Coda: Spirit of Led Zeppelin (between rock and a hard case)

Posted on 17th May 2015 in Case Comment, Points of Law

Is Taurus claim all bull?

Led Zep

When the balloon goes up…

Side one:

  1. Whole Lotta Law
  2. D’yer mak’er (copy of someone else’s song)?
  3. The Song Remains the Same (or does it?)
  4. Going to California (to file proceedings in the district court of LA)

Side two:

  1. The Twelve Writs of Dr (not very) Sardonicus
  2. (Randy) California Dreaming
  3. Law has Found a Way
  4. Why Can’t I Be Free (but my songs paid for)?

 

All right that’s enough spoof song titles. Now for the lyrics.

There’s a lady whose law / says her songs all go gold /

and she’s bringing an action / in copyright…

Er okay. Maybe I won’t give up the day job just yet. But my guess is that if you’re at all familiar with the music of Led Zeppelin (a hard rock musical beat combo dating from the late sixties to high seventies) then you’ll probably detect an element of plagiarism in the above lyrics. But it’s parody, so that’s okay. There’s an exception for that (which will now apply to most of the late Frank Zappa’s work, should anyone be considering a copyright claim against his estate).

So what’s this all about? Well, we recently reported in Weekly Notes (13 March) that a plagiarism claim made on behalf of the family of the late Marvin Gaye against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the composers of “Blurred Lines”, over its borrowings from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”, had resulted in $7.4 m  jury award. An appeal is pending.

Such claims are not unusual, for as the old saying goes in the biz, where there’s a hit there’s a writ. Of course, today’s environmentally friendly musicians are always recycling old musical ideas, but it’s called “sampling” which means it’s more like quotation or even inspiration rather than actual rip-off; and it’s only little bits of songs, because really who has the attention span these days to listen to a whole track without jumping to something else?

II

Led Zeppelin belong to the old era, when songs were not just whole songs, they were seven, eight, twelve, even (yes – or rather Yes) twenty minutes long. And you couldn’t just buy the song, because Led Zep didn’t “do” singles (too teenyboppy); you had to buy the album.

According to Music Law Updates

Led Zeppelin’s has been sued numerous times by artists complaining the band had stolen their work. Previous lawsuits have forced them to give co-writing credit on Whole Lotta Love, Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, The Lemon Song and Dazed and Confused, leading punters to dub the group “the greatest cover band in the world”

Now they’re being sued on behalf of the estate of the late Randy California, guitarist in the band Spirit, whose biggest album (at any rate the only one I’ve got) is called Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus. But this relates to a track on their earlier, eponymous album, Spirit, called “Taurus”. Its introduction, written by guitarist Randy California, is strikingly similar, allegedly, to the acoustic opening section of Led Zep’s most famous track, “Stairway to Heaven”. Randy California claimed as much, before he died, and now his bandmate, bassist Mark Andes, is bringing a claim on his behalf, seeking an injunction to block Zeppelin’s re-release of their newly-remastered fourth album, on which the song resides, unless and until a co-writing credit is accorded to California. And no doubt some of that (all that glitters is) gold, or even platinum, by way of damages and/or back payment of royalties.

According to Primary Opinion, and Bloomberg Business, U.S. District Judge Juan Sanchez has now refused to dismiss the claim, “in the interest of justice,” because the “improper venue” could be fixed by sending the case to (wait for it) California. (The lawyer for the trust of Spirit guitarist Randy California, which brought the suit a year ago, had said it should stay in Pennsylvania, in part because the three musicians had played the classic-rock song at the 1985 Live Aid famine-relief concert in Philadelphia.)

So we now await further developments.

III

According to  Bloomberg Business, in When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Mick Wall details the Welsh genesis of the song and writes that if Page was influenced by the chords from Taurus,

“what he did with them was the equivalent of taking the wood from a garden shed and building it into a cathedral.”

Well, if the case even gets to court (for a substantive hearing on the merits), that’s something the jury will be able to decide. If they know what a cathedral is. Or indeed a garden shed. But they can always get expert witnesses to explain those things, along with the stuff about twelve-bar blues, finger-picking style, interrupted cadences and so froth.

Or you can decide for yourself (links to YouTube): Taurus vs Stairway to Heaven

If you read music, you can also test your skills by assembling, from a random jumble, the relevant bars in the correct sequence from one or other of the songs here (via Bloomberg).

Now I mentioned the exception for parody. If you’ve never heard a parody of Led Zeppelin mashed up with Elvis Presley (in his well filled jumpsuit years) in a great bit dutchy of hot-n-spicy Jamaican Reggae, then you’ve never heard of Dread Zeppelin. In which event, whilst you may have lived, you probably can’t be said to have laughed.

(Postscript. Alert musicologists will have noticed that the above article shamelessly follows the three-part structure of Stairway to Heaven, with its mysterious acoustic introduction, its medium-heavy central “development” movement, and then its final mad riffing climax. Note that there is no bridge in the song. As a matter of fact it’s all bridge. Or rather stairway. Or rather, for some of us, heaven.)

 

This post was written by Paul Magrath, Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR. It does not necessarily represent any views of ICLR as an organisation.