Vinyl Confessions: The Legal Bustle in Zeppelin’s Hedgerow

Spirit
Spirit

It’s never hard for Led Zeppelin to generate news coverage. For a while though, the coverage wasn’t all positive.

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have prevailed in an L.A. courtroom, found not guilty of intentionally copying notes from psychedelic rock staple Spirit’s instrumental track “Taurus” for their mega-behemoth anthem “Stairway to Heaven.” The claim from Spirit’s side was that Page was likely “inspired” to write “Stairway” after hearing Spirit perform “Taurus” back in the day when both toured together in the late 1960s.

When it comes to the worlds of music and copyright, the word “inspiration” was — and still is– dangerous.

In 1980, the eminent hipsters in Steely Dan released their Gaucho album, and with it the title track of the same name. Both Donald Fagen and Walter Becker said they were “inspired” to compose the tune after hearing jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s own composition, “Long as You Know You’re Living Yours.” Jarrett overlooked the compliment – he sued for copyright infringement and ultimately prevailed. He received a co-writing credit and a share of the song’s royalties.

Copyright cases in music are nothing new. Who could forget the time John Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing himself (“The Old Man Down the Road” vs. “Run Through the Jungle”)? Or when Robin Thicke was forced to shell out millions to Marvin Gaye’s family (“Blurred Lines” vs. “Got to Give It Up (Pt. 1).” Has it really been 40-plus years since the late George Harrison lost a case to the Chiffons (“My Sweet Lord” vs. “He’s So Fine”)?

Zeppelin has danced this legal dance before. The band had to credit bluesman Willie Dixon and settle with him financially after the latter sued over parts of his “You Need Love” being inserted into “Whole Lotta Love.”

Though Spirit lost this, most recent case, there is one upside – the band is probably more well-known now than it ever was during its tenure.

Commercially, the five-piece never did much, but in the era of fuzzy guitars and trippy lyrics, the group fit right in. They could write catchy tunes like “Morning Will Come” and “I Got a Line On You” (their only Top 40 hit) but also write head-scratchers like “Mechanical World.” Their influence extended to pop songstress Pink, who sampled the band’s “Fresh Garbage” on her song “Feel Good Time.” Even by association, the band can be considered famous. Member Jay Ferguson not only is a successful TV composer (The Office), but he scored a major solo hit in ’78 with “Thunder Island.”

Plus, the band was a true family affair. Seated behind the drums was the bold, bald jazzman Ed Cassidy, stepfather to singer and guitarist Randy California.

Zeppelin is obviously the better-known band. But Spirit being in the same company with them – albeit from a legal point-of-view – is a surefire way to get the public listening to them. “Taurus” is the starting point but from there, there are four main albums to explore: Spirit (1968), The Family That Plays Together (1969), Clear (1969) and Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus (1970).

I know the jury has reached its verdict. All I’m trying to do is emphasize how a band like Spirit could wield some kind of influence over the mightiest of rock gods. The rock gods may have won the legal battle, but Spirit now has the potential to win the listening war.

-Ira Kantor

 

Dig the column? Reach out to Ira via email at ikantor84@gmail.com or on Twitter at @ira_kantor

Got something to say?