Friday, June 17, 2016

Stairway to Cleveland

I have read with amusement the media coverage of the ongoing trial in L.A. in which the former members of Led Zeppelin are being sued for allegedly "stealing" the tune to "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's "Taurus."
"Taurus" is a two-minute guitar instrumental, pleasant enough as an album-filler, but it goes nowhere and is far from gripping. The opening acoustic theme perhaps vaguely sounds like the start of "Stairway." In no way is "Taurus" "Stairway to Heaven" in miniature.
Spirit was an excellent late-'60s Southern California band, who achieved one hit, the driving "I Got a Line on You," and peaked with their superb fourth album, THE TWELVE DREAMS OF DOCTOR SARDONICUS, before the original group broke up in 1970. The writer of "Line" and "Taurus," guitarist Randy California, has been dead since 1997.
"Taurus" is included as a bonus track on Spirit's expanded-CD BEST OF. I haven't heard it in awhile and I don't have it immediately at hand, but it is a very small lost classic, far from being in the same league as "Line" or "Nature's Way," "Animal Zoo," "Nothing to Hide," "1984," or "Aren't You Glad" -- other greats from the same band.
Much of the trial testimony has centered on whether the members of Zep and Spirit ever met and for how long, if Zep guitarist Jimmy Page might have had any Spirit albums in his collection, etc.
The idea that "Stairway" might be descended from "Taurus" has been out there for awhile -- I think it's even mentioned in the booklet that accompanies Spirit's BEST OF. Perhaps the opening of "Taurus" might have been borrowed and fine-tuned by Page. But California and the other members of Spirit didn't write "Stairway." "Taurus" is a sketch. "Stairway" is more like a symphony.
I wonder who brought this lawsuit, and I admit I'm not clear on the details. Perhaps it was a lawyer looking out for the interests of California's family and heirs. But somehow I think it was more likely filed by whoever owns the publishing on "Taurus" now -- some music-publishing company.
Surely if Randy California thought the resemblance between the two songs was too close he could have filed a lawsuit in 1972 -- by which time LED ZEPPELIN 4 was selling millions and California could have used the money.
Now I think some lawyer just smelled the cash. And presumed faulty memories of musicians' actions and motivations from 45 years ago.
Artists steal. Everyone knows this. There have been books written about it. Ideas are public currency. It's what you DO with the ideas that matters.
Zep have been sued for plagiarizing or not giving proper songwriting credit before, and they've lost.
But this case is different, to me. Because "Taurus" -- though it may include a mildly haunting opening acoustic-guitar figure -- doesn't include Robert Plant's lyrics, or the multi-part development, heavy drama, and cascading firestorm of electric guitar at the end that Jimmy Page brought to their creation.
A smart judge who's a big music fan would laugh this case out of court. And if justice prevails, that's what will happen.

(P.S. -- Further reading shows the lawsuit was brought by a lawyer for the estate of guitarist Randy California and his heirs, and the other surviving members of Spirit; in court, the jury is comparing sheet music -- "Taurus" is allegedly not currently protected by copyright, so a recording of it cannot be played in court; the acoustic opening of "Stairway" isn't included on the sheet music -- there the tune starts with Plant's lyric; the suit can be settled for $1, IF Page and Plant will grant California co-credit as songwriter ... That could be worth millions to California's estate. ... I still think somebody just smelled lots of money. The whole thing is beyond comedy -- "Taurus" must be protected by copyright SOMEHOW: Sony is still selling copies of CDs with the song included....)

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