This is a law-related blog, honest. But first a story. When I was in ninth grade our English teacher asked each student to pick a song where the lyrics REALLY meant something to us, and recite those lyrics in front of the class. Coming from a home where my mother often listened to Broadway musicals, I picked You’ll Never Walk Alone from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel.
I had the great misfortune to be picked to recite those lyrics (just look ‘em up) right after the really cool hippie girl in my class who – in a most dramatic way – explained she had picked Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, because these words were so poignant they brought her to tears:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen
Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on…
The rest of the class and the teacher agreed. I got up, mumbled the words, and quickly sat down. Another thrilling educational moment from my formative years.
But Stairway to Heaven haunts the memories of others, not just me. Two years ago, the estate of Randy Wolfe, the late guitarist of the band Spirit sued the members of Led Zeppelin, claiming they plagiarized a key element of Stairway. Last week, a Federal District Judge in California found that there’s enough evidence to let a jury decide if that claim is true.
The question: did Jimmy Page unfairly appropriate the guitar line from “Taurus,” which Wolfe performed as Randy California, years before Stairway was released in 1971? The lawsuit claimed, among other things, that Led Zeppelin perpetrated a “falsification of Rock n’ Roll History.” The judge dismissed this “inventive—yet legally baseless” claim. He also dismissed Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones from the suit, along with the band’s music publishers. Robert Plant and Page remain as defendants.
Spirit recorded “Taurus” in 1967. Wolfe’s estate claims that Zeppelin’s members became familiar with Spirit’s music because the two bands “performed at the same venue on the same day at least three times between 1968 and 1970.” On the other hand, said the court, Led Zeppelin’s surviving members “testified that they never toured with, shared a stage with, or listened to any of Spirit’s music during these brief encounters.”
For those of us who read music, the judge also mentioned that “[w]hile it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this chord structure.” A dispute of material fact exists, it appears. The trial will begin May 10.