No, Led Zeppelin Didn’t Really Steal “Stairway.” But They Stole Everything Else

Fucking Zeppelin









I’d like Led Zeppelin to be guilty of plagiarism, but I can’t say they are. This time.

Earlier this month, California jazz rock group Spirit formally accused them of stealing the guitar intro of “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus.”

If you’re sick of Led Zeppelin, this is a great story. It recasts them from decadent geniuses into lazy thieves. There’s a bitter satisfaction at knowing the rightful person got screwed out of credit for something famous, like the anonymous engineers at Zerox who were robbed of authorship for what became Microsoft and Apple. Plus, it’s a great rock nerd secret you can lord over people who haven’t prioritized memorizing arcane rock ‘n’ roll trivia.

There’s a big honking precedent for Jimmy Page recycling someone else’s material: “Dazed and Confused.” Page stole the bass line and most of the words from folk singer Jack Holmes, first for the Yardbirds and then for Led Zeppelin.

The Yardbirds version hews even closer to the original than the Zep re-do.

The Zep version includes a long section of sturm und drang bowed guitar strings and heavy riffage totally absent in the folk original. Robert Plant added lines like “soul of a woman was created below” for a vibe that’s probably misogynistic and definitely a little “settle down bro” overdramatic.

Also: The b section of “The Lemon Song,” which starts about 1:30 in, is a noisier, distorted cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Killing Floor,” a song that was released only five years before Led Zeppelin II. Also, the lyrics throughout “Lemon Song” song are a direct lift from “Killing Floor.” There are other examples of Zeppelin appropriating blues songs but usually it’s stuff from the ’40s or earlier, like “When the Levee Breaks” or “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Also, “Moby Dick” sounds a hell of a lot like Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step.”  And then there’s Bert Jansch. And “In My Time of Dying” was a folk blues standard despite being credited to the band. The real author of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” wasn’t properly credited until 1990. There’s more, too. Led Zeppelin appropriated and/or stole a lot of stuff. Just maybe not Stairway.

Holmes sued in the early 2000s and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum according to court documents. I expect a comparable outcome for the Spirit case. Zep will likely treat it as a nuisance lawsuit and dip into their overflowing coffers to make it go away. For Spirit it will be a windfall and for Page, Plant and Jones it’ll be a drop off on licensed merchandise on a random Tuesday.

The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” are similar to notes played about 45 seconds into the Spirit instrumental “Taurus.” Both are arpeggiated a minor chords in the fifth fret barre position. The first three notes of the arpeggiated figure are close to each other and the descending bass is also mostly the same until the end, when Page adds a note.

Page’s guitar line is more clever. He’s fingerpicking and playing two notes at the same time. As the bass line descends, he plays a simple but effective counter melody on the high e string. The Taurus song just plays out the notes of the chord. That’s actually kind of infuriating. Do they think they own arpeggiating a minor chord? Are they going after Tom Petty for the guitar part in “Into the Great Wide Open”?

But also, as everybody knows, “Stairway to Heaven” is a long song. Its saving grace is that it has a lot of different parts. The allegedly plagiarized section is only in the first half. They cycle through about three more sections before getting to the outro (which, honestly, bears more than a passing resemblance to “All Along the Watchtower”).

Led Zeppelin evidently opened for Spirit a couple of times in the late 60s, and members of Spirit claim that Zeppelin covered one of their songs live. It’s possible that Jimmy Page heard the song and composed something to match it. It’s equally possible he independently composed a similar figure. What’s certain is that Led Zeppelin utilize it much more effectively than Spirit. It’s the intro of “Stairway,” which slowly builds into a big crescendo. The Spirit song starts off with a 45 second soft barrage of “Nights in White Satin” orchestration before the guitar part floats in and out of the song without going anywhere.

The song didn’t go anywhere either, despite having a three-year head start on “Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t like to argue for the wisdom of the market, but there’s a reason “Stairway” is a big stupid rock epic that the whole world is sick of and “Taurus” is a deep album cut for a band that’s largely been forgotten.

That’s not to say that Spirit didn’t have success. The band actually hit the top 40 a couple of times. And away from the band, former members charted as well. Bass player Mark Andes hit the charts multiple times in the ’80s as a member of Heart, a band whose members coincidentally performed “Stairway to Heaven” with John Bonham’s son when Led Zeppelin were honored by the Kennedy Center.


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Glam Metal Hot Dogs

I just watched this video about 7 times. The cook is never tired!

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May 19, 2014 · 11:31 pm

Does Guns ‘n’ Roses Exist in the Marvel Universe?

iwmprnsdivsdaliusne1Captain America: Winter Soldier was a good movie but I wonder if it’s really a court jester with a broken heart.

There’s a cute scene early in the story where Captain America take out a list of pop culture and historical recommendations, ranging from the moon landing to Nirvana (which he parenthetically annotates as “band” to make sure he doesn’t accidentally looks up the Buddhist state of pure enlightenment, I guess). It compresses a lot of the otherwise boring nonsense about Cap being a fish out of water in the present while making and quick jokes and setting up The Falcon as a cool dude capable of picking out some relatively obscure soul music.

But upon reflection, I find it strange that Guns ‘n’ Roses isn’t on that list. Not only is Appetite for Destruction a culturally significant document offering valuable insight about what it was like to live through the 1980s, it specifically mentions Captain America by name.

Lyrics follow:


Captain America’s been torn apart
A court jester with a broken heart
To be a runner take me back to the start
I must be losing my mind, are you blind
I’ll see you at the end of the line


In the universe in which we exist, where Axl Rose penned those lyrics, Captain America is a fictional character. In the Marvel universe he is a real person. That doesn’t mean Axl wouldn’t have included him in the lyrics. As a real world figure, he would still ripe for use as a symbol for America in decline.

And the music would probably not be to the taste of someone from the 1940s. But either would Nirvana, who are on that list. In all seriousness, he might have trouble with Chuck Berry.

Incidentally, this dumb idea led me to this insanely detailed analysis of 1980s Captain America comics. It’s pretty breathtaking.

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The Definitive Ranking of U2 Albums

u21112. Rattle and Hum

Bono is at his most preachy and ego-splosive. The band is at their least inspired. With two shopworn classic rock covers, “All Along the Watchtower” and “Helter Skelter,” RAH completes the evolution U2 started on Joshua Tree from post punk pioneers to baby boomer suck-ups. U2 tries out Bo Diddley beats, blues, soul and gospel and it feels like a school project. The only way to save this one is to strip it down to its one good song, “All I Want is You,” and issue it as a single.

11. Pop

After the one-two punch of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, U2 were feeling cocky and it shows. They went full bore into samplers and sequencers and ended sounding like they were trying to remake Filter’s “Trip Like I do” on every song. They’re too angsty and baggage-laden for Chemical Brothers electronics. It’s like taking molly with a recently divorced Dad.

10. Joshua Tree

I’m disdainful of this album. More information here.

9. No Line on the Horizon

How much is Bono bothered by Coldplay? Is it weird to still try to be a hit pop group when there’s another massively successful superstar group so indebted to your sound? Is that how Keith Richards felt when he heard the Black Crowes? I’m only asking because I have nothing constructive to say about this pedestrian late period release.

8. October

There are a lot of funny jokes on “U Talkin U2 to Me” but the most cutting one is that a better name for this album would be “one good song and a lot of fucking around.” “Gloria” is great. The rest is is skippable.

7. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

One, two, three, fourteen! Your enjoyment of this record on your tolerance for “Vertigo,” a song that seems equally indebted to the Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Dirty Boots” by Sonic Youth. I appreciate that they tried to rock out a little more than usual and think it’s a qualified success despite some filler.

6. All that You Can’t Leave Behind

“Beautiful Day” is probably the cheesiest song I truly love. They cleared a lot of garbage out of their sound after Pop but retained a surprising amount of electronics for what’s sometimes touted as a back to basics album. The whole album is a testament to their mastery of dynamics, with almost all songs featuring a finely crafted peak. Side two is mostly a write-off, but the first half is among U2’s best.

5. Boy

U2’s first album has two of their all-time greatest songs, “I Will Follow” and “Out of Control.” They’re struggling to find a unique sound, and it’s fun to listen to them get New Romantic edgy with “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”* and new wave angularity on “Twilight” and Flock of Seagulls faze on “A Day Without Me.”  They sound like Souxsie and the Banshees with a better singer and a band willing to write songs in major keys.

*CORRECTION: “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” was a single and not on the original version of Boy. It’s on the special edition re-release, though.

4. Unforgettable Fire

This album is a battle for control between Bono and producer Brian Eno. Soaring vocals vie for dominance with ambient guitar soundscapes. The final result hits higher peaks than U2 had ever hit before. It’s not an unqualified success; the album’s undercooked and long stretches seem like Pink Floyd outtakes but the raw sincerity, charisma and instinctive sense of dynamics on tracks like “Bad” and “A Sort of Homecoming” more than make up for it.

3. Achtung Baby

It’s surprising how well this album holds up. U2 were out on a limb with this one, using new technology like sampling and loops. It could have easily been a dated-sounding record. They were soaking in the music from then-current Manchester “baggy” sound and added the requisite bongos and electro drums. But, almost certainly thanks to Eno’s meddling, the album is tempered by strange sounds that could be on a ‘70s Bowie record or OK Computer.

2. Zooropa

Everything good about Achtung Baby is improved on their Zooropa victory lap. The sounds are harsher and the songs are better. It seems like a throwaway at first, but it’s as heavy as the rest of their catalogue, just approached differently. Almost every song turns from silly to somber and back again. I think U2 felt like the stakes were low and so they loosened up and made a masterpiece so casual that people overlook its greatness.


“Seconds” and “Refugee” are deep album cuts. That’s how deep this bench is. U2 would never again be this consistent or as high energy as they are on War. Every song is a classic, punchy rock tune. Aside from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (the one song I never, even want to hear again from this album), Bono is at his least annoying. Unforgettable Fire is rightly remembered as an experimental break from traditional song craft, which obscures the weird sounds on War like the almost atonal trumpet solo at the end of “Red Light” or the shimmering background vocals on “40.”

NOTES: I am not including E.P.s, live albums or the Passengers soundtrack.


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The Joshua Tree Problem

the-joshua-tree-u2My biggest problem with U2 is with their biggest album. I hate The Joshua Tree and honestly can not believe it’s a hit.

Usually there’s an immediately evident appeal for a mega-selling records. Thriller and Dark Side of the Moon are undisputed heavyweight masterpieces that happen to be the number one and two selling records of all time.

But I find The Joshua Tree (outsold, incidentally, by the Spice Girls’ Spice) alternately boring and irritating. I’ve had friends speak of how producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois created this layered majestic production but I just don’t hear it. It’s not U2’s worst record, thanks to Rattle and Hum and Pop, but it’s the one where they lost the thread.

Until Joshua Tree, U2 was a new wave, post-punk band. Unforgettable Fire saw them hooking up with Eno and adding spacier, European elements to their sound. But as experimental as that was, it was still within the ballpark of their peers in PiL, Sousxie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen. With the Joshua Tree, U2 made a conscious decision to discard that post punk sound in favor of classic rock style Americana. But they’re not  good enough musicians to record a country blues album, so instead they made a post modern grain silo of a record that reflects classic rock gone by without  really adding anything too new.

The record kicks off with four songs I would pay to never hear again: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “WTSHNN” is U2 at its most plodding and deliberate, featuring three drawn-out introductions before the song’s melody kicks in. “ISHFWILF” and “WOWY” are essentially the same song; a weepy, hookless exercise in acoustic minimalism that wears out its welcome by the second verse. BTBS is 20 seconds worth of cool guitar sound effects spread over four and a half minutes of a rhythm section flop-sweating through “When the Levee Breaks.” “Running to a Stand Still” is a relief but it’s also essentially a remake of the superior Unforgettable Fire track “Bad.”

The second side is an improvement, with stand out tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” “Trip Through Your Wires” is a harbinger of the inept blues-rock of Rattle and Hum. Otherwise, it’s filler that would someday serve as blueprints for Coldplay’s career.

Throughout the album, they’re using slide guitar, harmonica, acoustic guitars; essentially the same palette employed on classic rock chestnuts like Highway 61 Revisited and Beggars Banquet. U2 and producer Brian Eno are less technically adept but more clever than their classic rock antecedents. They use those sounds as texture, mood and accents. The slide guitar in “BTBS” doesn’t create a melody. It instills a sense of dread. A similar atmospheric effect is achieved with the church-like organ intro of “WTSHNN” and the harmonica in “Trip Through Your Wires.”

In a lot of ways, Joshua Tree is a post-modern document, assembled from borrowed materials to comment on how those materials were previously used. Which makes it sort of interesting, but not good.

Previously. The merits of U2 overall are debated here (for!) and here (against!). And talked about in general here.

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The Case for U2

u2-war_a_lThe Hooks

The other day, I was holding my daughter and started singing “you’ve got to get yourself together…” I haven’t heard that song in at least five years and yet it had ear-wormed into my brain like a Wrath of Khan mind control slug. Bono and the boys don’t just write choruses. They write anthems. From “I Will Follow” on and up to “Beautiful Day,” their best songs big-blast off in the refrains in ways songs by other artists can’t match. The melodies effortlessly soar. It’s uplifting music in an almost achingly literal sense.

Bono is a Great Singer

It’s really weird that Bono is able to find a vocal melody over all the chiming guitars at all. The Edge’s guitar parts are usually comprised of about three or four notes at the most. Bono’s singing doesn’t follow the chords. They’re often a counterpoint or a barely connected melody that floats over the rest of band. It makes an otherwise minimalist band seem really full. And beyond musical value, he broadcasts charisma and emotion. When he waves a big stupid white flag/mullet combo on stage it’s something that’s almost earned.

“War” is Just So Good

Except for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which is either terrible or over-exposed, every song on that record is killer.

Cleverly Curated Cultural Appropriation

The members of U2 must have amazing record collections judging by all the stuff they’ve assimilated into their music. Siousxie and the Banshees? Kraftwerk? Johnny Cash? Lou Reed? I’d let them run the jukebox for sure. They’re not skillful mimics and they filter everything through their chimey sound, so it usually sounds like an influence rather than a rip-off. Like when U2’s early new wave records are compared to post punk bands like Magazine, there are so many obvious caveats that it seems kind of cool instead of stealing.

Irrational Exuberance

U2 has a really specific mood. It’s not party music, it’s not mopey music, it’s not dance music, it’s not even really rock music, exactly. If you’re in the right mindset, it’s just cheesy as hell.  But if it hits you at the right moment, it’s a triumphant, ecstatic vibe that can have a lasting improvement on your mood. It’s great sunny day driving music that can make you more enthusiastic about your destination.

Surprising Consistency

If I were to put together a U2 playlist, it would span 30 years. “Out of Control” and I Will Follow” are great songs. So are “Zooropa,” “Lemon,” and “Beautiful Day.” As a point of comparison, in the same amount of time, Paul McCartney went from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to post Wings trash. The Stones went from “Satisfaction” to “Waiting on a Friend.” Jimmy Page went from “Communication Breakdown” to crippling heroin addiction or maybe the Honeydrippers. I forget.


Wallow in negativity here: The Case Against U2. Or journey into the center of my U2-niverse here: Talkin’ U2.


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Bono’s First Ted Talk is Pure Word Garbage

Jesus god damn Christ. Ted Talks are arguably the lowest form of communication humankind has, but this is a shit masterpiece of glib vanity. His jokes are terrible and he can’t even correctly quote the Grateful Dead’s most famous line. Did Chris Morris write a speech for Bono to deliver in some underhanded satirical masterstroke? I was going to write some nice things about the dude but now I’m thinking twice. By the way, thanks for skyping in, your highness.

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May 13, 2014 · 10:17 pm

The Case Against U2

1996-mFucking Bono

If you subtract his humanitarian/political issues, Bono is basically  an ego monster rock star cartoon. He’s so pleased with himself he’s almost on Tom Cruise-level fame-related sociopathy. Even when he’s trying to be modest it’s cranked to 11, like when he tried to cover for the failure of “Pop” by saying the band was reapplying for the job of best band in the world. Ugh. Dude. Come on.

The Edge

The Edge is as much of a lame shit as Bono but gets away with his lameness by merely being the guy standing next to Bono. If you ever want to get a sense of a smug unpleasant uptight rich dude, pay attention to his scenes in “It Might Get Loud.” He’s a guitar effects master and can write a catchy tune but watching him struggle with a rudimentary blues riff is like watching a millionaire accountant unable to do subtraction.

Their Status as a Global “Brand”

Is becoming an inescapable part of being a super-star? I guess that being a big rock band anytime after 1980 is like being part of Twitter or Costco or something. You generate a lot of money, which necessitates a certain amount of organization. And if you’re trying to be a moral person you’re going to try to figure out what it means when that organization earns and spends money.  And you have to define a corporate culture and make strategic partnerships with Apple or Bill Gates or something. Then you find out that your accountant actually did his/her job and everybody is mad at you for tax dodging.

Sub Par Musicianship

Most of the members of U2 are only barely performing their jobs at the professional level. The Edge’s guitar playing is 90 percent delay and Adam Clayton’s bass playing is almost entirely eighth notes.  That’s high school shit. Drummer Larry Mullen should be called “viagra overdose” because he’s always fucking stiff.  It would take them weeks of trial and error to cobble together the set-list of your average wedding band and it still wouldn’t groove. Collectively they are more than the sum of their parts, but they’d  have to be, as the sum is really, really small.

Their Greatest Hits are Either Inherently Terrible or Overplayed to Death

“With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Where the Streets Have No Name, “One” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” are like a murderers’ row of songs I never want to hear again. I have no idea if it’s because the songs suck or because I’ve heard them a billion times.

The Lyrics are Distractingly Terrible

It must have rained a lot in Ireland in the mid ’80s.  “Unforgettable Fire and “Joshua Tree” lyrics are like teleprompter copy for the Weather Channel. Everything’s about howling wind, the sky or the rain. The weather report is occasionally interrupted by non sequitur Biblical allusions and fear of walls and blindness. Or maybe it’s just weird statements or oddly curated quotes like “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” or “in New York summers get hot.” (also: weather.)

Previous U2 coverage here: Talkin U2, an introduction.


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Five Reasons You Should Love Dolly Parton Without Irony or Reservations (that aren’t “Jolene”)

The way her voice drips in like syrup when she comes into her & Porter Wagoner’s cover of “Dark End of the Street.” Continue reading

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Talkin’ U2

u2_300x350I’ve been reconsidering U2 lately after years of writing them off.

They’ve been easy to passively ignore and/or actively hate. Any cultural work that’s conquered the world can seem obnoxious by being around all the time. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” blares in supermarkets, restaurants and waiting rooms. “With or Without You” plays on the hour at miserable Irish bars. They’ve been featured in Apple commercials, soundtracks for awful movies, Superbowl halftime shows and been overall so obnoxious to be portrayed as human waste come to life on South Park.

But ubiquity aside, U2’s grandiose pomposity makes it hard to like them. Even when they’re admirable—there’s nothing inherently wrong with a pop group advocating for political action or trying to combat global poverty—there’s an off-putting messianic element that’s impossible to ignore.

U2’s music only fits a very specific mood. It’s weird music to hear at a bar or a party. Their music doesn’t traffic in the sex, power and swagger that most groups of their stature do. Nothing from the Joshua Tree inspires fist pumping, dancing or air guitar playing the way something like their fellow superstars Led Zeppelin, Britney Spears, Jay-Z or even REM, their closest contemporaries, can.

But I got turned around nonetheless, through a  comedy podcast. Supreme deadpan comedians Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman are currently on week nine of a prankish exploration of U2’s music in a miniseries U Talkin U2 to Me? The central joke of the show is that the hosts only occasionally talk about the band, despite billing it as an encyclopedic exploration of the band’s music. My flat description is ruining both the show and my reputation as a humorous dude, but trust me, it’s a funny, goofy vibe.

But while I came for the rambling conversation, I’ve come away with a new appreciation for Bono and his boys.

I’ll be writing more about this over the coming days, but I’ve become convinced that at the heart of the U2 global cultural and economic monolith, there’s something genuinely strange and interesting.


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