Donald Clarke: Stairway to Heaven set to go on and on

Those of us disappointed at the lack of a total ban must admit there is some good news

We got bad news from the US appeals court this week. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is not to be banned. I’m not certain if the judges actually had the power to prohibit Earth’s most flatulent ditty but that is what their honours conspicuously failed to do. They didn’t even nab the Zep for breach of copyright. Who will rid us of these corkscrew-haired pomp recidivists? Genesis are reforming. If we’re not careful, Van der Graaf Generator will be with us again.

Rock nerds have long whispered about similarities between the opening of Stairway to Heaven – the acoustic bit your idiot dad learned to play badly in 1986 – and an interlude on the eponymous debut album from eclectic psych-rockers Spirit. Streaming now permits the legal commentator to hear Taurus (for such is the track's inevitable title) without the cost and expense of asking for it in Bob's Record Barn. I have just done so and, well, I wouldn't say it didn't remind me of Stairway to Heaven. There was a brief bustle in my hedgerow. I heard the piper calling me to join him. I felt the overwhelming urge to set fire to an Afghan coat. Those sorts of things.

‘Note for note’

Twenty-three years ago, writing about the then recently deceased Randy California, Spirit's busy-fingered guitarist, Guitar World magazine laid out the case in no uncertain terms. "California's most enduring legacy may well be the fingerpicked acoustic theme of the song Taurus, which Jimmy Page lifted virtually note for note for the introduction to Stairway to Heaven," the appreciation moaned. Few other obituarists failed to mention to the now-ancient controversy. It is to hard rock as Hildegard of Bingen's borrowings from Doris of Engelbert are to the world of sacred music.

By confirming a 2016 judgment that failed to find any proof of copyright infringement, the court has put an end to the controversy. That decision had been overturned in 2018, but instructions to the court were, according to the current ruling, “erroneous and prejudicial”. With three bounds Led Zeppelin were free.

The forests will echo with laughter. All is one and one is all. I can keep this up all night. It was impossible to be alive in the late 1970s without having the ghastly thing involuntarily pumped into your brain twice a day. Remember Alex in A Clockwork – eyes pinned open as unwanted images of hyperviolence were unveiled before him? That was us. Only it was our ears. And it was adolescent poetry scored to astrology rock. To subvert an unlovely construction, Stairway to Heaven was the Led Zeppelin song people who didn’t like Led Zeppelin didn’t like.

Zeppelin already had a long history of "updating" familiar riffs for their less hempy tracks

Those of us disappointed at the lack of a total ban must admit there is some good news here. Robert Plant, the band's singer, and John Paul Jones, bass and keyboards, agreed in an earlier hearing that the chord sequence had "been around forever". Zeppelin already had a long history of "updating" familiar riffs for their less hempy tracks. Bring it on Home and The Lemon Song from Led Zeppelin II were sufficiently similar to tunes by Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf respectively that an out-of-court settlement with Chess Records was deemed necessary. Later pressings of the same album also added Dixon's name to Whole Lotta Love (duh-duh, duh-duh, DUM, duh-duh, duh-duh).

The band would, however – and with some justification – argue that the history of popular music was ever thus. Folk music of all nations evolves through variations on existing lyrics and melodies. Jazz and blues are, among other things, processes for making the familiar new again. Oasis had a song that sounded like Gary Glitter and another that sounded a bit like T Rex. George Harrison was found to have plagiarised My Sweet Lord from a Phil Spector melody.

Soup of influences

The rise of sampling in the early 1980s formalised the magpie nature of pop into something that too many cultural studies boffins thought "postmodern". Yet the cases kept coming. Nobody worries about Shakespeare taking his plots from Holinshed's chronicles. It's seen as a jape when Francis Bacon makes bellowing pontiffs of Velázquez. Yet Alan Klein, the Rolling Stones' notoriously unforgiving manager, somehow managed to secure all rights to The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony because they sampled a few brief chords from an orchestral version of Jagger and Richards's The Last Time (the tuning-up bit at the start). This does not chime with how popular music functions. It emerges from a soup of conscious and unconscious influences.

And yet. You would be bleeding furious if the melody you devised on your dad’s keyboard was overheard by a superstar and turned into a colossal hit. You’d be arguing that the judges’ decision was bad news. Life is full of such conflicts. “Good, times, bad times, you know I’ve had my share…” (It’s on the first album, if you didn’t get that.)