The World is Safe for Descending Chromatic Scales Once Again

Todd A

, Inspiration

Led Zeppelin wins lawsuit over “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarism

The large news in the music world yesterday was that Led Zeppelin prevailed in a lawsuit against them that claimed Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had stolen the opening lick of “Stairway to Heaven” from the band Spirit, specifically their song “Taurus.” If you’ve missed the kerfuffle, it boils down to this: forty-five seconds into the Spirit song, there are ten seconds that sound kinda like “Stairway to Heaven” — enough so that a judge allowed the trial to proceed, not enough that a jury found Zeppelin guilty.

From the start, the case was complex. Because both songs were written and recorded more than 40 years ago, the statue of limitations for a lawsuit had run out. However, a remastered re-release of the Zeppelin track made it once again possible for Spirit to pursue legal recourse. Secondly, it seems the composer of the Spirit tune, Randy Wolfe didn’t actually own the copyright to his composition because it fell under a “work for hire” agreement. Thirdly, Zeppelin argued that Wolfe waived his copyright claim when he said in a 1991 interview: “If they wanted to use [Taurus] that’s fine,” and “I’ll let them have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.”

For their part, the plaintiffs claimed that Zeppelin and Spirit toured in the old days when they would have heard “Taurus” and that Zeppelin once covered another Spirit song that appeared on the same album as “Taurus.” Jimmy Page even had a copy of that album in his collection. There were a lot of claims thrown around that would be hard to prove in court.

Really, it comes down to the music. The crux of the similarity is well-described in this argument from Led Zeppelin:

The similarity between ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway’ is limited to a descending chromatic scale of pitches resulting from ‘broken’ chords or arpeggios and which is so common in music it is called a minor line cliché… There is no substantial similarity in the works’ structures, which are markedly different. Neither is there any harmonic or melodic similarity beyond the unprotected descending line. Rather, straining to find something, the plaintiff’s expert argues that ‘Stairway’ and recordings of ‘Taurus’ have only five of the six chords in a centuries-old work — part of public domain material is still public domain material — and that both have the unprotected sequence of notes in a minor scale, A, B and C.

Jimmy Page starts “Stairway to Heaven” by picking the notes an Am chord. He descends down a chromatic line in the bass to the F. If you count the dominant note in the final chord of the line — another Am — he even hits an E. Zeppelin’s own argument referred to this as a “minor line cliché” because it was so overdone. You can hear Zeppelin using another descending chromatic scale in “Dazed and Confused” (more on that song in a minute).

In the court of public opinion, the accusation that Led Zeppelin “stole” the song is often stated as fact. This is partly because of Zeppelin’s history with citing their sources.

In his documentary Everything is a Remix, Kirby Ferguson breaks down a lot of the accusations against Led Zeppelin.

Ferguson concludes that what separated Zeppelin from their contemporaries who also borrowed from blues sources is that Zeppelin did not credit sources and they also didn’t modify their sources enough to claim they had created new work.

In my mind (and I say this with tremendous respect for Ferguson’s work; he’s awesome; go buy his new documentary about Conspiracy Theories), Ferguson is giving short shrift to Zeppelin. Yes, the beginning of “Bring It On Home” is identical to Willie Dixon’s. But then Zeppelin does this:

Yes, “Stairway”’s opening chords sound similar to “Taurus.” But Spirit never did anything like this:

And back to “Dazed and Confused,” yes, Led Zeppelin were successfully sued by Jake Holmes. While it is accurate that Zeppelin didn’t credit Holmes, it seems at least worth acknowledging that they made the music a whole lot heavier and changed the lyrics. In addition, you might make the argument Zeppelin were just remixing the remix of “Dazed and Confused” that Jimmy Page performed with his previous band, The Yardbirds. (Zeppelin also remixed The Yardbirds’ “Tangerine.”)

Even before “remix” was in the contemporary vernacular, it was widely-acknowledged that Zeppelin wasn’t merely “ripping off” other artists. When I started listening to them a decade or so after John Bonham’s death, guitar magazines openly discussed how Zeppelin borrowed from the blues to create heavy rock. While Zeppelin (somewhat egregiously) failed to credit the African-American sources of their songs, the press didn’t shy away from naming them.

Unlike their peers in the British blues scene, Zeppelin weren’t trying to be a blues band. They seemed eager to turn their blues influences into something new. Compare them to the Stones or Clapton who dug deeper into the blues while Zeppelin broke out of traditional song structures and completely opened up the way we think about studio recording.

I don’t mean this to turn into a full-throated defense of Led Zeppelin. As important as the band was to me in my formative guitar-learning years, I hate the idea of the Big Guy getting away with exploiting the Little Guy. They should have paid up for taking “Dazed and Confused” without license. But after longer listens to “Taurus,” I think Zeppelin and Spirit were just part of a musical conversation. And that is what is frightening about lawsuits like this one.

The idea that the estate of a songwriter can bring suit 40 years after two similar songs were written and recorded is chilling. Music is a conversation that we have with other musicians and audiences. Credit and originality hold a lot of cachet. They should be respected. But too often the (non-musical) conversations we have about musical credit aren’t about ideas but about haggling over money. Somewhere there is a middle-ground where we can give credit for influence and receive credit for expressing a new idea with that influence without having to go to court.

(But Green Day totally should have ponied up for ripping off The Kinks.)


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