Critic's Notebook: The True Inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s 'Stairway To Heaven'? Who Cares?

THR critic Tim Goodman on the legal battle over the 45-year-old rock tune — and why everyone involved should go fly a kite.
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Led Zeppelin loved "Chim Chim Cher-ee"?

If the thought of anyone in Led Zeppelin listening to — and being inspired by — Mary Poppins doesn't utterly delight you, then the life has left your body. I bring this up because the lawsuit that apparently won't end — whether Led Zeppelin's classic "Stairway to Heaven" ripped off a song called "Taurus" from the band Spirit — is back in court, with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page appearing before a Los Angeles judge. Led Zeppelin’s defense, at least in part, has been that that the guitar passage in question is so common that Disney might as well accuse them of lifting it from “Chim Chim Cher-ee."

Yes, there are some very important music copyright issues that serious legal types and frightened musicians will be paying close attention to. But before even touching on that, can we at least give 15 seconds of our lives over to a visual of Page on tour, taking a break from drugs, sex and random debauchery to listen to "Chim Chim Cher-ee," and thinking, with furrowed brow, "I'm loving that descending chord pattern even if what Dick Van Dyke is doing with the accent is rubbish"?

Life is hard, crazy, depressing and awful things happen all the time. So when you get a diversion like this — a lawsuit some 45 years after a song's release and the silliness that surrounds it — you absolutely must enjoy it. And yes, the music critic past rises inside me to be annoyed — and worried — about what the verdict in this case could portend. Anyone who has listened to popular music at all, for any length of time, must surely know that similarity abounds. I mean, you've listened to the blues, right? Like, any blues song? If someone were to pull the lyrics out of 68 percent of all reggae songs, could you — without the service of a gigantic bong — tell the difference?

Obviously there's a difference between a "sample" — all the hip-hop legal woes of the past will make that clear — and a similar "sound" or even chord progression. But do we want a court of law to say that a fraction of a complete song is, in fact, theft and warrants profit?

I say no, we don’t, not 45 minutes after a song is released and definitely not 45 years after. Is there a band alive that doesn't have a beef against some other band, either four garages down or across the pond, for "stealing" part of a song? It happens all the time. In fact, elements of thievery are rife in all parts of culture. From Shakespeare to fine art to stand-up comedy, someone took from someone else and made it either better or different. And when it's made better, turned into something unique that seizes a moment of inspiration and carries it to great heights, we should applaud those artists, not sue them.

Consider the song all of this relates back to — "Taurus" from Spirit. It is two minutes and 35 seconds of pretentious Renaissance Faire nonsense that makes the irritable Druid in you want to rise up and smash the living daylights out of it. "Stairway to Heaven," on the other hand, which indeed sounds very similar to the early chord progressions of "Taurus" once you get past those gratingly generic and sleepy strings, became one of the greatest songs in rock history, even if it has been played so many times that as soon as it comes on you want to punch the radio. (Okay, full disclosure: Sometimes you keep it on and sing every line — even the ridiculous ones, of which there are plenty — and sing at the top of your lungs as it grows from A-minor whimsy to full-on rocker.)

The larger point is that even if Page and Plant took inspiration from Spirit — which they have in the past denied — what they did with that inspiration was create a song played many millions of times on every FM station in this country and across the world. Personally, I think it's much more hilarious that Led Zeppelin is willing to concede that "Chim Chim Cher-ee" was an inspiration while denying ever even hearing the Spirit tune, but that's just my particular brand of humor. But let's not lose sight of this notion that all kinds of songs, chord progressions, keys, everything — can sound like other songs without any actual intention.

I'm reminded of a story that Elvis Costello once told live about being in Germany and confronted by a German music writer who told him that Costello's obscure "Little Atoms" song actually contains the German national anthem (which it kind of does), and Costello told him that Haydn wasn't coming for his royalties anytime soon. (On that same live album, Costello remembers a critic for the London Times said the opening of similarly obscure "Poor Fractured Atlas" was referencing Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," to which Costello responded: "And there all the time we thought we were doing 'Past, Present and Future' by the Shangri-Las.")

So, yeah, connections of insanity can be made everywhere.

And while I agree that things that are total and extended rip-offs should clearly have a legal (and financial) toll for the thieves at hand, the fact is that much of what we hear as familiar is familiar because it's not unique — songs sound the same because they use the same chords and beats that are the backbone of rhythmic music. Some of the most popular and enduring music uses a limited number of chords — you will hear the same riffs over and over again surrounded by wider musical deviations and lyrics. It's called constructing a song. Unless you're Philip Glass, you're probably going to write a number of songs that sound like a number of other songs from around the world.

And for every person who shouts, "That sounds just like X from band Y!" there's an omission or lack of knowledge that the song from band Y sounds blatantly like band Z from years before. That's where it gets very difficult to claim an artist has stolen something, and hopefully the legal defense of a single Led Zeppelin riff will win the day and a flood of like-minded lawsuits won't be forthcoming. That would be bad for musicians and bands and if you've been paying attention at all, you know that they and the industry haven't exactly been having a great decade.

In the meantime, the trial goes on and if we can get a GIF of Page talking about "Chim Chim Cher-ee," let's get it on the interwebs as fast as possible, shall we?