If we’re really concerned about intellectual property rights, we shouldn’t be concentrating on the trial unfolding in Los Angeles this week, wherein surviving members of the band Spirit are suing Led Zeppelin for purportedly plagiarizing the chord sequence at the heart of the iconic “Stairway to Heaven.” We should be going after digital streaming companies paying absurdly low royalty rates to content providers – the artists previously known as “musicians” and “songwriters” and “record-makers”.
Oh, but how juicy is this story? Why quibble over the wholesale destruction of the recording business when we can concentrate on the suggestion that one of the greatest songs in the history of rock music is in fact a rip-off?
Yes, folks, the case of “Michael Skidmore vs. Led Zeppelin et al,” in which Spirit bassist Mark Andes and Skidmore, trustee of the estate left by the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, claim Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant stole the centerpiece chord sequence of “Stairway” from Spirit’s “Taurus” has all the makings of a particularly torrid episode of VH-1’s “Behind the Music.”
One suspects that every rock fan of a certain age grown bone-weary of hearing “Stairway” in its decades-long tenure as the bedrock of classic rock radio playlists is rubbing his or her hands together in glee over the prospect that the whole thing has been a sham, that Zeppelin was always more Man Behind the Curtain than Mighty Oz, or perhaps even that the far less commercially successful Spirit is the true purveyor of classical-rock majesty, and Page and Plant are mere posers. We sure do love a good underdog story. Until we don’t. Then we avoid “losers” like the plague.
It’s interesting that Page and Plant, as credited songwriters for “Stairway,” have both taken the stand in this case, much of which has centered on the attempt to prove that the Zeppelin men had the opportunity to hear “Taurus” prior to penning their masterpiece. For “Stairway,” Page wrote the music, and Plant the lyrics.
No one seems to be suggesting that “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow” was purloined from some Elizabethan madrigal, or that “The piper will lead us to reason” is actually an uncredited reference to the work of Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. No, what is being argued over here is the finger-picked acoustic guitar bit that heralds the arrival of “Stairway,” and then is fleshed out and orchestrated throughout the rest of the epic tune. Plant had nothing to do with this.
The argument boils down essentially to whether or not a progression with chromatic descending notes atop an A minor chord can be considered intellectual property, and therefore, the stuff from which plagiarism lawsuit dreams are woven. There are similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway,” certainly. Both employ this device. So do more classical music pieces than I could possibly enumerate.
If Zeppelin lost this case, one wonders what might follow in its wake. Will Chuck Berry sue Angus Young of AC/DC for employing his signature double-stop guitar licks for the past 40-plus years? Will the Jimi Hendrix Estate sue every single person who touched an electric guitar since the 1967 release of “Are You Experienced”? Will James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield be rewarded royalties from every single funky song recorded since the 1970 release of Brown’s “Funky Drummer”? (He probably should. Good god, that groove is funky.)
Listen to a sampling of present-day pop compositions. Most of them are written by a small cabal of “professional pop songwriting people” who can’t even be bothered to steal from anyone else – they simply recycle their own songs, or ape the same uber-clichéd formulas and chord progressions we’ve heard over and over and over again. If that fails, they’ll just sample an older hit or a rhythmic groove. Probably something Clyde Stubblefield played.
Perhaps these song-producing automatons can’t be nailed for plagiarism, but I wish they could be sued for lack of imagination.
Page stole his iconic “Whole Lotta Love” riff from a few dozen different African-American blues artists. It was then stolen from him by everyone from Whitesnake to Jack White. (Note to self: Great band name – “Jack Whitesnake, a tribute to David Coverdale and the White Stripes”. It’ll be a huge hit at the festivals.)
If you’re playing the blues, or riff-based blues-rock, avoiding such a figure would be pretty close to impossible. Trying to copyright a riff like this is akin to attempting to claim ownership of references to pickup trucks, alcohol and the American flag in country songs. Meaning, it’s so prevalent, that it’s absurd.
There are cases of blatant thievery in popular music, to be sure. When an entire melody, hook and chord sequence is lifted verbatim from another pop tune and presented as a new composition – think Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” which he nicked from Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and was busted for – then yes, Houston, we do have a problem. This does not apply to “Stairway,” however. Why? Because the descending figure Page may or may not have heard on the Spirit album prior to composing “Stairway” is only one element in what is essentially a master class in arranging, dynamic manipulation, pacing and the multitracking of guitar parts.
“Stairway to Heaven” has been beaten to death by classic rock radio, and sure, you can spot influences from classical and rock conventions in its construction. But the song remains the same – timeless. And it’s a product of the imaginations of its composers.