In 2014 I blogged about the then future lawsuit over the provenance of one of the most famous songs in the rock music canon – Stairway to Heaven. The post, found here, pointed out that Jimmy Page would have heard the iconic opening A minor arpeggio with a descending chromatic bass long before Spirit was formed, actually it was when Randy (California) Wolfe was about eight years old. There is evidence that Page would be familiar with Davy Graham’s appearance on the BBC in 1959: Page himself had appeared on the BBC two years before as a young guitar prodigy and Graham’s appearance was to highlight the then novel “guitar craze” in Britain. Keep in mind that in Britain at the time there was no alternative to watching the BBC. Also, Page has acknowledged in print that Graham was one of his influences and he quoted from Graham’s “She Moved Through The Fair” and “Blue Raga” in his own “White Summer” and “Black Mountainside”. Furthermore, unlike the brief use of this musical device in Spirit’s “Taurus”, Davey Graham includes melody notes on the higher strings of the guitar – much like Page does in “Stairway”.
It is no secret that Zeppelin borrowed material from other artists. Such musical borrowing has a long tradition. In the blues, for example, there are what are called “borrowed verses” which appear in various songs. Leadbelly, who wrote the lyrics to Zep’s Gallows Pole, admitted to selling the same song to numerous record companies in the same day in order to collect a fee from each. Willie Dixon, who successfully sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement, has been accused of making trivial changes to songs he thought would be hits and then putting his name on them. This was common practice among producers and record company owners during the 1940’s – 1960’s.
Nevertheless, outside of “Black Mountainside”, in which Page made the aforementioned appropriations from Davey Graham and also managed to lift Bert Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional “Black Waterside”, Zeppelin’s borrowings usually consisted of lyrics only. Therefore, it seems ironic to me that Jimmy Page is being given such a thorough going over in this case. In fact, if you were to listen to any of the songs that Zeppelin settled copyright cases over and you could pull the fader down on Robert Plant’s vocals you would not be able to identify the original song because Page’s riffs and arrangements were original.
Take, for example, one of the most egregious cases of borrowing; Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Bring It On Home”. Page, during the main part of the song, plays a generic boogie woogie rhythm (similar to, but different enough from, the original) that would hardly be subject to copyright restrictions. The song then explodes with Page’s original riff before going back to the boogie rhythm. Plant, on the other hand, does a dead-on Sonny Boy Williamson vocal and harmonica impersonation while singing the copyrighted lyrics. This reminds me of how Jeremy Spencer of Fleetwood Mac would impersonate Elmore James while Peter Green was innovating on the guitar and moving the band closer to an original rock sound.
Just try listening to “Whole Lotta Love” with the vocals turned down. Could you honestly say that you would immediately think of Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love” (which was originally an instrumental by guitar virtuoso Earl Hooker – Water’s vocals were subsequently overdubbed by said Willie Dixon, and Hooker remains un-credited to this day)? What Led Zeppelin was doing was what Jimi Hendrix and other late sixties artists were also doing; updating the blues for the rock era. For example, Hendrix gave his own arrangement to B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” as recorded (and properly credited) at the Monterrey Pop Festival. However, he later put his own lyrics to the tune and called it “Lover Man”, thus creating a wholly original work. If Zeppelin had done the same, and had not kept the original lyrics, they would have avoided all of the controversy and lawsuits.
Another point to consider is that the prosecution seems to think that the opening chord of Stairway is somehow “iconic”. However, what made it “iconic”? In recordings of some of the first performances of Stairway you will not hear the audience react to the beginning of the song. This is because they had not yet formed an opinion of it. It is only after they had heard the entire song more than once that they would cheer upon hearing the first few notes. Obviously, this A minor chord was not special. What it represented was what was special.
So, why is this important? It is because copyright law has been descending a slippery slope for many decades. This steady march downward has been led by large corporations, such as Disney, which stand to benefit from narrow interpretations of the law and extensions of the time frame. This is why almost nothing enters the public domain anymore. It has been shown that loose copyright laws encourage creativity while strict laws have the opposite effect. For example, in Jamaica of the 1960’s and 1970’s you could not copyright a song, you could only copyright your “version” of a song. This led to the free experimentation that resulted in Bob Marley and the Wailers transforming songs written by Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Nina Simone and others into Reggae classics. In fact, Marley told his friend B. B. Dickerson, the bassist of the group War, upon hearing his composition “Slipping Into Darkness” that he would write a song based on it. The result was the immortal anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”.
If copyright had been so strictly interpreted in the past that a chord or a “feel”, as in the Marvin Gaye Estate vs. Robin Thicke and Pharrell case, could be protected we would not have had the wealth of blues songs or jazz compositions, not to mention reggae, hip-hop or even soul (which was originally lifted from gospel) songs that we enjoy today. Do you really think that we would be better off as musicians or music lovers if artists could be penalized over using common musical elements? If that were the case, artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the Grateful Dead would have been prevented from using Chuck Berry’s riffs; Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Quicksilver Messenger Service and countless others would owe Bo Diddley for his habenera beat. Not to mention that Chuck Berry would owe T-Bone, Walker who would owe Robert Johnson, who would owe …
Let us hope that a jury can sort this out rationally.