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Let's get controversial: "Stairway to Heaven" stolen?

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  • Let's get controversial: "Stairway to Heaven" stolen?

    If you haven't been following the news, Jimmy Page is in court for allegedly stealing the 1968 song "Taurus" by a band called Spirit for his intro to "Stairway to Heaven." I don't really understand why it's taken 45 years for this to become an issue, but I've listened to both and I've decided to say some things about it, because this is the internet, and I'm an idiot with a keyboard.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd8AVbwB_6E

    So yeah, the first two bars of the riff are essentally the same. After that, the two veer and go their own ways (and after the intro, Stairway goes many different ways.) As a musician, here's my take on it. I have been playing guitar for a little over 20 years, and one thing that has always sort of frustrated me about the instrument is that there are just certain chords that are easier to fret, and certain places your fingers want to land. Thus, a lot of times if you try to come up with your own riff, you usually end up writing something that someone's already done before. In fact, in the 60+ years of rock, it's amazing that there haven't been a lot more lawsuits like this.

    There are a few ways around this. One is to use alternate tunings, which Jimmy Page did frequently. This at least gives off new sounds when your fingers land in the "natural" places. The other way around it is to try to use less open strings; but guitar gets much harder once you cross that threshold, and your left hand usually ends up cramped.

    So in conclusion: did Jimmy steal it? Probably not consciously. He probably HAD heard the song before, but I don't think the theft was intentional--or even if it was, it was probably what musicians refer to as "quoting" another song. If Spirit guitarist Randy California wins the settlement, I hope it is only for a very modest sum. This is not grounds to sue someone into oblivion.
    Isn't it about time we started answering rhetorical questions?

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  • #2
    Oh it makes me wonder.

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    • #3
      While I accept many people's assertion that there are only so many chords and so on, there is more to the story than this one song.

      Led Zeppelin have a history of borrowing and stealing songs. Not just a few bars, but entire songs, including lyrics. A search on Google or YouTube will show you some of these examples.

      Imitation is rampant in music though most will acknowledge the influence. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, features a main riff that is little more than a reimagining or Boston's More Than a Feeling. And that riff would go on to change music at the time. Cobain didnt try to hide it either.

      But getting back to Led Zeppelin, Im just not buying it... they've pulled enough in the past that their credibility is hurt. Randy California apparently never really acknowledged it until later in life, probably because you didnt want to be the guy to ruin one of rocks most memorable tunes. That said, it wouldn't have been what it was without Led Zeppelin, so its almost a collaborative. I think of the Bruno Mars Uptown Funk judgement, and it seems like this case could go either way.

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      • #4
        i think it's BS and agree with Paul . on my Facebook news feed yesterday there was a Canadian artist that played the comparisons and went to 3-4 other songs going back to 1937 that had the same bars . i looked but couldn't find it .

        Edit ** found link https://www.facebook.com/thenational...3671643342686/
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        • #5
          Back to the OP's original question, why did the plaintiff wait so long to sue? Would you have sued when Zep was at their height? Zep is in their waning years and very rich. Now seems the best time to sue, particularly if Randy needs the dough for his retirement.
          Live in Southern N.E.? check out the CT Audio Society web site.

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          • #6
            Communication Breakdown

            Randy California died almost 20 years ago.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by mortron View Post
              Led Zeppelin have a history of borrowing and stealing songs. Not just a few bars, but entire songs, including lyrics.
              True, and often the credit for the writing was to 'Trad'. 'Trad' means 'traditional', as in a very old song no longer subject to copyright. One guess why. True, there are only so many chords and riffs, but it's not what you play, it's how you play it. The resemblance here is too close to be coincidental.

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              • #8
                Made me think of an episode of the Chris Isaak Show where he was accused of copying Elvis. Hilarity ensued.

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                • #9
                  I have been thinking about this recently in regards to a couple elements of my life. I am a professor and the incidence of plagiarism has increased substantially even in my ten or so years of teaching at the college level. There have been some math/linguistics used to suggest that in English 6 identical words in the same order almost always indicates plagiarism. Alternatively it could indicate the use of a cultural normative phrase like, "He is the most interesting man in the world...".

                  In my experience when it is plagiarism, students get around this by changing out a tiny word here and there (usually making it worse as a result). We can apply this to Stairway, and we can see where there are a couple notes that were added to make it "unique". However, in writing plagiarism the major issue is that someone is taking credit for someone else's idea. However, in the case of Taurus this idea is simply the chromatic scale in reverse starting in A. So, while Zepplin was copying an idea it did seem more like a stock phrase than a specific idea. BillFM's point about timing becomes important here, but there are some minor variations there as well. Quite honestly if you look at the basic four chord progression that drives most pop music there isn't huge variation in timing there either. What Stairway and Taurus represent is a pretty natural 4/4 progression where the 4 gets divided up a little to make it more interesting. Just like there are some natural chord progressions I think we could argue that there are some natural rhythms (unless you are soundgarden in which case EFF your rhythm spoonman). That said, this COULD be plagiarism, but given how different the song is in substance and everything besides the first riff I think I would find in favor of Led Zepplin here.

                  On a side note, once upon a time I was writing a song. I was pretty proud of it. As I played it for one of my bandmates he was like that sounded awesome, but it reminds me of a Beetles song. I didn't grow up listening to the Beetles. He played me "while my guitar gently weeps" which I had no memory of having heard before. It was the same basic progression through the verse in the same effing rhythm. Crumpled up and trashed. Oh well. I still like my licks better though.

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                  • #10
                    "all artists borrow, great artists steal".
                    Often attributed to Pablo Picasso.

                    Funny, you can see visual "borrowing", but no one gets sued.
                    In music, if 2 bars are the same, it can be worth millions.
                    and it's almost always the estate of the original artist that's suing. You know, the children and grandchildren who never did
                    anything useful in their lives except live off of the wealth of their parents.

                    http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/06/artists-steal/

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                    • #11
                      Originally posted by bill poster View Post
                      Communication Breakdown

                      Randy California died almost 20 years ago.
                      Ooops, so who's suing then?
                      Live in Southern N.E.? check out the CT Audio Society web site.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by bill poster View Post
                        Communication Breakdown

                        Randy California died almost 20 years ago.
                        whoah. How'd I miss that? The thick plottens.
                        Isn't it about time we started answering rhetorical questions?

                        Paul Carmody's DIY Audio Projects
                        Twitter: @undefinition1

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                        • #13
                          A little dreary, but Prince guitar at the end...

                          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SFNW5F8K9Y

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Paul Carmody View Post

                            whoah. How'd I miss that? The thick plottens.
                            The suit is on behalf of a trust. So I guess that means his kids. As much as I'm sure they did rip off the riff (there seams to be evidence that they heard the band play the song immediately before "Stairway" started to show up in shows)... I think the statute of limitations should run out when the original artist (who did not sue) is long dead. This was never an issue until after he died.

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                            • #15
                              The estate is suing, and the only reason they can is due to reissuing of the LZ recently remastered catalog.
                              This makes it no longer beyond the statute of limitations.

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