Thursday, October 31, 2019

Zeppelin: Let's Get This Out of the Way - Part 2, Page and "Stairway"

Led Zeppelin did not steal a riff for the introduction to its classic rock anthem "Stairway to Heaven," a federal court jury decided on June 23, 2016 in Los Angeles. Experts for both sides dissected the compositions, agreeing mainly that they shared a descending chord progression that dates back three centuries as a building block in countless songs.

From a legal perspective (and for me, this is of lesser importance), there is a contractual business arrangement referred to as "work for hire." Musicians, particularly black musicians in the early part of the 20th Century and young artists eager to get a foot in the door in the 1960s, often fell victim to the "work for hire" approach of the major labels, meaning that intellectual property belongs to the label. Such is the case with Spirit's "Taurus," the instrumental piece that was purportedly ripped by Jimmy Page for "Stairway to Heaven." Though not a real Spirit fan, this writer has a particular affinity for the rock instrumental, with "Taurus" among my favorites, alongside "Mood For a Day," "Embryonic Journey" and "Sparks" from Tommy. Despite my affection for the song, Spirit's case against Page should have, from a legal standpoint, been "dismissed with prejudice," in that the composer has no legal rights to the song (these belong to Ode Records). In addition, a statement by the composer, Randy California, in 1991 states, "I'll let them have the beginning of 'Taurus' for their song without a lawsuit." Finally, based on a legal understanding called "laches," a contract's equivalent to the statute of limitations, the 43 years that transpired between the release of "Stairway to Heaven" and the recent lawsuit should negate the legal action.

In the case, Led Zeppelin argued, "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." Despite the mumbo-jumbo associated with legalese, the opening notes to "Stairway to Heaven" are indeed similar to what is played 45 seconds into Spirit's "Taurus." Both are arpeggiated A Minor chords in the fifth fret barre position. The first three notes of the arpeggiated figure are close to each other and the descending bass is also similar until the end, when Page adds a note. Page's guitar line is more sophisticated, in that he's finger-picking and playing two notes at the same time. As the bass line descends, Page plays a simple but effective counter melody on the high E string;"Taurus"simply plays out the notes of the chord. Does Randy California truly believe that he has exclusivity to arpeggiating a minor chord? Should he subsequently go after Tom Petty for the guitar part for "Into the Great Wide Open?" The simple answer is, of course not; he died in 1997. The Case regarding "Stairway" was not filed by Randy Wolfe (California),  but by an attorney for his estate, 43 years after the fact. None of this really matters, though. What does matter is that four seconds of a similar riff does not constitute authorship for the most iconic song in the rock canon.

The only certainty here is that Led Zeppelin utilized those seconds far more effectively than Spirit. "Taurus" starts with a soft 45 second barrage of "Nights in White Satin" orchestration, pretty and lilting, before the guitar floats in and out of the song without going anywhere. The song didn’t go anywhere either, despite having a three-year head start on "Stairway." To be frank, there's a reason "Stairway to Heaven" is a big stupid rock epic that the whole world is sick of (I mean the most iconic song in the rock canon) and "Taurus" is a deep album cut for a band that has largely been forgotten (except by Randy California's lawyers). (Check. This is indeed the same argument used to elevate "Whole Lotta Love" over Willie Dixon's "You Need Love.")

Another interesting legal aspect with regard to plagiarism lies with culpability. R. Gary Klausner, District Court Judge on the case ruled that, "The Court finds that the Plaintiff has not proffered sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue of fact that Led Zeppelin members had direct access to 'Taurus.'" Essentially, based on the precedence of earlier cases involving lyrics and music, similar pieces by disparate artists can be created simultaneously. "Taurus" is a simple, beautiful instrumental; "Stairway" a rock anthem. Two songs, two styles, two separate entities.