Most of you probably don’t remember the sixties band, Spirit, but they were a quirky L.A.-based group that managed to stagger on into the seventies. Along the way, it seems they shared billing with a newer outfit, Led Zeppelin:
In December, they appeared at the Denver Auditorium with support band Led Zeppelin, who soon after incorporated parts of Spirit’s song “Fresh Garbage” in an extended medley during their early 1969 concerts. Spirit also appeared with Led Zeppelin at two outdoor music festivals in July 1969. Jimmy Page‘s use of a theremin has been attributed to his seeing Randy California use one that he had mounted to his amplifier; and Guitar World magazine stated “California’s most enduring legacy may well be the fingerpicked acoustic theme of the song ‘Taurus’, which Jimmy Page lifted virtually note for note for the introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven‘.” Page may have reworked a riff from “Taurus” while composing “Stairway to Heaven“; The Independent remarked upon the similarity in 1997. In 2014, Mark Andes, and a trust acting on behalf of Randy California, filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin in an attempt to obtain a writing credit for “Stairway to Heaven”. Page denies copying “Taurus”.
“Reworked”? That’s putting it mildly:
A trial is needed to determine if Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” copies its opening notes from a song performed by the rock band Spirit, a federal judge has ruled. US District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled Friday that lawyers for the trustee of late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe had shown enough evidence to support a case that “Stairway to Heaven” copies music from the Spirit song “Taurus.”
“Taurus” was written by Wolfe in either 1966 or 1967, years before Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971. Klausner wrote that while the songs have some differences, lawyers for Wolfe’s trustee may be able to prove they are substantially similar.
Led Zeppelin and Spirit performed at some concerts and festivals around the same time, but not on the same stage. Klausner wrote that the evidence presented so far represented a circumstantial case that Led Zeppelin may have heard “Taurus” performed before “Stairway to Heaven” was created.
Have a listen to the opening riff, first from Spirit:
Turn the page to hear the Led Zep version:
Plagiarism is barely distinct from homage, as I noted in an essay for Time magazine ages ago, and many tunes resemble each other without having been stolen:
In the baroque period, it was perfectly permissible to cadge someone else’s tunes; Bach helped himself to several concertos by Vivaldi and arranged them for organ without so much as a by-your-leave.
Some pop composers have been just as sticky fingered. The 1941 hit Tonight We Love originated in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto; Full Moon and Empty Arms was lifted from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff, in fact, is a particular source of inspiration: Eric Carmen’s 1976 pop hit Never Gonna Fall in Love Again borrowed the soaring melody of the slow movement of the dour Russian’s Second Symphony. The classically trained Andrew Lloyd Webber quotes a theme from Puccini’s Turandot in his new smash London hit, The Phantom of the Opera. Other apparent steals, however, may be subliminal or simply happenstance. Were the swaggering themes from the movies Star Wars and Born Free both liberated from the relatively obscure Sixth Symphony by Anton Bruckner? Did Somewhere, the poignant anthem from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, derive from the slow movement of the same Bruckner symphony? Who knows?
At the New Yorker, music critic Alex Ross makes a similar point:
Yet if “Stairway to Heaven” is plagiarized, so is a good portion of the classical canon. Bach, the master of them all, routinely helped himself to the music of colleagues and predecessors. To name one of countless examples, the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor takes off from André Raison’s Trio en Passacaille, in the same key. Of course, the modern concept of intellectual property did not exist during the Baroque; a musician such as Bach was considered not an individual genius but a craftsman working with material in circulation. This raises the question of whether the mammoth achievement of Bach and other canonical composers did not in some way depend on a culture of borrowing. Would Bach have been able to reach so high if he had not stood upon an edifice of extant music?
The latter-day insistence on unambiguous originality in musical composition—or in literature, for that matter—betrays a small-mindedness about the nature of creativity. T. S. Eliot famously commented, in 1920, that “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” and added that the “good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique.” In other words, a borrowed idea can become the kernel of a wholly original thought. This is what Bach does in the Passacaglia and Fugue; it’s what Shakespeare does throughout his plays. These days, though, we seem to want geniuses who play by the rules and give due credit to their colleagues; we want great art executed in the manner of a scholarly paper, with painstaking acknowledgments and footnotes. Small wonder that in the absence of such art, we keep falling back on the past.
Given what happened to Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, however, Spirit’s chances of winning are pretty good.
A jury trial is scheduled for May 10 in Los Angeles. Klausner’s ruling removed Zeppelin band member John Paul Jones from the case. Bandmates Robert Plant and Jimmy Page remain defendants in the case.
A trial would represent the third time in recent months that a Los Angeles federal jury has heard a copyright-infringement case involving a hit song. In March 2015, a jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had copied a Marvin Gaye song to create their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” and awarded Gaye’s children $7.4 million. A judge trimmed the award, and the verdict is under appeal.
It doesn’t help Led Zeppelin’s case, however, that both tunes are in the same key…