Led Zeppelin — and specifically guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant — is defending itself against charges that it pinched the opening from its 1971 epic “Stairway to Heaven” from “Taurus” by the band Spirit.
Page and Plant are currently being sued by the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, and if you want the details, read Business Insider’s James Cook’s post on the legal ins and outs of the case, which is going to trial in Los Angeles (ironically, home to some of the most over-the-top legends from Zep’s heyday).
“This isn’t the first time that Led Zeppelin have been involved with alleged copyright infringement,” Cook reported. “The band previously settled with Jake Holmes over ‘Dazed and Confused,’ Anne Bredon over ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,’ Howlin’ Wolf over ‘How Many More Times’ and ‘The Lemon Song,’ and Willie Dixon over ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Bring It on Home.'”
I grew up hearing “Stairway” — from the band’s fourth album — something like six times a day on the radio (I’m not kidding), so over time it began to become the musical equivalent of the wind in the trees.
But I started listening to it again recently, and I agree with Page’s assessment that it’s Led Zeppelin’s most well-thought-out piece of music, a synthesis of hard rock, folk, English classical music, and medieval music. It also contains Page’s most disciplined and carefully considered solo, which might be why everyone has it committed to memory, but no one has been all that influenced by it — Page’s wilder, looser work inspires imitation, while “Stairway” just inspires awe, not least because it occurs in the context of such a sprawling composition with pretty much all the light and shade, as Page might put it, a person could ask for.
However, during the course of getting reacquainted with “Stairway,” I also re-listened to the rest of the Zep catalogue, and I realised that although “Stairway” is supposed to be Zep’s masterpiece, it’s so finely constructed that it doesn’t sound quite as epic as it used to — for me, anyway.
Here are three Led Zeppelin songs that outdo it.
After the first four albums, Zep entered what I like to think of its second phase, which would run from “Houses of the Holy” in 1973 to “In Through the Our Door” in 1979 (that band broke up after drummer John Bonham’s death in 1980). “Kashmir” was on “Physical Graffiti,” released in 1975, on the eve of the punk explosion. I’ve always thought of it as Zep’s answer to Pink Floyd: a sprawling, booming, relentless piece of high, hard-rock meditation — the thinking man’s Zepic. And naturally, this is the song that got all the music critics to take Zep seriously for the first time. The band had always been interested in what we now call “world music,” and “Kashmir” showed off all those influences. Whereas “Stairway” is composed in movements, with classically delineated sections, “Kashmir” is a swirling, purposeful, slamming drone, with Page, Plant, Bonham, and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones all integrated from the start. Page always saw Zep as alchemical: four elements making a fifth. “Kashmir” is Element Five.
Achilles Last Stand
If “Kashmir” is middle late-Zep, then 1976’s “Presence” is late-late-Zep. Everything is starting to go wrong in the band’s world: car accidents, chaotic American tours, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Page is definitely picking up on a big change sweeping through music, as the heavy blues rock idea that he raised to unforeseen levels with Led Zeppelin has become monumental to a fault, inspiring raw new musicians to attack what we now label classic rock’s pretense and excess. So he puts everything he has into “Achilles Last Stand,” the title of which now seems deeply ironic. The band is in a flagrantly powerful mode throughout the song’s ten and half minutes: Pages layered something like 12 guitar parts, it’s hard to tell if Bonham had a drum kit left when it was all over, Plant sings like a possessed ancient warrior, and Jones holds it all together as it frequently threatens to fly apart. This is Zep at its late, great peak.
The Song Remains the Same
From Zep’s 1973 album, “Houses of the Holy” (the start of late-Zeppelin), this is without a doubt the band’s happiest song: a rolicking ode to hard rockin’ joy (more even than “Rock and Roll” from 1971, which while a hoot sounds like the band’s thank-you to the American musicians they loved when they were kids). It’s also the other song that Page played live on the iconic red Gibson double-neck that is known so well for live versions of “Stairway to Heaven.” And the number is the title of a film about Zep, released in 1976. Say what you will about Zep and their sound, their attitude, the legacy — there’s no question those guys adored music, and that love is all distilled in “The Song Remains the Same,” which would fit right into the current upbeat pop landscape. Appropriate, given the idea that music is at heart timeless. There are two great live taped performances of the song, in 1973 at Madison Square Garden in New York, and in 2007 at London’s O2 Arena. Separated by 34 years, you can see in either case a group that really, really loves to cut loose and play this tune for all it’s worth.
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