Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ, someone once said. Just ask the estate of Randy California, who have finally got round to suing Led Zeppelin for their alleged appropriation of his tune ‘Taurus’ as the basis for the Plant/Page composition ‘Stairway To Heaven’.
Jimmy Page has always had a reputation for being light-fingered – on the guitar, your honour. But why am I making excuses for the
occult-dabbling, hard-fighting rocker when the riff-maker and his band of legendary metal pioneers have form in the purloining and reset of old tunes? Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf have all helpfully, if inadvertently, supplied the Zep with the nuts and bolts of much of their back catalogue in the past.
So it will come as no surprise that Spirit’s tune – penned several years before John Paul, Jim, Bob and Bonzo (hang on, is that not either the Beatles or the Banana Splits?) may (m’lud) have (cough) inspired the rambling hippy nonsense that pollutes guitar shops across the land.
Anyway, the case will, we’re told, be decided by a jury. Hmm. In the past, such cases have been heard by high court judges, and not always with the assistance of musical experts. Given that most court officials are older than Keith Richards and deafer than AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, the odds of their making a informed decision are slimmer than Jarvis Cocker on diet pills. Especially given the profession’s track record that seems to see them permanently living in 1853, having asked “Who?” of The Beatles, The Tellytubbies, and Linford Christies’s lunchbox.
Despite their bafflement at anything not powered by steam, law lords have been called to adjudicate on the nuances of whether Beatle George Harrison pinched a line from soul group The Chiffons for ‘My Sweet Lord’, or more recently on Sam Smith’s ‘lift’ from Tom Petty. George submitted a doctor’s line for his cryptomnesia (which actually is a thing).
Of course, there are other serial offenders than just the Zep. Noel Gallagher was sued by Eurovision popsters the New Seekers, as well as Rutles songwriter Neil Innes – ironically, also the frontman of a Beatles novelty tribute act. Killing Joke once threatened to sue Nirvana but Kurt Cobain died before the case got to court – the prog-goth pioneers took fright and dropped the case when they realised they’d have to deal with Courtney Love.
It does seem that the best riffs often come from less cool sources, although Radiohead were forced to include songwriting credits on ‘Creep’ for Hammond and Hazelwood – the former the father of the singer from The Strokes, the latter responsible for 70s comedy hit ‘Gimme Dat Ting’.
Of course, a lot of music has been created since man started banging objects together as a means of communication, so there’s bound to be some duplication. After all, there are only seven notes – not including the ones only dogs can hear and Kanye West has to autotune out. Though why Status Quo only use two is another mystery. But as discussed in columns passim, the general public (and jury fodder) don’t seem to notice most modern songs sound pretty similar anyway, thanks to around half of them being written in a Swedish hit factory by Max Martin. Our only hope is that he decides to sue himself.
And who was responsible for that famous quote that started this off? No-one seems entirely sure. Maybe they should have set it to music…