19.4.16

STAIRWAY TO THE HIGH COURT - Part 2, The Mary Poppins Connection


I have been shown a copy of the deposition signed by Jimmy Page in relation to the lawsuit over ‘Stairway To Heaven’ that I wrote about here last week. It is dated February 24, 2016, not long ago, and although the other two surviving members of Led Zeppelin are mentioned Jimmy seems to be the only member of the group to have been asked to give evidence. In a nutshell, he denies completely any suggestion of plagiarism, says he never heard the Spirit song ‘Taurus’ until 2014, states that descending chord progressions like this have been prevalent for years, citing several examples, and shunts into touch any suggestion that because Led Zep were on the same bill as Spirit back in 1968 (once) and ’69 (twice), some cross-fertilisation may have taken place. Fuck off, in other words.
“I composed the music to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ with the intention to create a long work,” he states at the outset, “with multiple different parts that would unfold with increasing complexity and speed culminating in a guitar solo that was preceded by a distinct fanfare, followed by the last verse concluding a climax to the song.” He confirms that Robert wrote the words after he’d composed the music and goes on to state when and where it was recorded, and when it was first performed live. “It was included on the album usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV,” he adds, thus (almost) giving a name to a record he has consistently declined to refer to by its title since its release in 1971.
“The beginning of ‘Stairway…’ includes a chromatic descending line chord progression and arpeggios, over which I played an ascending line,” he points out, adding that he considers descending chromatic lines and arpeggiated chords “basic skills learnt by a student of the guitar”. “As a guitarist I was aware of descending chromatic lines and arpeggios long before 1968,” he adds, and few would doubt him on this.
To illustrate his point, Jimmy refers to a demo of a track called ‘Spring Is Near’ that he worked on in 1960 for Chris Farlowe, which seems unusually early as JP would only have been 17 at the time and Farlowe & The Thunderbirds were barely past the rehearing-in-mum-and-dad’s-bedroom stage by then. Nevertheless Jimmy’s penchant for hoarding has evidently come in useful as he is able to lodge a pressing of this demo with his lawyer. “The beginning of ‘Spring Is Near’, recorded in 1960, is a guitar playing a descending chromatic chord progression,” he points out helpfully.
This is far from the only example that Jimmy mentions, citing “songs by the Beatles” (he doesn’t say which but I’ll opt for ‘For No One’) and the intro to Davey Graham’s instrumental reading of ‘Cry Me River’ which can be found on YouTube and does indeed feature a few lines that sound a bit like ‘Stairway’. More interestingly, Jimmy cites ‘Chim Chim Chimree’ from the film Mary Poppins as an example of a song wherein the music “is going at a counterpoint, and I used that and similar ideas in my music.” Finally he mentions a session he did in 1968 for a group called Cartoone on song called ‘Ice Cream Dreams’ which also has a descending line. “I participated in that session in the fall of 1968 before Led Zeppelin went to the US in December, 1968,” he adds, stressing the significance that this occurred prior to the gig with Spirit in Denver on December 26, 1968.
If the evidence thus far is designed to demonstrate how the descending figure in ‘Stairway’ is very common in songs, the rest is designed to refute suggestions that Jimmy was aware of Spirit’s song ‘Taurus’, at least until he first heard in in 2014. “I never heard ‘Taurus’ or even heard of it,” he states. “I am very good at remembering music and am absolutely certain that I never heard ‘Taurus’ before 2014. I do not recall ever seeing Spirit perform live. I am absolutely certain I never heard them, or anyone else, perform ‘Taurus’.”
The evidence that follows confirms that Led Zeppelin and Spirit did play on the same bill but Jimmy is at pains to point out that even though this was the case he and the other members of Zep never actually saw them. “Generally, in my experience, when bands play on the same bill, each band or performer used their own guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, drums and other equipment,” he states, clearly believing that whoever is reading this disposition has no knowledge whatsoever of the rock world. “In between performances their respective road crews would set up or dismantle and remove their equipment and that took anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes depending on the extent of the equipment. In my experience the set up interval between bands meant that we did not encounter any other bands entering or leaving the stage.”
A suggestion by the plaintiffs that Led Zeppelin and Spirit were introduced to one another by someone from whom Zep had leased a plane is also kicked into touch. “Led Zeppelin did not lease an aeroplane for touring until 1973, long after the concert in Denver in 1968,” he points out.
Jimmy concedes that he owns a copy of Spirit’s first album but maintains he has never played it. “I have several thousand albums of many different kinds,” he says. “They include albums I purchased, albums people gave me or albums that were simply left at my home. Like a book collector who never gets round to reading the books they collect, I have never listened to many of the albums.” He does not know how the Spirit album came to be in his collection. “It may well have been left by a guest. I doubt it was there for long because I never noticed it before [this litigation].”
Jimmy concludes his deposition by stating that many documents and demo recordings have been lost or stolen over the years – “stolen from my home in the 1980s” – but those that he does still own have been produced for use as evidence in this action. Finally, he alludes to the passing of John Bonham, Peter Grant and Andy Johns (who engineering the recording of ‘Stairway…’) who may have been able to support his deposition.

I am grateful to Richard Morton Jack for sending me a copy of Jimmy Page's deposition.

15.4.16

STAIRWAY TO THE HIGH COURT



Like a nasty dose of some STD that simply won’t go away, the issue of whether or not Jimmy Page and, to a lesser extent, Robert Plant, nicked the opening bars of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ from an instrumental by Spirit entitled ‘Taurus’ grabbed many column inches earlier this week, causing Just Backdated to listen very carefully to the music in question. ‘Stairway’ is credited to both Page and Plant but it’s a safe bet to assume that Page wrote the melody and Plant the lyrics, so if culpability becomes an issue then it is Jimmy who is in the frame.
We are concerned with just the introduction to ‘Stairway’, no more and no less, and those in Spirit’s camp will argue that this is its key element, four crucial notes that are nowadays as well known to rock fans as any Chuck Berry intro that took the fancy of Keith Richards. ‘Taurus’ does not open with this melody but reaches it at around the 45 second mark, but apart from this similarity each song thereafter does its own thing, ‘Stairway’ reaching for the heavens as it inflates and develops, ‘Taurus’ noodling along at the same pace throughout, enhanced by strings as it reaches its conclusion but never really working up much of a sweat.
Both songs hover around an A-minor key. The descending sequence of notes on the D-string are identical, no doubt about it. The tempo or meter, too, is identical, ditto the general, slightly medieval feel which is Zep’s case is enhanced by John Paul Jones playing a bass recorder. ‘Stairway’, however, has a simultaneous ascending run of notes on the top E-string and the phrases in each song are resolved differently. ‘Taurus’ seems to hang loosely, while ‘Stairway’ moves down to a D chord, then a slightly discordant F-major 7th, then a G major and an A minor chord, a far more satisfactory and pleasing sequence to my mind. In ‘Taurus’ the tranquil little sequence is repeated several times with pretty much the same feel and intensity while in ‘Stairway’ Jimmy pushes down on the power button as each verse comes around, thus disguising and diminishing the similarity.
‘Taurus’ first appeared on Spirit’s debut album released in 1968, a full three years before Led Zeppelin IV, on which ‘Stairway’ appeared. That Spirit debut album also included the song ‘Fresh Garbage’ which Led Zeppelin covered at the beginning of their career, which proves that Jimmy Page was aware of the album. Also, in those early days before Zep established themselves as a top flight attraction, they were on the same bill as Spirit; among the dates they shared Zep’s first ever appearance in America, at Denver on December 26, 1968. They also appeared together at two festivals in 1969, at Atlanta on July 5 and Seattle on July 27, but I have no way of knowing whether Spirit included ‘Taurus’ in their sets; probably unlikely as meandering instrumentals are hardly festival fare.
The lawsuit has been brought by the Estate of Randy California (whose real name was Randy Wolfe), Spirit’s leading light and songwriter, who died in a drowning accident in January 1997, rescuing his 12-year-old son in the process.
The big question, of course, is why it has taken so long – over 40 years – for the Estate to bring the case. Surely Randy, when he was alive, was aware of the similarities between the two songs and, had he felt sufficiently aggrieved, would have brought the case himself. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ will have generated a tidy sum in royalties but far be it for me to suggest that in the present era, when litigation has become a nice little earner, pecuniary motives are at the heart of this. Many plaintiffs bring a case in the hope that a quick out-of-court settlement will resolve an issue and save high legal costs but Jimmy Page has a deep pocket and I don’t see him capitulating easily.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that descending chord sequences in a minor key such as this are as common as muck. Zep used something similar in ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, which isn’t that different from George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on The Beatles’ White Album. Jack Bruce once told me that JS Bach was the master of the descending bass line and, were he alive today, might have a case against loads of rock songwriters, not just Procol Harum. On the negative side, it’s also worth adding that Led Zep have a bit of previous in this regard too: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ = ‘You Need Love’ (Muddy Waters); ‘The Lemon Song’ = ‘Killing Floor’ (Chester Burnett); ‘When The Levee Breaks’ = Memphis Minnie; and a hush seems to have settled over ‘Dazed And Confused’ which songwriter Jake Holmes claims to have written (another descending sequence of notes) and which it is believed was the subject of an out-of-court settlement in 2011.
I wouldn’t like to predict the outcome of the ‘Stairway’ issue but if I was on the bench I’d award a small settlement to the Randy California Estate, perhaps 5% or less of the money the song has generated. This judgement is based on the fact that only 50% of the song is the melody (and 50% the lyrics, which is not the issue), and of that 50% only 10% – at the most – can be attributed to ‘Taurus’, the remaining 90% – not least the entire second half of the song after John Bonham comes tumbling in – pure Page/Led Zep.

7.4.16

VINYL IN SAINSBURYS - Pink Moon, too



I have yet to embrace the current trend for expensive heavyweight vinyl but earlier today I felt a degree of warm satisfaction when I encountered a display of vinyl albums in my local Sainsburys, especially since one of the 14 albums on the rack was Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Personally I’d have gone for Five Leaves Left but I’m not about to quibble over such details since the concept of Sainsburys, of all places, selling a vinyl album by Nick Drake, of all people, seemed truly remarkable. Nick Drake? Mainstream? In a supermarket? Well, knock me down with a ten-ton truck as Morrissey sings on another of the albums I clocked.
The other 13 vinyl albums on display were a bit more predictable though by no means uninspired. Bowie leads the field with three (Hunky Dory, Ziggy & Nothing Has Changed, the most recent hits compilation), followed by The Beatles (Pepper & Abbey Road), with one each from AC/DC (Back In Black), Eagles (Hotel California), Led Zep (IV), The Smiths (Queen Is Dead), Foo Fighters (hits comp), Nirvana (Nevermind), Bob Marley (Legend) and Adele (25), the only contemporary album they’ve chosen to stock. The prices ranged from £12 to £18.
Intrigued by the whole concept, when I got home I googled ‘vinyl records in Sainsburys’ and up came an item on their website that listed which vinyl albums would be stocked: all of the above plus Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, F Mac’s Rumours, Led Zep’s first album and the debut albums by The Specials and Stone Roses. I can only assume that these have already sold out or were deemed unsuitable for Guildford. Interestingly, Hunky Dory wasn’t on the list (thought it was in stock) and I’m a bit surprised that Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon wasn’t there, maybe also Abba Gold or an Eagles hits comp.
A note on their website states that this is a ‘selection of 2016’s best sellers to date’. What they mean, of course, is ‘2016’s best selling vinyl albums to date’. Over in the CD racks a few weeks ago I was staggered to see about a dozen Bowie albums on sale, obviously catapulted into the charts by his recent death, and I’d have thought that Let’s Dance – if it’s available on vinyl – would have been a wiser choice than Hunky Dory if commercial potential is the criteria for selection.
At the bottom of the display, which I really ought to have snapped with my camera-phone, was a 3-speed portable turntable on sale at £80 on which to play your albums. I’m assuming the other two speeds are 45 and 78rpm. Does anyone really play 78s these days?
        Nevertheless, who would have thought that of all the many wonderful albums released by Islands Records during the seventies, the only one that would make it onto the shelves of a supermarket in 2016, in the same format as it was released it in 1972, would be Pink Moon, recorded solo in just two days by a singer songwriter who would be dead two years later – and which was probably Island’s least successful album of the decade.




5.4.16

A FEW MORE ODDS & SODS


Here’s a few more bits and pieces from my Who folders.


The Who Generation is a 64-page magazine published by Circus, the US rock monthly, and written by Nik Cohn which is a guarantee of quality of course. It was published in June of 1974 to coincide with The Who’s four nights at New York’s Madison Square Garden and, in fact, because I was living in NY at the time, Circus had called me to ask whether I’d be prepared to write it. Unfortunately my contract with Melody Maker precluded me from writing for other magazines and, in 1974, I felt it unwise to offer my services to what was, in effect, a rival. So I recommended Nik and he did a great job, probably far better than Circus were expecting. I seem to remember Nik taking me for a slap-up meal as a thank you.


I felt no such qualms a year later when I was approached by Penthouse magazine which I didn’t feel was in competition with Melody Maker, even though the sub editors were always on the lookout for a eye-catching picture of an easy-on-the-eye girl singer. Nevertheless, the text in the Rock Superstars Poster mag is uncredited because I wasn’t supposed to be working for anyone else other than MM. What I remember most about working for Penthouse was that they paid really well and the girls who worked on the reception in their Third Avenue offices all looked like centre-spreads (with their clothes on).



This was the programme for the orchestral Tommy at the Rainbow on December 9, 1972. In the cast list inside John’s name is spelt Entwisle, which makes a change from usual Entwhistle misspelling. Originally planned for the Royal Albert Hall, the performance was banned by the general manager who deemed Tommy not to be a proper opera and, in any case, was ‘unsavoury’. Wonder what he thought of Robert Plant squeezing his lemon on the hallowed stage during the Pop Proms of June 1969.



I have no idea where this Tommy The Movie magazine came from, but the 30p price tag seems to imply it came from the UK, which is odd because I was living in NY when the film was released. It’s full of stills from the film including a spectacularly unattractive shot of Keith as ‘the evil and lecherous Uncle Ernie’ and Nora (Ann-Margret) ‘cavorting crazily in a fantasy of melted chocolate’. The text – a prĂ©cis of the film – is uncredited.