Words & Opinions: Karen Hetherington
It seems everywhere I look at the minute Led Zeppelin are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. In case you’ve been sleeping the past couple of years and are unfamiliar with the particulars, here’s a quick recap…
In May of 2014 Michael Skidmore (a trustee of the estate of the late Randy California of the band Spirit) and Spirit bassist Mark Andes filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin. They claim that the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” bears a striking resemblance to Spirit instrumental “Taurus” and that Zeppelin, having supported Spirit on their first American tour, heard it played at some point of the tour and copied it. Bottom line argument is that Randy California should have been given a writing credit and thus royalties etc…
Randy California and Spirit were known to me of course but until this came to light I had never heard the track in question. It goes without saying that I was off straight away for an obligatory listen to check for similarities – me and a million other Zepp fans I bet, it must be the greatest publicity Spirit have ever had. Taurus is a fantastic instrumental and I had to conclude that I could hear a very slight similarity…but I was deliberately listening for it, same as I deliberately listened for satanic references when I played Stairway to Heaven backwards over 20 years ago!
Of all rock songs Stairway has been musically and lyrically analysed to death by fans and critics alike, it’s what people do. They see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear and look for hidden meanings in things where often there aren’t any – I’ve done it myself yet until 2 years ago I had been completely oblivious to the comparisons being made between these two tracks. Spirit cites lack of resources as the reason for not filing the case sooner – Still 43 years is a very long time. Indeed Randy California had been dead 17 years before legal action was taken.
It is well known that Zeppelin are no strangers to “borrowing” the music of others and have been careless with accreditation. One of the best examples of this occurs on their debut album Led Zeppelin and has been referred to as the Blackwaterside scandal. Bert Jansch had released the song “Blackwaterside” which was credited as (Traditional – arrangement by Jansch) while Page had released it as an instrumental, renamed it “Blackmountainside” and gave himself writing credit. The outcome of this amounted to no more than bad feeling as Bert was not in a position to take on the mighty Zeppelin in court. Page admitted his wrong doing in this case and has stated on numerous occasions that he was absolutely obsessed with Bert Jansch and what he was doing musically at the time.
In 1985 Willie Dixon sued Zeppelin on the grounds that they had ripped off his music, he claimed Whole Lotta Love was a rehash of You Need Love – recorded by Muddy Waters. An out of court settlement was reached in this regard and Dixons’ name credited on all subsequent releases featuring the song.
Zeppelin were renowned for playing exceptionally long sets, they would launch into one of their well known tracks and many times it would morph into something entirely unrecognisable, they were off in a tangent – nearly like a jamming session and often the odd verse of someone else’s song was thrown in for good measure, they made it theirs and they made it better, but It never detracted from the sound that was unmistakably Led Zeppelin – tight but loose.
Page has claimed on numerous occasions that Bert Jansh was a major influence on him and Zeppelin generally were massively influenced by the great blues musicians. I don’t recall ever reading anywhere that Page was influenced by Randy California…that’s not to say he wasn’t.
In the latest development in this saga I have read today that Plant and Page have been accused of hiding in the UK as they are refusing to attend court over the matter – something they are not legally required to do.
It’s likely, I would say, that at this stage of the game, and their careers they couldn’t give a toss, they have nothing to prove. Having experienced musical super-stardom on the level they have, I doubt a ruling against them would turn a hair on their heads. Any financial settlement is unlikely to dent the Zeppelin bank balance too badly nor their reputation either. I can’t help imagining what the late great Peter Grant would make of it all.
Zeppelins defence has stated that the descending bass line in question is hundreds of years old and therefore not entitled to protection. I say this is a case for the music lovers to decide, not a judge and jury.
Led Zeppelin IV has sold 37 million copies with Stairway to Heaven not only being known as Zeppelins most famous composition, but one of the most famous compositions of all time. No matter what the outcome of this legal action is, in my opinion, the legacy of the song, remains the same…