Last week, a Los Angeles jury concluded that no, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” did not plagiarize another song—or, at least, appropriate enough of that other song to constitute plagiarism and subsequent monetary compensation. Led Zeppelin got to continue living atop a towering pile of money that did not become a slightly-less-towering pile of money, and the 1960s band Spirit got a neat little footnote in its history when the estate of the band’s singer, Randy California, unsuccessfully tried to argue that a brief snippet from the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” sounded too much like Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.”
Neither being a member of that jury nor someone who claims to understand music on a constructional level, I can’t say whether that verdict was just. I can say, however, that to my ears, the two songs sound similar enough that it seems that the one could have helped bring about the other, regardless of whether anyone deserved money for that inspiration.
Listen for yourself. The “Stairway”-esque part of “Taurus” begins around the 44-second mark.
And here is “Stairway to Heaven,” just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last forty years.
The plaintiff’s lawyers had claimed that because Spirit had played on the same bill as Led Zeppelin back in the day, it was plausible that members of the latter had heard “Taurus” and therefore used bits of it in writing “Stairway,” which was released in 1971. In my head, that seems like a fair enough argument, and I feel like people following the story in the news probably did too, especially in light of how the family of Marvin Gaye successfully sued Robin Thicke, to say nothing of similar squabbles making the news recently. (Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith comes to mind, even if it ended amicably, and now Ed Sheeran is being sued for alleged plagiarism as well.)
These kinds of stories stand out to me because I’m the kind of guy who frequently hears similarities between two songs that other people dismiss with “No, that’s just a common chord progression” or “No, that’s just a feature of this genre of music” or “No, you’re crazy.” For example, I think the old song “Smoke Rings” sounds remarkably like a downtempo version of the overworld theme from Super Mario Bros. 2.
I’m okay with accepting that the connection I’m making only exists in my head, but there’s this one similarity in particular that always jumps into mind when I read stories like these, because I think it’s a stronger connection to most: the Deep Purple track “April” and the dungeon theme from Legend of Zelda. And yes, there’s something slightly more thrilling to me about the prospect of a song working its way across the pop cultural continuum and ending up in a video game, at least in some form, years later.
“April” is the final track to Deep Purple’s third album, released in 1969. It’s a doozy. You probably know Deep Purple as the bad that performs “Smoke on the Water” or the hard rock version of that song from I Know What You Did Last Summer, but “April” is worth a listen too. It’s grand and orchestral, especially in its intro, and wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack to some medieval fantasy sequence, I say.
Or maybe that association comes from the apparent Legend of Zelda connection. At around the 2:00-mark in “April,” there’s a brief section that should sound familiar to anyone who played through the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. It’s the bit that concludes the game’s dungeon theme before the track loops back to the beginning. (That dungeon theme isn’t very long, and if you played through the game, you’d hear this section of music hundreds of times over.)
I made a video that lines the sections up side-by-side, in case that’s helpful.
Given my history of the playing “thing is like other thing” game, I’d be willing to write this similarity off as a random, meaningless one, but there’s slightly more to the story. Koji Kondo is the music whiz responsible for a lot of Nintendo’s most memorable compositions, including all the music for the original Legend of Zelda. What’s interesting about the Deep Purple connection is that Kondo himself has admitted to being a fan of the band. In a 2005 Nintendo Power interview, Kondo even said he once played in a band that frequently covered Deep Purple, so the odds that he would be familiar with “April” would be fairly high—at least as probable as Led Zeppelin having heard “Taurus.” Of course, in the end, the jury found that Zeppelin hadn’t stolen those guitar riffs—or at least that if they had, they weren’t substantial enough to warrant Zeppelin having to pay off anyone as a result.
I suppose, then, that I have to conclude this post on a note of confusion. I don’t understand how we can make a legal differentiation between homage, sample, legitimate borrowing, and lawsuit-worthy theft. (And yes, I have thought about how it’s notable that the multimillion-dollar exception to the rule would be a song titled “Blurred Lines.”) So I pose the question to anyone reading this who understands music or music law better than I do: Am I confused because these distinctions are better made by people who understand music on a fundamental level that I don’t? Or is it just that no one knows—and that every post-“Blurred Lines” lawsuit is gambling in favor of the odds of some judge or jury saying, “Yeah I hear it. Here, have a wheelbarrow full of money”? Is it weird that laypeople, musically speaking, would ever be given the opportunity to issue a verdict about something that seems like it should take inside knowledge of the music industry to understand?
Meanwhile, I keep “April” on my playlists in case I ever encounter a situation that needs to feel more epic. And every time I get two minutes in, I get to think about Legend of Zelda, whether or not it’s just a coincidence.