John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Did Led Zeppelin Steal “Stairway”?

Lawsuit claimed group stole “Stairway to Heaven” from Spirit’s song “Taurus.” Let’s compare.

By - Jul 1st, 2016 11:35 am
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Did Led Zeppelin Steal “Stairway”?

Did Led Zeppelin Steal “Stairway”?

Everyone borrows from each other in the music industry and quite a few steal, some in such a charming manner you just have to love them. Others, like a sad and obvious plagiarist I met a few years ago who left me scratching my head, are desperate seekers of attention. My advice to them is to remember the internet exists now, so if you steal from say, George Jones, you’re one click away from humiliation. But plagiarism is an ugly word and I doubt that any real artists start out with that intention. Some might dredge up an old memory from their subconscious and think it’s theirs.

When you do borrow or steal and, especially when you put your name on a song and then cash giant checks, you are open to public scrutiny and expensive lawsuits. This has now happened to Led Zeppelin more than once. They settled their suit over “Whole Lotta Love” and Willie Dixon whistled all the way to the bank. Are they chronic in this category, more theft prone than other groups? I don’t know. That’s a whole book and nobody is offering me a contract. But in a few paragraphs it might be interesting to explore the fuzzy demilitarized zone where the deep love of others turns from influence, goes past tribute and becomes a tawdry snatch and grab job.

It’s curious how often these cases involve a black song that gets a huge white audience when the complexion of the singer lightens. There’s a long sad history of that kind of exploitation in rock and roll. Yes Colonel Tom Parker, go ahead and do a couple 360s in your grave, because you kind of invented it. In Nashville I lived near a man whose house was paid for with royalties from works of genius like Little Willie John’s “Fever”, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless”, and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “All Shook Up.” (Let me avoid an ugly lawsuit by giving a nod to Wikipedia for these titles and artists. All were found on the page for the wonderful Otis Blackwell, who wrote every song.) Yet the last two songs somehow featured Elvis’ name as a co-writer. It was a 100 percent of nothing for Blackwell or half that on a giant hit. The Colonel knew what side his bread was buttered on and so did Mr. Blackwell.

That’s a small chapter in the odious history of pop music and it helps frame the lawsuit Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were recently contesting in a court case they won. This time the defendants were charged with stealing from a person of no color, (or the sum of all colors, if we want to be scientific) Randy California, of the band Spirit. The song being challenged couldn’t be a bigger hit: “Stairway To Heaven,” a cultural touchstone from the 70’s, which had to have paid for many estates and a private jet or two. It’s in the dictionary when you look up the word “ubiquitous.”

Okay, so a group with sticky fingers, having lost a case or two like this, is fighting the same charge again. Of course we can’t look at their previous history, it might prejudice the jury. Good luck with that selection process. There are obvious antecedents like George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” a song I’m so glad exists, even though it already did under the title “He’s So Fine.” The Chiffons sang that one and Harrison, who may have unconsciously stolen the idea, lost and added the writer Ronald Mack to the credits, sharing all his revenue. The record Harrison’s song was on was produced by Phil Spector, who also produced the Chiffons. How could he have missed the similarities?

Intellectual property is as real the house or car you own, so there is a legitimate issue at stake here. But are some suits frivolous? I’d say yes. In what amounts to vibe thievery, Pharell Williams and Robin Thicke may have crossed a more subtle line when they amped up the party atmosphere in their song “Blurred Lines,” making it sound too much like Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” and Gaye’s estate is now suing. It may get thrown out and I could probably agree with that. There is not a lot of similarity in the melody.

The other mitigating factor in all of this is the oral tradition in folk musics like blues. There is a tradition of updating and tweaking that often involved a sneaky change of ownership, whatever that word might have meant before entertainment lawyers got involved. It goes back to a time before printing presses and a literate population, when stories and news were often passed along by troubadours. This makes sense when you think of how a great melody can make lyrics so memorable. The repetition in the blues may have originated partially as a mnenomic device, but don’t quote me on that till you run it by a qualified musicologist. So a very fluid environment, where songs evolved over long stretches of time, long before recording, has given way to an age where everything is instantly available and has a date stamp.

What Led Zep has passed on, a lot through being so damn good at what they do, has resonated with bands that are too familiar with the subtleties of hairspray and spandex. Not sure we needed 50 more singers two octaves above their natural range, but thanks Zep! Jimmy Page, probably the most original and terrifying rock guitarist after Jimi Hendrix, unleashed a lot of lesser imitators prone to endless sonic explorations twice as long as his. The song did not remain the same, it got really long! Zeppelin kind of invented Spinal Tap, a parody and love note all in one. Plant is proving to be durable now, singing where both people and canines can hear him. Rumor has it the ever inventive Zep has finished their first studio album since the rock Druids first trod their home turf.

Meantime, all that’s left to do is to listen to the two songs in question. Let’s call in the juke-box jury and see if we can get a verdict. Here’s Spirit doing “Taurus,” give it a listen.

And, if you can once more, the song you’ve heard six million times, “Stairway To Heaven.”

The motif that seems to be the bone of contention is a common sequence found all over the place in folk, rock, classical and you name it. It is a minor chord that is altered by lowering the root one half step at a time. In this instance the first five chords are very close. Same key, same arpeggio. If I were called to testify, I’d say almost anyone playing that A minor sequence would play it that way because it lays out well on the fretboard.

Stairway is not favorite my Zep song. It’s eight minutes long and like producer/guitarist Richard Bennett might say, it ends long before it’s over. But this was the era of the long album cut on progressive FM and blah, blah, blah. It’s the silly Middle English jive that makes it seem even longer to me. But it obviously worked on the girls back then.

What the song does have is a stupendously well constructed arrangement, Page’s insane shredding and whole other sections not heard in Spirit’s song. The hair splitting in this case is probably going to be on a scale that would leave Page and Plant bald, but I’m coming down on their side. I wouldn’t listen to Spirit’s florid, fake classical number without a lot of caffeine in my system, for fear of being lulled to endless sleep.

Both songs are guilty of pretension and publicly proggy behaviour. But one is done with craftsmanship and panache. The other is done by a group that should probably think about suing Ford for stealing the name of their song now that they’ve lost this suit. I kind of hope they do.

2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Did Led Zeppelin Steal “Stairway”?”

  1. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Such a funny ending to your article (about Spirit suing Ford!). What’s also sad is that so much money is lost on court and lawyer fees, not to mention time and anxiety!

  2. 2fs says:

    It also seems odd that a lawsuit is filed now, more than 40 years after both songs were released. What, it took 40 years to notice the similarities?

    I think someone’s in strong need of income.

    The other question is why someone who’s not the songwriter, but merely the *heir* of a songwriter, should be able to collect. The whole point of copyright is both to protect intellectual property but also to encourage creativity – and limited term copyright is one way to do that, in recognition that artistic creations borrow and transfigure the work of others.

    But since Disney (making sure Mickey Mouse is still in copyright), laws have shifted to make copyright some sort of long-term annuity. Copyright law was never meant to guarantee income to a corporation or a family over generations.

    The litigant here didn’t write the song, even if Page & Plant did plagiarize it. The litigant is merely the representative of the estate of the guy who (allegedly) wrote the song. He’s no more responsible for whatever creativity went into writing the original song than, well, his attorneys…although come to think of it, there is some sort of creativity involved in pretending that someone who had nothing to with a song somehow has a right to 40 years of profits from that song, after the fact.

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