstantial evidence suggests that Page may have heard “Taurus” before the recording of “Stairway to Heaven.” And Bob Dylan arguably wrote “4th Time Around” as an imitation “Norwegian Wood” to tweak John Lennon imitating him. So what?
Well, so this: The British white-boy blues scene of the 1960s began as worshipful fandom and expanded into a commercial juggernaut, and in the process plenty of African-American originators got shafted. Page and Plant were among the most skillful borrowers and biggest beneficiaries, and over the years they’ve had to pay it back. Way back in 1972, Chess Records sued over two songs on Led Zeppelin II, “Bring It on Home” (based on blues songwriting legend Willie Dixon’s song of the same name, recorded in 1963 by Sonny Boy Williamson) and “The Lemon Song” (based on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor”); the suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
In 1985, Dixon claimed in court that the Zep song “Whole Lotta Love” contains lyrics derivative of his “You Need Love,” recorded by Muddy Waters in 1962: again, an out-of-court settlement, and Dixon’s now listed as co-writer.
Nor are Page and Plant hardly the only sticky-fingered blues fans. For years, the Rolling Stones claimed that two Robert Johnson songs, “Love in Vain” (recorded on the group’s “Let It Bleed”) and “Stop Breaking Down” (on “Exile on Main Street”) belonged in the public domain; a 2000 US Court of Appeals decision said otherwise. It’s true that the bluesmen of the Mississippi Delta and Chicago swiped and repurposed one another’s lyrics and metaphors over the decades, but there’s a difference between folk-blues tradition and Top 40 commerce. Plus, they didn’t have the lawyers.
At issue in the current case is something slightly different, even if it testifies to the hazy border between influence, appropriation, and theft, especially among ’60s rock musicians who may have been ingesting massive quantities of drugs. The delicate acoustic guitar opening of “Stairway to Heaven” — the part accompanying the lyrics “There’s a lady who’s sure/ All that glitters is gold/ and she’s buying a stairway to. . .” — sounds very, very similar to the guitar line in “Taurus.” On the other hand, the final chord that accompanies the word “heaven” goes somewhere else entirely. And as some have pointed out, where “Taurus” sticks to A minor, the chord progression in “Stairway” proceeds through D, F Major 7th, and G before returning to A minor, while the melody line goes A-B-C-F sharp.
On the other hand, the tempo’s the same, the finger-picking is the same, the Olde Renaissance Faire vibe is the same. This may represent a land-grab by a more successful group, musicianly admiration, coincidence, or unexamined imitation. Even the judge in the 1976 “My Sweet Lord” copyright case believed George Harrison had “subconsciously” written a knock-off of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine. (Actually, I always thought that was the song’s conceptual hook: that Harrison had retooled the Phil Spector girl-group genre to express his spiritual longing.) But Harrison still had to pay, and so may Page and Plant.
Give the two a listen and see what you think. We all believe we know musical theft when we hear it. A few years back, my kids played me Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and I played them Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” — and their expressions ran the gamut from shock to outrage to a wised-up understanding that the marketplace will always pillage history for profit.
The bustle in the hedgerow over “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t sound as serious as the charges in the case of “Blurred Lines.” (Gaye’s heirs were awarded millions last year; an appeal is planned.) But it’s a reminder that those who claim not to remember the past may be condemned to repay it.
Listen to some of Led Zeppelin’s songs and their predecessors: