Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Jimmy Plage

A few thoughts about the plagiarism lawsuit that has been brought against Led Zeppelin by Randy California’s estate over the similarities between “Stairway to Heaven” and Spirit’s “Taurus”. At issue is whether Jimmy Page nicked the intro from the Spirit song, since both are in the same key (A minor), both are played on acoustic guitars, and both feature a descending chromatic bassline.

The trouble is that chord progressions alone are not – or shouldn’t be – copyrightable. In order for a claim to stand a real chance of convincing a jury (or potentially convincing a jury with enough certainty that an out-of-court settlement can quickly be reached), the similarity has to be between the melodies – or, to put it in layman’s or juror’s terms, the “main tunes”. And the melody of “Stairway to Heaven” — i.e., all Percy’s bits about bustles in hedgerows and all that — is nothing like the one in “Taurus”.

Hie thee to YouTube and check out some of these intro and chord-sequence pairings:

ITEM: The intro to Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, with its drum roll followed by that driving one-chord beat, is very similar to how Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” starts. (In turn, the oh-oh-oh outro of “Born to Run” was ripped off by Elvis Costello for “Oliver’s Army”.)

ITEM: The chord progression of Jethro Tull’s “We Used to Know” (1969) is practically identical to that of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (1976), albeit in a different time signature. Plagiarism? Not according to Ian Anderson, who often points out the resemblance with a wrily raised eyebrow on stage, but he has never bothered to sue over it, preferring — wisely, I reckon — to feel flattered rather than affronted. (The Eagles had apparently opened some U.S. shows for Tull in early 1972,  but the specific Eagle who came up with the guitar part for “Hotel California”, Don Felder, didn’t join the band until two years after that tour, which somewhat weakens any “A-ha!” suspicions we may have about him deliberately having ripped off Tull.)

ITEM: Cher’s “Believe” has the exact chord sequence, in the same key and over the full 16 bars of the verse, as the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” … on which one of the backing vocalists was none other than the teenage Cher herself. But the arrangements and instrumentation of the two recordings, made 35 years apart, are so different that the similarity hardly leaps out at you.

As for riffs, there are so many that “reference” or “pay homage to” other works, that I’ll just leave one here that you may not be aware of. Think of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” riff. Got it? Now fire up Queen’s “One Vision”. Again, a-ha! But is it actionable? Almost certainly not. (As an irrelevant nerdoid aside, of the two guitar tones there I do prefer Brian May’s over Angus’s for once. There. I said it.)

It’s only when two main melodies match that the cash registers start to ching. “My Sweet Lord” really is a carbon copy of “He’s So Fine”. (What the hell was George thinking? It can only have been “What shall I do today? I know! Slap some new words on an old Chiffons song!”) And the “rule the world” bit of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” really is a straight lift of Joe Satriani’s instrumental “If I Could Fly”. (Satriani did file a suit in that case but a private settlement was apparently reached before it could be put to a jury.)

But when it comes to ripped-off riffs, intros and chord progressions rather than upfront melodies, the ripoffees tend to take Ian Anderson’s sanguine well-whaddya-know approach. Tom Petty has never bothered taking The Strokes to task for, er, referencing the “American Girl” intro for their “Last Nite” (as they, to their credit, have happily admitted they did). And Randy California, although he was supposedly quite miffed about “Stairway to Heaven”, no doubt struggling to understand why nobody had ever invited Spirit to reform at the O2, never went so far as to take Led Zep to court over it. It’s his estate that’s behind the current suit. (It’s always the estate, isn’t it?)

The most potentially damaging part of the “Stairway”/“Taurus”ruckus for Led Zeppelin is that the band so notoriously has so much previous in this area. But since a jury wouldn’t be allowed to hear about any of those, er, misunderstandings in court, and if this case hinges only on the fact that the two songs at issue both feature a minor chord with a descending chromatic bass line, then it shouldn’t be Randy California’s estate who’s complaining; it should be the Sherman Brothers, who wrote “Chim-Chim Cheree” for Mary Poppins

Now for something completely diff... er, identical. Here's Davy Graham in 1959, when he was the teen Jimmy Page's idol. The "Stairway" suit would appear to have the wrong estate as its plaintiff. (Thanks to Andrew Hill for the wink-tip.)

But that's not the end of the trail. Far from it. We have to go back a good bit further - waaay further - to find the first known iteration of the arpeggiated minor chord with a descending chromatic bassline we've come to know and love. Here's Giovanni Battista Granata struttin' his own Stairway stuff in the swingin' seventeenth century:

Wind this clip on to 0:30 and prepare to hear Randy California's heirs say, "Aw, bugger."