Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were embroiled in a copyright infringement case in Los Angeles recently, where the two former Led Zeppelin members were sued for stealing the intro of the song Taurus by American band Spirit for its own Stairway To Heaven.
It comes as no surprise then, that the British rock titan ultimately won the legal wrangle, because if there ever was a more ludicrous artistic theft claim, we’d have heard by it now, but there isn’t. It’s ridiculous to claim that Page and Plant stole a time-honoured Am chord descending run, one that goes back as far as 300 years, according to music experts.
For the uninitiated, the first chord an aspiring guitar player learns will likely be C, and the next could easily by Am, the key’s relative minor chord … and that’s as technical as this debate will get.
The point here is, any and every guitar player quickly learns the simplistic magic of picking a C and Am chord, which is why so many songs use it. And to sue for such a flimsy reason, then Jim Croce should be called up from the dead for his Time In A Bottle, or Johnny Rivers’ Summer Rain and Willie Nelson’s Blues Skies. And by that token, Eric Clapton should be hauled to court, too, for his song Let It Grow, which aped Stairway To Heaven in a different key.
Somehow, from the last known interview with Spirit’s guitarist, Randy Wolfe, who wrote Taurus, it seems like he merely wanted to have his name in the songwriting credit for Stairway To Heaven. Of course, who wouldn’t?
Unfortunately for Led Zep, the band has not covered itself in glory with past demeanours – stealing blues songs lyrics and music passages from one of the genre’s biggest exponents, songwriter, arranger and bass player Willie Dixon.
The band ripped off his You Need Love (performed by Muddy Waters) for its own Whole Lotta Love, off the band’s second album, II. Likewise, the lyrics and musical passages from The Lemon Song, obviously stolen from Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor. Led Zep did at least credit Wolf (real name Chester Burnett) for his How Many More Years, for the band’s own How Many More Times, albeit belatedly in 1993.
Led Zeppelin didn’t stop at blues either. Page, a huge fan of British folk, and in particular, Bert Jansch, nicked his arrangement of traditional tune Black Waterside and incorporated it into the band’s instrumental Black Mountain Side. He also quoted passages from fellow folkie Davy Graham’s She Moved Through The Fair for Led Zeppelin’s live tune White Summer.
Still, that’s not even where it ended. Page also completely stole American singer/songwriter Jake Holmes’ Dazed And Confused and tried to pass it off as his own (with some altered lyrics), a stunt he pulled while still in his previous band The Yardbirds. Sure, the two-plus minute original pales in comparison to Zeppelin’s magnum opus from its debut album, I, but that was daylight robbery, and Page paid for it by being hauled court in 2010 by the American.
These cases all place Page and his Led Zeppelin mates in bad light, and given this track record, the Taurus debacle looks to be sitting on a knife edge.
Most of these past offences are iron-clad, and in fact, Led Zep settled out of court with Dixon in 1985, though the rest have fallen away into the mists of time. Rightly or wrongly, the band will never be able to shake away its plagiaristic past. It’s understandable to an extent – much was expected of Page, coming from his session musician days in the 1960s and his time with The Yardbirds.
He was a young musician under tremendous pressure to deliver, competing with the likes of fellow guitar heroes Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Yardbirds bandmate Jeff Beck, and given the pre-Internet days of music-making, some musicians would have expected to get away with stealing. Still, this shouldn’t be accepted nor condoned.
But take nothing away from the band’s catalogue, and what it went on to achieve – laying the foundation for nearly everything that came after, exploring not just rock and blues, but folk, funk, country, psychedelia and even pop. Led Zeppelin remains the most influential rock band of all time and the Taurus calamity will be forgotten soon enough. And given that the band was absolved of guilt, that’s the nail in the coffin to any future debate.