Plagia-Riffs: ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and the Led Zep Legacy

Led Zeppelin, for me, is like Al Pacino’s infamous line from The Godfather: Part III — every time I think I’m done, they hook me one more time. (I’m paraphrasing here, of course.)

I burnt the Led Zeppelin candle at both ends for most of my high school years. Other bands would come and go, some in heavier rotation than others, but Led Zeppelin was always the center that held, the pivot point that I could always turn to in good times and bad times. Unearthing their catalog was like mapping new terrain and uncovering a new realm of treasure. For years, I never knew or cared that anything existed beyond Led Zeppelin I-IV; those four LPs contained all the multitudes I needed. The blues riffage on Led Zeppelin I, the alternating stomp and balladry of II, the acoustic Bert Jansch-inspired fingerpicking of III, and, of course, IV, which stood alone as the seminal Led Zeppelin album. Their albums, as releases, are the only mathematical sequence I can think of where beginning with four, jumping to two, then moving to one and three makes perfect chronological sense.

But, of all the bravado that IV holds within its eight tracks, none is more potent than Led Zeppelin’s ubiquitous class rock staple, “Stairway to Heaven.” That masterpiece epic is, in one word, excessive. And its excess manages to grow with each subsequent listen. It holds that rare spot among all Led Zeppelin songs as the single track that you never want to hear again, but can’t turn off once its started. This dual embodiment, this inhabiter of two worlds, is both the beginning and the end of the classic rock blueprint. You can’t go any farther into a song’s structure than “Stairway to Heaven” did without verging dangerously into the much-maligned territory of prog rock. The only thing that separates “Stairway to Heaven” from “Roundabout” is the ability of Jimmy Page to toss in some ominous guitar licks while Robert Plant takes a bathroom break just before the final refrain hits: “and she’s buyyyyying a stairway (pause, wait for it)…to…heaven.”

Even now, it’s been over a year since I’ve intentionally listened to “Stairway to Heaven.” I stumbled back upon it after snatching up Mothership a few years ago at a record store, and, even then, it felt like a chore churning through all those Led Zeppelin favorites, only to arrive at that track, the most burdensome of the bunch. Pushing the eject button would have been so easy; just a single click and you’re onto the second, substantial era of Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy on through In Through the Out Door. But I couldn’t do it. The power of the golden stairway, the ever-calling bustle in my hedgerows, and, most importantly, the first opening guitar arpeggio all compelled me to sit and endure.

It’s that dynamic, melancholic, finger-picked intro that announces the arrival of the biggest song in the classic rock canon, and it acts as a key that unlocks the sensory experience of memory — the same way that our olfactory senses take us back places of our childhood (e.g., our mother’s kitchen, an old high school classroom) or reminds us of the places where Zeppelin inhabits our past (e.g., a friend’s lake house, a morning commute). So, does it matter — or, rather, does it change your opinion of the song — to know that it may have been plagiarized from another source?

That’s the claim that being alleged against the godfathers of metal by a new lawsuit recently filed by the estate of guitarist Randy California, member of the lesser-known classic rock band Spirit. The lawsuit alleges that Page and co. lifted the riff for “Stairway to Heaven” from Spirit’s droning instrumental “Taurus.”

“Taurus,” a quick, instrumental number does include a riff that sounds eerily similar to “Stairway,” but that’s hardly a basis for outright plagiarism. (At least in the court of public opinion; it may be enough in a legal setting.) Thousands of tunes, mostly classic rock, are built from similar chord progressions, melodies, lyrics, and riffs. The entire cannon of blues music, and, by proxy, the nascent cannon of rock and roll, is built around the same I-IV-V major chord progression — the same progressions that have given Springsteen, The Black Keys, and Dylan their biggest hits. The most intriguing element of the Spirit lawsuit is that it’s grounded in a time when Led Zeppelin were relegated to the spot of openers on their early tours. They weren’t then the colossus that they became, able to sell out Madison Square Garden and force venues to give them a 90% cut; they were a fledgling band with the same ambitions as every other road weary band that’s played to drunk patrons in near empty rooms.

It’s tough to imagine Zeppelin having to slug it out in the musical trenches, scraping for attention. Their meteoric rise and subsequent downfall seemed preordained. But it is possible, probable even, that Jimmy Page and his bandmates were lounging with bandmates from Spirit, trading riffs, playing songs, drinking beer, and Page inherently, subconsciously borrowed a riff or two. Led Zeppelin, like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles before them, were not shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves, though Zeppelin might be the biggest perpetrators of the bunch. Their first two albums are essentially amplified blues records, altered only by the craftsmanship of John Bonham’s dominant drums and John Paul Jones’ variant musical inclinations.

The charge of plagiarism against Led Zeppelin is well-founded. But the victims aren’t other classic rock bands; the victims have and always will be the African American blues artists (e.g., Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, etc.) who had their uniquely American style of music exploited in the most blatant and offensive manner. We can talk all we want about giving credit where credit is due, but a conversation such as this one really comes down to two questions: one, who really owns the music? And, two, does it matter to the listeners?

At the risk of sounding callous and indifferent, I would argue that, no, it doesn’t matter where the song originated from. (Question number one is much too large in scope to address, and it is very clearly an ongoing pursuit with no clear answer in the digital era.) In this case specifically, the one involving the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin and the owners or originators of the epic riff for “Stairway,” the book is firmly shut. Fortune has a fickle way, aided by the business of music, of determining whose voice is the loudest in the room. And for this instance, there is none louder than the noise made by Jones, Bonham, Page, and Plant.

The notion of “fair” or even “legal” in the realm of classic rock seems outdated; a fraudulent term for everyone expecting the same due for participating in the realm of rock music. History only remembers the winners, and Led Zeppelin, despite their status as liberal “borrowers” from rock history, will win that longstanding battle against time. They may not win in a legal sense — it’s much too early to tell. But they’ve already defeated their foes, demolished the naysayers, and come out relatively (physically) unscathed, save for some deep, emotional wounds. Is it any wonder they’re so often referred to in the same terms we usually reserve for Gods and monsters?

Their saga, like all the tales of old warriors that came before them, is the only one we care to listen to anymore, no matter how many times we’ve heard it before, we never tire of it. And likely never will.

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3 Responses

  1. Re: “The entire cannon of blues music, and, by proxy, the nascent cannon of rock and roll”
    Those are canons, not cannons!

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