Friday, June 17, 2016

Stairway to Heaven



Led Zeppelin on trial: The case of “Stairway to Heaven” is off to a shaky start
The trial will be an important one if it ever resolves — but so far, it does not inspire confidence

Salon.com  Scott Timberg  Wednesday, Jun 15, 2016 

Jimmy Page (Credit: AP/Veronica Farley)

This week, the plagiarism trial over Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is taking place in a Los Angeles court. The 1971 song is perhaps the most overplayed on the AOR set list, and this case is likely to have a similarly disproportionate effect on the future of songwriting and pop music. With the suit over Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” decided in a way that privileged earlier music over borrowing for new work, the issue is at a knife-edge right now.

The “Stairway” suit turns on whether Zeppelin took the famous finger-picked line from a Spirit song, “Taurus,” which came out four years earlier.


The trial has already hit two strange bumps in the road, though. First, Judge Gary Klausner has forbidden any testimony about Zeppelin’s history of plagiarizing other songs. He is likely on solid legal ground here, but in broader terms, it makes no sense: This is a band that’s notorious for taking songs from blues musicians — “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” among them — and when it comes to assessing what happened with “Stairway,” the issue is entirely relevant.

Second, the case may be headed to mistrial because of a video played by the plaintiff’s lawyer, Francis Alexander Malofiy, who has argued that Zeppelin knew Spirit and its music well. “Malofiy attempted to play video of a session musician’s performances of ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway,’” Rolling Stone reports, “but Anderson said that they hadn’t been included in the case’s exhibit list. ‘If it’s not been received in the evidence, it’s the basis of a mistrial,’ Judge Klausner noted.”


So how close are “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus”? The melody line is remarkably similar, but Spirit didn’t exactly invent it: It’s a descending chromatic line, and it goes back at least as far as a 16th century sonata.

It’s worth noting – as the plaintiffs pointed out — that Zeppelin toured with Spirit in the late ‘60s and likely heard “Taurus” in those years.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who was a teenager in the ‘70s or ’80 who is not already tired of “Stairway to Heaven”: It’s not only overplayed, but bombastic, too. (The song has made close to $600 million in royalties and record sales over the years.) Compared to Zeppelin’s best songs, it’s clumsy and too long. So it’s tempting to tune out of the case, the same way many of us would change the radio dial if the song came on.

But depending on how the case is decided, it could prove dangerous for the role of borrowing, or fair use, in music. Judge Klausner has already tipped his hand, saying that despite the fact that the melody was used before Spirit, “the similarities here transcend this core structure.” Given what Rolling Stone described as his “lack of pop-culture savvy” – he referred to the British band as “the Led Zeppelin” – he seems like a strange choice to preside over a case of this level of seriousness.

And given the fact that jury members have been removed from the case for liking the band too much, it makes you wonder if using the U.S. court system to determine the fate of popular music is really a great idea. In the words of Rolling Stone’s Matt Diehl: “The jury selection, meanwhile, seems to break down by age and hair profiling: the dude with the shoulder length Prince Valiant bowl, surfer tan and Hawaiian shirt was a for sure no-go, as was the special effects expert who proclaimed without prompting from the jury box, ‘I’m very much a fan — my love for these guys [gesturing to Page and Plant] is very strong.’”

Who’s left on the jury, then, after people who actually seem to care about rock music, are yanked? Given the way the case of “Stairway to Heaven” has gone so far, a mistrial may be the best outcome.
Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the new book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class." 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ok, first.  I'm a fan of Spirit.  Their song "Fresh Garbage" is one of my all-time favorites.  It's on the same album as "Taurus."  I own a CD of that album.  And yes, "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven" have similarities.  But so do a number of other songs, as is demonstrated by the first video below. 


I find Mr. Timberg's attitude about the song pretty tedious.  "Stairway to Heaven" does rate a lot of play.  It's a classic capable of conjuring a time when music was a more dynamic art form, and we listened to bands like Spirit and Led Zeppelin.  It's a musical time-machine to a place rich with never-to-be-repeated experiences for many of us.  

At the time, the values of loyalty, courage, and honor portrayed in "The Lord of the Rings" were espoused by a group of young people who were yes, idealistic, and rather naive.  But were young, and we were inspired.  Despite Kent State, we did not fear the predator wielding the AK-47 stalking our schools and nightclubs and theaters.  We imagined that we had solved the race problem.  We hadn't. And we still haven't.  And now we have Global Climate Change, In your face homophobia, AIDS, the Zika Virus, the trampling of women's rights - not to mention the swastika-draped spectre of Donald Trump to worry about. 

Is it any wonder a bunch of us are willing to submerge ourselves in a song that takes us back to a less direful-seeming time?  I don't think so.  And being the dinosaur that I am, I went to Amazon today and bought CDs of Led Zeppelin 3 & 4.




  

No comments: