Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Whole Lotta Lawsuit

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are going to California with aching in their hearts.
The former leaders of Led Zeppelin have been accused of pilfering the melody of the American band Spirit's instrumental "Taurus" to write Zep's signature song "Stairway To Heaven," which has been a staple of album-oriented rock radio and, later, classic-rock radio for decades.  U.S. District Court Judge Gary Klausner in Los Angeles concluded that there are enough similarities between the two pieces to require a jury trial for copyright infringement, which is slated to begin in Los Angeles this coming May 10. The biggest similarity is the descending chromatic four-chord progression in each track. Here's what Klausner had to say:
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure.  For example, the descending bass line in both 'Taurus' and 'Stairway to Heaven' appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most recognizable and important segments . . ..  Additionally, the descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs."
The suit has been brought by the estate of Randy Wolfe, the late bassist from Spirit, who wrote "Taurus."  Guitarist Jimmy Page has called this plagiarism charge "ridiculous," claiming not to have heard the Spirit record at the time, but accusations against Led Zeppelin can't all be ridiculous, and there are a lot of them involving other songs, particularly songs based on old blues numbers, as noted in this Vox article.  There have been some similarities between songs from one act and another.  Ian Anderson, the former leader of Jethro Tull, once heard similarities between the 1969 Tull song "We Used To Know" and the Eagles' 1976 hit "Hotel California," and they do sound more than vaguely similar.  Anderson decided not to sue, noting that the Eagles and Jethro Tull worked in completely different styles, and that there are mathematical limitations on the number of melodies that can be derived from all available notes (hmm, maybe that's why hip-hop thrives - no need for melodies at a time when we're running out of available ones!); he concluded that the Eagles may not  have been aware of the earlier song.  That may be true of Page and Plant when they wrote "Stairway To Heaven," but their songwriting history would suggest otherwise.
For comparative purposes, here's Zep's classic tune: 

Now here's the Spirit track:

I dunno . . . they sound awfully similar to me.  If I were to get on that jury, the defense would probably have a hard time convincing me that there wasn't any plagiarism involved.  (The Spirit video clip above had only a handful of views before the court case was allowed to proceed; at this posting it's had over a million views, and counting.)
If it's determined that Page and Plant did rip off Spirit, this will be yet another blow to a once-proud and vibrant musical genre.  Rock and roll has already been through a lot this year, with many of its most esteemed artists having died, with its humiliation at the 2016 Grammys, and with N.W.A. upstaging the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions and putting rap-haters on the defensive (never start an argument by saying that rap isn't music; you're only going to lose).   I don't think rock can take such a blow to its credibility.
If Wolfe's estate wins the suit, I'll still listen to "Stairway To Heaven" and appreciate it for what it is. But I'll never listen to it the same way again.             

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