“It don’t matter what you do, / Hey, hey it’s all up to you.”
You have to be of a certain age to appreciate the irony in this permissive paean, sung in 1977 by Randy California (né Wolfe), the guitarist of the rock band Spirit. Earlier this year, a trustee for the late Wolfe’s estate implied that it matters very much what you do, attempting to sue the rock legends Led Zeppelin for stealing Randy’s music. The lawsuit, heard in June, alleged that Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page lifted the famous fingerpicked acoustic opening of “Stairway to Heaven” (1971) from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
Led Zeppelin are no strangers to such accusations. Their iconic “Whole Lotta Love,” from their 1969 album Led Zeppelin II, brought a whole lotta trouble when the blues artist Willie Dixon realized that it used some of the lyrics from his 1962 song “You Need Love.” On the same album, “Bring It On Home” borrowed from another of Dixon’s songs (this time with an identical title), while “The Lemon Song” was partly derived from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.”
This doesn’t exhaust the accusations of musical theft that Page and songwriting partner Robert Plant have faced. Part of the problem, says the music psychologist Richard Hass, of Philadelphia University, was that, particularly in their early days, Led Zeppelin had the habit, time-honored in blues music, of jamming around a known tune to construct new songs. Maybe they just got a bit lazy about hiding the origins, Hass says. Their main problem, though, was probably making enough money that a plagiarism lawsuit becomes worthwhile: “Stairway to Heaven” is estimated to have earned Page and Plant almost $60 million.