And they’re buying a stairway to history
Before I began to develop musical taste and understand the creative process in any type of art, Jimmy Page’s slow plucking of strings leading into one of the most iconic guitar solos of all time in “Stairway to Heaven” made a lasting impression on me.
During my teen years and early adulthood, I learned to appreciate the complexity of the song, the importance of the slow start developing into the explosion of sound toward the end. I learned to appreciate the cohesion and chemistry between the band members and the lyrical value and significance the band itself had in the creation of modern rock ‘n’ roll.
On Tuesday, a Philadelphia judge ruled to move forward with a case, in which representatives of a late musician allege Led Zeppelin ripped off sections of “Stairway to Heaven.”
The artist was Spirit guitarist Randy California, who died in 1997, and the song is an instrumental creation called “Taurus.”
It is undeniable that there are very strong similarities in sections of the songs, but to say that California deserves writing credit on “Stairway to Heaven” is a bit of a stretch, if not ridiculous.
Now, I’m not saying that members of Led Zeppelin didn’t take from “Taurus” to develop “Stairway to Heaven.” They could have.
It has been reported that Led Zeppelin was exposed to Spirit’s song prior to writing “Stairway to Heaven,” but we will never know how characteristics of Taurus ended up in Stairway to Heaven.
Taurus could have served as inspiration. It could have been Page thought he was writing new music when he was subconsciously replicating what he had heard before or, he could have actually taken whole sections of the song.
For centuries artists have taken inspiration from other works to develop their own. Music itself is an ever-evolving legacy passed down through time. New music is rarely created, it is usually a continuing development of music that already exists. It is taking the materials created by musicians that lived before and molding them into a something different enough that masks itself as new. Creativity doesn’t always translate to creating something completely new. Sometimes, or most of the time, it means finding a way to spin something that already exists into something different.
There is one thing that, to me, is clear. Taurus is not Stairway to Heaven.
Suing to give California a writing credit for writing one of the most significant songs in music history is like trying to find him a shortcut to immortality. It is also hard to ignore the financial motivation that could be connected to the lawsuit.
According to NPR, “Stairway’s stature — financially, culturally, and musically — is towering. By 2008, when Conde Nast Portfolio magazine published an estimate that included royalties and record sales, the song had earned at least $562 million.”
Aside from the monetary motivation, it seems the plaintiffs in the lawsuit fail to identify the difference between the influence and inspiration that help develop an idea and plagiarism.
If that distinction is not made, it can be hard to be humble enough to acknowledge that, even if California created something that could have served as the spark for someone else’s creative genius, California didn’t have the creative power to produce the timeless song himself.
Had Jimmy Page not taken that kernel of an idea produced in Taurus, California’s piece of music would have faded into oblivion.
It was Led Zeppelin that further developed sounds vaguely taken from Taurus into Stairway to Heaven.
Stairway to Heaven, of course, is not immune to causing its own impact.
Listen to “Little Black Submarines” by The Black Keys and you’ll hear traces of Stairway to Heaven. Check out Sublime’s “Smoke Two Joints” and you’ll hear a section of Page’s solo in the song’s intro.
In the past, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Strokes were questioned about similarities between a couple of their songs and music by Tom Petty. The Peppers’ “Dani California” had similarities with Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” and The Strokes’ “Last Night” resembles Petty’s “American Girl.” Petty was continually asked if he would file lawsuits.
“The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock ‘n’ roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took ‘American Girl,’ and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me,” Petty told Rolling Stone.
“If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe (he would sue). But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs,” Petty added.
Maybe California’s family should stop trying to take credit – and money – that never belonged to him, and be happy that California’s creation could have served as inspiration to create musical history.