Monday, June 13, 2016

Did Led Zeppelin steal a riff for 'Stairway to Heaven'?

[ed. Listen to the Taurus version, it's pretty clear. That said, music is an evolving culture. How many times did the Bo Diddley beat get get ripped off...umm, I mean riffed off? (or maybe, re-imagined)]

Who really created one of the most famous riffs in all of rock ’n’ roll?

That question is at the heart of a trial scheduled to begin Tuesday in Los Angeles, where members of Led Zeppelin are expected to appear in federal court to defend their 1971 rock epic “Stairway to Heaven” against claims that they stole it from another band.

At issue is whether Zeppelin nicked “Stairway’s” famous opening passage, which evokes centuries-old Renaissance folk music, from L.A. rock band Spirit, which shared some concert billings with the iconic British band when it was in its infancy.

A loss for Led Zeppelin could mean millions of dollars in royalties going to the estate of Spirit guitarist and songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, aka Randy California, for one of the most recognized and played recordings of the rock era.

It’s the highest profile infringement case to make it to the courtroom since last year’s suit in which R&B-soul singer Marvin Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million by a jury that decided pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ monster hit “Blurred Lines” had infringed on Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

It’s also the latest in a long line of plagiarism cases involving some of pop music’s biggest acts and most iconic songs, among them the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA,” the Beatles’ “Come Together,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and even the ubiquitous “Happy Birthday to You.” Just last week, Richard Busch, the lawyer who represented Gaye’s family, filed a new infringement suit in Los Angeles against English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, saying his 2015 hit “Photograph” bears a “striking similarity” to the song “Amazing” by Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard.

The common ground between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” largely comes down to a 10-second musical theme that appears 45 seconds into “Taurus,” an instrumental from the band’s 1968 debut album, which is similar to the opening acoustic guitar pattern on “Stairway.” That song was released three years before “Stairway to Heaven” surfaced on Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, commonly referred to as “Led Zeppelin IV.”

Zeppelin surviving members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones and their legal team are expected to argue that the similarity is nothing more than coincidence between musicians working in a field rooted in commonly used and re-used musical ideas. Or they may attempt to cite earlier precursors to both songs from the public domain, which could render moot the Wolfe estate’s copyright claim.

“It’s a tough one to call,” says singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, whose 1960s band Fairport Convention helped pioneer the merger of traditional British folk music with the amplified energy of rock ’n’ roll that Led Zeppelin took to its apotheosis in the 1970s.

“They were on the same bill together before [Zeppelin guitarist] Jimmy Page wrote ‘Stairway,’ there’s that,” Thompson said, referring to the Wolfe estate’s claiming that because the two bands played shows together in the late 1960s, and that Spirit often included “Taurus” in those shows, Zeppelin’s members at least had the opportunity to have heard the song.

“On the other hand,” Thompson said, “it’s not an uncommon riff, and the melody not that unusual.”

Guitarist Laurence Juber, who used to play with Paul McCartney’s band Wings, noted that the opening progression can be heard in a 16th century sonata for guitar, violin and strings by Italian composer Giovanni Battista Granata.

“The reality is that to have a descending bass line with an A minor chord on top of it is a common musical device.”

Francis Malofiy, the lawyer representing Wolfe’s estate, cleared a major hurdle in April when U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner allowed the case to proceed to trial, rejecting a bid by Led Zeppelin’s legal team to have the case tossed out.

In his ruling, Klausner found that Malofiy had failed to establish that “Stairway to Heaven” bears a “striking similarity” to “Taurus” – a high legal standard in copyright cases.

Klausner, however, decided there was enough substance to Malofiy’s claims that a jury should decide the case on slightly different legal grounds: whether members of Led Zeppelin had sufficient access to “Taurus” – that is, they heard the song played enough times – to conceivably rip it off, and whether the two songs meet a lesser infringement threshold of “substantial similarity.”

Led Zeppelin’s lawyers said both bands simply relied on a “centuries-old, common musical element” that is not protected by copyright law. Klausner disagreed, saying he found that “the similarities here transcend this core structure.”

For jurors, it will not be as easy as simply listening to full recordings of the two songs. Because copyright law protects only the composition that a songwriter submits in writing to the country’s copyright office, jurors will hear a stripped-down version of “Taurus” that is likely to make parallels between the two songs less pronounced.

by Randy Lewis and Joel Rubin, LA Times | Read more:
Image: Andy Rain