Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven: Where there's music, there's the rip-off

Eventually, like pornography, you can't define it but you know it when you see it.

 |  7-minute read |   14-04-2016
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The song starts in a slow tempo with Jimmy Page's fragile guitar riff. Then begin Robert Plant's thin and raspy vocals: "There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold, and she's buying a stairway to heaven".

It moves into a sensual wave with the twin 12-strings and the electric piano. The drums come in and, two verses later, the guitar solo begins with a huge fanfare. Everything's flying at this point.  There's a hysterical trill at the end of the solo that leads into the finale. It's like an orgasm at the end!

I met Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in Mumbai in November 1996. We talked about their music and two songs in particular - "Stairway to Heaven" and "Kashmir". With a huge amount of patience and extraordinary warmth, as well as an indulgent arm around the shoulder, they responded to my queries. If they were bemused by my 40-going-on-14 fevered behaviour, they didn't show it. Probably deal with it a lot!

ledzep-mankowithpage_041416045930.jpg The writer with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin in 1996.

The two were in India to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Channel V Music Awards show. Later, at the show, they played their song "Rock and Roll" along with Queen's Roger Taylor on drums and our own Remo Fernandes on bass.

Little did I know that 20 years later, the most recognisable opening riff on the planet would be tainted by accusations of a rip-off?

On April 8. 2016, a US district court decided the British band's "Stairway to Heaven" had enough similarities to the previously composed song "Taurus" by the lesser-known band Spirit to merit a jury trial for copyright infringement. The trial is set for May 10, 2016.

It was argued that Page and Plant stole the riff while touring with Spirit in the late 1960s.

ledzeppelin-stairway_041416050013.jpg Led Zeppelin perform 'Stairway to Heaven'. 

"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," the judge wrote.

This is not the first time that the band has been accused of plagiarism. The beginning and end of their "Bring It on Home" sounds similar to American blues singer Willie Dixon's song "Bring It on Home".  "Lemon Song" has some of the same lyrics as Chicago blues singer Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor". In the '90s they lost the case to Wolf.  "Black Mountainside" has a similar melody to Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch's "Black Waterside".

Their "Dazed and Confused" is an uncredited cover of American singer Jake Holmes's "Dazed and Confused". Holmes filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin in 2010, 40 years after the record was released. The suit was dropped two years later, likely in a settlement. They were sued in 1985 by Willie Dixon for "Whole Lotta Love", and they ultimately gave the co-writing credit to Willie Dixon. Why only Led Zeppelin, there are a whole lot of marquee singers/bands who have been also accused of the same crime. George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was the subject matter of a copyright infringement suit in 1970, due to its similarity to the 1963 hit song "He's So Fine", composed by Ronald Mack and recorded by the Chiffons. Harrison, however, claimed to have used the out-of-copyright "Oh Happy Day", a Christian hymn, as his inspiration for the song's melody. Harrison explained that in December 1969, he was playing a show in Copenhagen with the group Delaney and Bonnie. Harrison said that he started writing the song when he began vamping some guitar chords, fitting the chords around the words "Hallelujah" and "Hare Krishna".

In 1976, the court held that Harrison had subconsciously plagiarised the earlier tune.

The iconic song "Hotel California" of the Eagles is also not without controversy. A chord sequence in the song is similar to the one used in Jethro Tull's "We Used To Know". The Eagles were the opening band for Tull during their US Tour in the early 70s. Ian Anderson of Tull generously concedes that the Eagles heard Tull play the song, picked up the chord sequence subconsciously, and introduced it into their song "Hotel California" sometime later. Ian stated that even though the song used the same chord sequence, it was in a different time signature, different key, different context, and wasn't plagiarism. Ian said he, in fact, felt flattered.

The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" and Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" are very similar. "Surfin' USA" was originally listed with Brian Wilson as the sole composer, but after people heard the two songs, rights were quickly given to Chuck Berry.

Radiohead were successfully sued by songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood over similarities between their song "The Air That I Breathe" - a 1973 hit for The Hollies - and Radiohead's "Creep".

Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" was hugely influenced by Madonna's hit "Express Yourself". Madonna did not make a claim; however, she called Gaga "reductive" and performed a mash-up of the two songs on her  tour, with the song culminating with lines from a song called "She's Not Me" - a song about Madonna being emulated by someone else.

Coldplay's hit 2008 song "Viva La Vida" saw them under fire from the legendary guitarist Joe Satriani (whose concert I had the good fortune to see in Mumbai in May, 2005), who alleged that the track had substantially borrowed from his song "If I Could Fly". While the band denied it, and the case was dismissed - suggesting that it was purely coincidental, Coldplay have been known to take influence from songs before. "In My Place" referenced Ride's "Dreams Burn Down" and "Fix You" had substantial echoes of Elbow's "Grace under Pressure".

Members of British group Killing Joke claimed that the main guitar riff for Nirvana's seminal "Come As You Are" was stolen from their song "Eighties".

And so it goes on and on. If we talk about Hindi film music, the instances of plagiarism will constitute a thick compendium and would need a series of articles. But that's another day.

Music has only 12 notes, so at some point there is bound to be some resemblance. It's difficult to find a chord sequence that hasn't been used, and hasn't been the focus of lots of pieces of music. Harmonic progression lends itself to a mathematical certainty you're going to crop up with the same thing sooner or later if you sit strumming a few chords on a guitar.

ledzeppelin-stairway_041416050145.jpg A poster of Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven.

So how does one distinguish between "inspiration" and a "copy"? Some would say you have to look at the sheet music. But that isn't decisive because it depends how you are performing those notes or how you are phrasing those notes and what the rhythm is. Some other yardsticks could be -does the new work substantially copy the prior work; does the new work apply the original in a different way; or does the new work have a substantial portion of new, original material - musically and lyrically.

Eventually, like pornography, you can't define it but you know it when you see it. And it is common people like you and me who need to make that determination, not experts.

"Stairway to Heaven" ends with -

"And if you listen very hard,

the tune will come to you at last;  

When all are one and one is all,  

to be a rock and not to roll".

As long as there is music, "the tune (that) will come to you at last" will either be original work, or a subconscious inspiration, or a deliberate rip-off. Be that as it may, whatever be the final ruling by the court, the planet's love affair with "Stairway" will continue unabated.


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official, former NDTV executive and a music aficionado.

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