If it’s Wednesday, it must mean Led Zeppelin is being sued for plagiarism once again. If you are a fan of the band, or of the critical collective known as the Internet, or both, you know that the heralded heavy metal act has been accused, on several occasions, of ripping off their iconic sound from those who came before. Over at a website for the online radio station Turn Me On Dead Man, there’s an article the outlines the main charges against the group, specifically, that chief songwriter Jimmy Page took his love of the blues (and its musical inspiration) a bit too far. Among the many titles listed is “Stairway to Heaven.” Apparently, Zeppelin “borrowed” an instrumental riff from Spirit’s Randy California and his song “Taurus” and turned it into an iconic anthem. Now, four decades after its release, the late musician’s estate is suing, hoping to get a songwriting credit (and the accompanying royalties) on what is often called the most (over)played FM radio track ever.
Now, there is a big difference between inspiration and stealing. The Beatles’ George Harrison was sued by the writers of the ’50s girl group classic “He’s So Fine” which they say was copied for his solo hit “My Sweet Lord.” The jury found that both songs were more or less the same and held against the former member of the Fab Four. Similarly, Huey Lewis and the News took Ray Parker Jr. to court claiming that his monster theme from the first ‘Ghostbusters’ film was a carbon copy of their own hit “I Want a New Drug.” The suit was settled out of court. Everyone from Radiohead to The Beach Boys have been involved in cases like this, and while not a pure legal benchmark, the litmus test is usually this: if you could easily confuse one song for the other, then it’s plagiarism and the courts are usually willing to award credit (and, sometimes, cash) to the aggrieved party.
In Zeppelin’s defense, the song has been out there for a while. In Spirit’s defense, it wasn’t until recently that they could afford to mount a legal charge against the Hall of Fame act. Against Zeppelin is the fact that the two songs do sound very similar (there’s also the fact that the two bands toured together in the late ’60s to consider, which some say is proof of the proposed offense). Against Spirit – well, see for yourself:
Not much there really, just a similar riff. No words. No music. No epic last minute power chord triumph. Now, over the course of its artistic life, rock ‘n’ roll has been synonymous with sonic lifts. Similar chord progressions are spread out over several decades and differing acts, recognizable solos are swapped left and right, and certain hooks have been used and abused ad infinitum. Considering their size and current commercial credential (Zeppelin is in the process of releasing its back catalog in newly remastered packages including unreleased bonus and live tracks), as well as their past tendency to simply award credit and move on, this will probably resolve itself soon. One thing’s for sure. Whatever Randy California and Spirit were thinking when they recorded “Taurus,” Page and Company took it and ran wild. Each should be thanking the other for such “sampling.”