‘Stairway’ Outrage Misplaced
FILE - This Oct. 9, 2012 file photo shows musicians Jason Bonham, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page at the "Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day" premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. On Monday, Nov. 19, Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and "Since I've Been Loving You" will be featured in next week's episode of "Revolution", the same day, Led Zeppelin's "Celebration Day" album and a companion documentary on DVD will be released. The series by J.J. Abrams tells of a world 15 years after the world inexplicably suffers a power outage. (Photo by Dario Cantatore/Invision/AP, file)
The big news in the music world these days has been the Stairway to Heaven lawsuit. The people who run the estate of Randy California, the phenomenal guitarist and songwriter from the phenomenal band Spirit, announced they are suing Led Zeppelin. They claim that the acoustic guitar line at the beginning of Stairway was lifted from Taurus, an instrumental track on the first Spirit album.
Classic rock fans are aghast. To challenge Stairway, that great song that every sentient being in the known universe has been sick of for 40 years, is apparently sacrilege.
The two guitar lines really are awfully similar. Taurus came out two years before Stairway, and it was a staple in Spirit’s live shows during the time Led Zeppelin was Spirit’s opening act. It’s reasonable to assume it made an impression on Jimmy Page.
The outrage over the suit seems disingenuous. In the 1960s and ’70s, lots of people who paid attention to music talked about Page lifting California’s guitar line. California talked about it pretty openly, saying he felt ripped off by his friend.
Everybody’s wondering why he didn’t sue back then. Maybe he was just a nice guy. I met California a few times in the mid-‘70s when he lived in Tampa, Fla., and he always seemed like a genuinely nice and down-to-earth man. (He did, however, often wear a headband with “Randy California” spelled out in beads, which was kind of obnoxious.) He implied in interviews that he would have been satisfied with a “thank you” for creating the guitar part.
I’d call him a musical genius and a visionary, which is of course something people can debate. You can listen to Spirit’s The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, one of the best rock albums ever made, and you might be convinced.
He was unquestionably a hero. He died in 1997 saving the life of his 12-year-old son, who was in danger of drowning.
Led Zeppelin fans are saying the suit is just an attempt to make some money. But by all reports, all the suit is asking for, at least so far, is that California be listed as a co-writer of the song on an upcoming reissue of Led Zeppelin IV.
Led Zeppelin may be the classic rock band that is most often accused of plagiarism. They settled copyright cases with the estates of Howlin’ Wolf for The Lemon Song and Willie Dixon for Whole Lotta Love. There was no outrage from fans about those suits.
Plagiarism in popular music isn’t rare. A member of Los Lobos has excoriated Paul Simon, saying that Simon stole a song they played for him and turned it into The Myth of Fingerprints. (Simon said he remembers the development of that song differently.) John Fogerty actually got sued for plagiarizing himself, after people who owned his songs from Credence Clearwater Revival alleged that his solo song The Old Man Down the Road was a copy of CCR’s Run Through the Jungle. (Fogerty won, but the court didn’t make the plaintiff reimburse his legal fees.) Musicians will tell you that the guitar lines in both Taurus and Stairway use standard chord progressions. So did George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s One Fine Day, but Harrison lost that suit.
Led Zeppelin have, of course, been ripped off themselves. There’s no way the similarities between Still of the Night by Whitesnake and The Immigrant Song by Zeppelin are merely coincidental.
The outrage in this current case is no doubt due to the iconic status of Stairway to Heaven, as well as to the proliferation of news media to report the suit and social media to allow people to spout off about it.
I suspect Led Zeppelin worshippers are more incensed about the suit than the members of Led Zeppelin are. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that the case will be settled before it reaches court, given Led Zeppelin’s history with plagiarism suits, and that they’ll offer money instead of a songwriting credit.
The classy thing, of course, would be for Led Zeppelin to just go ahead and admit that they most likely at least drew inspiration from California’s guitar line, and that, consciously or not, it spawned the opening of Stairway.
Randy California was one of the all-time guitar greats (Jimi Hendrix wanted him to be part of the Experience), he died saving a child’s life and he doesn’t get enough credit. Listing him as one of writers of Stairway to Heaven would be insignificant for Led Zeppelin, but it would mean the world to people who loved Spirit’s music and Randy California’s guitar work.