If you’ve ever played guitar, even for a little bit, you’ll know a few, basic chords. You’ll usually know an A minor, C major, G major, probably a D and an F on top of it. The reasoning behind that is pretty simple; those are chords that can be played easily on a guitar’s tuning. Those also happen to be the chords that the iconic Stairway to Heaven are built off of and what an ongoing lawsuit with the band Spirit’s estate has been all about. It’s one in a long line of contentious lawsuits that have posited that familiar melodies, chords and rhythms. Sometimes those lawsuits are correct, but other times it’s just sort of ridiculous. Is the case of Spirit vs. Led Zeppelin a case of clear plagiarism or just two bands who had similar ideas?
That’s what the trial has been trying to figure out, and according to Rolling Stone it just keeps getting weirder and weirder, although a conclusion seems to be near. Bassist John Paul Jones testified before a jury to clarify statements and myths about the song and to speak for the band in particular, while the plaintiffs pulled a few weird tricks out of their hat before resting their case. A big part of the defense’s case near the end was to convince the jury that songs can sometimes just sound the same, comparing other pieces of sheet music to Stairway and finding out that there were a lot of songs that used rather simple A minor descending run, but that Stairway and Taurus, the Spirit track in question, weren’t really that similar.
The the length of this trial there have been people who see both sides; those claiming that Led Zeppelin have a strong history of being rip-off artists, and others who see it as just another case of two bands playing something that sounded cool in A minor and they happened to be eerily similar. This guy with his guitar does a pretty good job of summing up how they are similar and different.
The outcome of this lawsuit could have giant repercussions on the music industry because this was a case of two songs that weren’t sampling from each other, but instead two different songs, one of which went on to be played at high school proms everywhere as the last song while teens awkwardly slow danced only to find the song’s tempo pick up and everything sort of falls apart.
Personally, I remember as a kid my dad blowing my mind by playing the brief interlude that is Spirit’s Taurus for me. He played it like it was some sort of secret of dad rock, passed on quietly through circles as heretical, but truth; Led Zeppelin ripped off Spirit.
It was astounding. “How could they do that?” I asked. “Didn’t anyone notice?” The answer was complicated, but over the years became less of an issue to my mind, especially after years of playing guitar and music education. Sure, they were similar, but so different. Yet here we are many years later and there is finally a lawsuit. The estate of Randy “California” Wolfe are the ones suing, which should bring up some questions as to why this suit comes long after his 1997 death.
More musicians should take cues from Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, who doesn’t seem to care that much that Tull’s awesome We Used to Know didn’t blow up, but a song by their former opening act, The Eagles, called Hotel California went on to be one of the most played songs in rock history.
“There was no communication, really, at all. Just a polite observance of each other’s space when it came to sound checks and show time. But they probably heard us play the song, because that would have featured in the sets back then, and maybe it was just something they kind of picked up on subconsciously, and introduced that chord sequence into their famous song “Hotel California” sometime later. But, you know, it’s not plagiarism. It’s just the same chord sequence. It’s in a different time signature, different key, different context. And it’s a very, very fine song that they wrote, so I can’t feel anything other than a sense of happiness for their sake.”
These two songs really do sound quite alike, but Ian Anderson’s attitude seems to be the high road in this matter. If Led Zeppelin is to lose this lawsuit the flood gates would be open, so-to-speak, for any and everyone who finds a song that uses the same chords and melody as their older song will be suing and probably winning. That’s crazy. There are only 12 notes in the western scale, each key only contains 7 notes. There is bound to be overlap. A jury deciding something that is really kind of left to musicians to decide only makes it all the more of a strange situation. What will the jury hear, in the end? Will it be that they are different, or will their ears trick them into seeing links that may not be there?