This week, Jimmy Page gave an interview with the New York Times in which he pushed back on accusations that Led Zeppelin ripped off certain African American blues artists. Almost on cue, the band gets sued by Spirit—American folk-rock contemporaries that never reached the dizzying heights of the mighty Zep. Spirit’s main man, Randy California, died back in 1997; this suit (which is still being prepared) is from a songwriting trust representing the late musician.
Rock scholars are already familiar with claims that Page lifted the intro of “Stairway to Heaven” from a passage in Spirit’s composition “Taurus.” Both songs feature a descending arpeggio—though played in a different key—with a lilting quality not uncommon to folk-rock of the era. Have a listen to “Taurus” yourself (the part in question comes in at 0:44).
Given Page’s predilection for pilfering (and without comment on my affinity for alliteration), it’s entirely possible that he “borrowed” the lynchpin lick of Zeppelin’s enduring anthem. Ripping off other artists off comes naturally to Page—he famously lifted the entirety of “Dazed and Confused” from folkie Jake Holmes.
Page is the walking definition of “problematic,” from his alleged dalliances with underage girls to his misappropriation of American blues artists. The former is not something we’ll be getting into here; the latter has dogged the guitarist for decades. Given that the history of popular music cannot be separated from the history of African American exploitation, it’s not like Page can be singled out. And it is true that as a folk form, blues borrows heavily from everything that came before it. However, Page and his bandmates are not part of this cultural lineage, so their borrowing should at the very least credit the original artists. For years, the band didn’t bother, though this “oversight” has since been corrected.
To my ears, Page’s deconstruction of American blues is by and large transformative. Excepting the lyrics, “Whole Lot of Love” or “When the Levee Breaks” are entirely different from their source material. Page was mining the blues for inspiration, just as he explored other folk forms. Speaking of the latter, he also unabashedly stole from English guitar greats Bert Jansch and Davy Graham for Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side” and “White Summer,” respectively. Hell, Page hijacked Graham’s entire musical modus operandi, which centered on similarities between Eastern and British folk music. Add a little Cream, stir vigorously, and voila!—Led Zeppelin.
Which doesn’t mean that Led Zeppelin aren’t staggeringly original, and that this originality isn’t in a large part due to one man’s vision. If you fixate only on Page’s appropriation, you may miss his many accomplishments, especially in the realm of production. And it’s also a mistake to overlook what the band contributed—Led Zeppelin was a winning combination of elements, including its personnel.
But back to Spirit. My main question is less about whether Page could have taken from “Taurus” (the evidence points to yes), but why a lawsuit took so long. Attorneys for Spirit may have been emboldened by Jake Holmes’ 2010 lawsuit for “Dazed and Confused,” which was dismissed in 2012 (there are rumors of an out-of-court settlement; Moby Grape’s Bob Mosely also received a payout in another instance of alleged plagiarism). Spirit’s team may also be using media attention around Page’s upcoming Zeppelin remasters/rarities project as a springboard for filing.
Holmes’ suit was subject to statute of limitations that only allowed for the collection of damages going back three years. Given the earning power of Led Zeppelin, that’s probably still a considerable amount. In Spirit’s case, it’s not just money they’re after—the suit reportedly seeks an injunction against the upcoming reissue of Led Zeppelin IV, on which “Stairway to Heaven” appears.
Even with a (misty) mountain of evidence, Spirit may have a hard time convincing a judge, especially given that “Stairway” has been commercially re-released a number of times over the decades. This calls to mind the legal concept of laches, which is a defense stating that the party bringing action has “slept on its rights” and a claim is no longer justified. I have no idea whether attorneys for Led Zeppelin or Page would pursue such a defense, nor am I convinced of its applicability. But it is worth entertaining.
At this point, Jimmy Page is into me probably a couple grand, what with all the t-shirts, posters, reissues, DVDs and the like. Who wants to join in a class action?