There’s an interesting article (although a lot of information has been out there for years) about Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page ripping-off music and lyrics from a lot of artists. But for one of their signature songs, “Stairway to Heaven,” it seems a copyright infringement lawsuit is going forward against the mighty Zep because Page allegedly stole enough of a song from the group Spirit to create Zeppelin’s most noted tune. One of the questions floating around in the cesspool of YouTube comments is why did the band members of Spirit wait so long to file a lawsuit? It’s difficult to know because the guitarist who wrote the riff in question died in 1997, but was pretty vocal to his former band mates about Page using his composition as the basis for the intro to “Stairway” [see the featured image on the home page of my blog for a quote from the Spirit guitarist]. Now that Led Zeppelin is in the process of re-releasing all their albums (the first three are already available and have a few songs that call into question Page’s appropriation of other artist’s material), the time seems right for Spirit’s lawyers to settle charges of copyright infringement because Page, Plant, Jones, and the heirs of John Bonham stand to make some rather large coin with the reissue of “Led Zeppelin IV”
Looking at the history of both bands, Led Zeppelin and Spirit did play at a few venues in the ’60s on the same bill, and “Taurus” (the song that Page allegedly ripped-off) was played a few times when Zeppelin was opening for Spirit. There’s very little doubt that Page heard the song in 1968 and then maybe filed it away in his head until he was composing “Stairway” in 1971. Since “Taurus” didn’t chart, perhaps Page felt he could, ahem, borrow more than a few choice notes for his song — after all, he had done it before without any push back. Have a listen to the two songs, and you’ll hear a striking similarity.
Led Zeppelin is hardly the first band to co-opt music from other artists, but sometimes Page’s use of the other people’s material is too blatant to ignore. I once did a Mix Six (remember those?) on Popdose that was based on Joe Satriani’s copyright infringement suit against Coldplay (which was settled). I wanted to feature songs that sounded like other songs, and I chose an Osmond Brothers song that sounded an awful lot like the major riff on Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”
Here’s the Osmonds’ song:
And here’s Led Zeppelin:
Some have said that Plant’s wail on the beginning of the song is the “Get Smart Theme,” so have a listen to see if you can hear the similarities:
See, I could go on and on and mention how Gene Simmons copied a bass riff from The Rolling Stones note for note and used it on a KISS song, but played the chord progression in reverse. Did The Rolling Stones sue KISS? Nope. They probably never heard what he did, so they just let it slide. George Harrison copying “He’s so Fine” for “My Sweet Lord?” That went to court. And then their one of my favorite groups, Rush. They were a Led Zeppelin knock-off when they started and it’s no secret that The Boys say that Zeppelin is one of their favorite bands. You can hear Zep’s influence on the first three albums pretty clearly, but there’s one place where Rush does cut, paste, and slightly rearrange an artist’s music, but it’s not a rock artist. Rather it’s Dave Brubeck. I was listening to “Blue Rondo a la Turk” while cooking the other day and was struck by how much it sounded like the guitar part on Part II of “Natural Science.” It’s not note for note, but the similarities are pretty striking. First, have a quick listen to the opening of Burbeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk:
Got that galloping piano riff in your head? Good, now skip to 2:22 on “Natural Science” and tell me you don’t hear a familiar sound:
I guess the point of all this is that artists borrow from one another; they hear or see something that they like and they often use that as a “muse” to spur their creation. Is it a rip-off? If you give credit to your source of inspiration, then no. But if you try and pass off something that’s clearly not yours as yours, then you’re no better than the students of mine who would plagiarize the works of published academic authors in hopes that the success of said authors would translate into an A paper for them.