Inspiration and Theft: A Followup

Here’s a possible timeline of that classical guitar passage that was under dispute at the Stairway to Heaven plagiarism trial:
 
Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo” by Giovanni Battista Granata (1659)

Video description: “Extremely similar to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”; the arpeggio can be heard at 0:32 in this 17th Century Composition titled “Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo” by Giovanni Battista Granata.”

 
My Funny Valentine (from the 1937 Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical Babes in Arms)

The performers notice the similarity.
 
Taurus by Spirit (1968)

The relevant passage begins about 0:48 into the piece

 

Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin (1971)

 

Is There Anybody Out There? by Pink Floyd (1979)

The classical guitar piece, which was allegedly contributed by producer Bob Ezrin, also bears a striking similarity to the passage in question, especially at the end.
 
My source for many of these pieces is an article from Guitar World,
Five Songs That Sound Like Stairway to Heaven“. I don’t completely agree with the point the article is making: the issue wasn’t just a chord progression, but also a striking melodic similarity over that progression. Still, as you can hear from the above videos, variations on that melodic motif have been around for a long time. Another song referenced in the article, Davey Graham’s version of “Cry Me a River”, does use the same chord progression, but its melody is quite different. Still worth listening to, though!

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Inspiration and Theft

Today Led Zeppelin (or, more precisely, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) were cleared of plagiarism charges related to their most iconic song, “Stairway to Heaven”.

Led Zeppelin do have a history of taking bits and pieces of other people’s songs. Taking elements from other songs and building new songs out of them, or incorporating them into new songs, is as old a practice as songwriting itself. Some will even tell you quite openly about how they did it. Elvis Costello, in his Rhino reissue liner notes and then in his autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, goes into considerable detail about the inspirations both of his songs and of the arrangements he and his band The Attractions devised for these songs. His point, I think, is that, if you have an original voice and bring enough disparate influences to bear, the result will not be a copy of anything.

This should not be confused with simply taking other people’s songs, making a new arrangement or adaptation of them and then claiming credit. Led Zeppelin had to settle out of court with a few songwriters for doing that. In the folk domain it is an accepted practice to make adaptations of traditional tunes. Bob Dylan is well known for taking traditional songs,  reworking them, and adding new lyrics. For example, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an adaptation of an old spiritual known as “No More Auction Block For Me”. You can hear Dylan singing that song on the first of his Bootleg Series albums. It’s not a copy- the melodic similarities are there, but there are differences too- but it is melodically derivative. It is said that Woody Guthrie hardly wrote any original melodies at all.

Such adaptations are one thing when you’re messing with traditional tunes. No particular person is known to have written these songs, after all. It’s another matter when you do it with a song that does, under copyright, belong to someone else, as Led Zeppelin found when blues singer Willie Dixon took them to court over a couple of songs including “Whole Lotta Love”.

So Led Zeppelin have a reputation for plagiarism. But did they steal from Spirit’s song Taurus to build their “Stairway to Heaven”? Today a jury said no, and as a songwriter I am relieved by this verdict. Yes, there is a classical guitar figure that is (for three bars each time) common to both songs, which is also common to a number of other pieces, including a section of Pink Floyd’s “Is There Anybody Out There?”. Copyrighting riffs and chord progressions strikes me as a bad idea.

 

Expecting complete originality in any work of art is absurd. Any artist works within preexisting forms, is influenced by what others have done, attempts to find their own way of recreating the magic that, for them, exists in their favourite pieces, and hopefully manages to make their own thing out of it all. That’s the best you can hope for.

 

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Being Here, Because Where Else Would I Be?

This came out a year ago:

Being Here 2

It’s a compilation EP featuring songs from my three albums, including alternate mixes of some tracks. I originally planned to make CD copies and send them to radio stations, but other things in life had to take priority over those plans. I still hope to get around to it eventually. Meanwhile, happy listening!

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When I’m 74

Paul McCartney turned 74 the other day. At least he’s still around – this year we are seeing a definite thinning out of the older generations of rock musicians. Anyway, in honour of the occasion I am posting a couple of covers of his songs.

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Recording at Home

Pete Townshend in his liner notes for his demos album Scoop (1983):

When I have come up against any kind of problem in the past, I have always dealt with it through music, either through writing a song or literally recording the problem away therapeutically. I have recorded alone at home or more recently in my own or other pro-studios for pleasure, for catharsis, for solitude, for fulfillment and most of all for fun. For many years, recording was my one and only hobby.

Home recording has become more frequent in the years since. Although rock musicians incorporated elements of home demos into official recordings as early as the late 1960’s (including tracks by the Rolling Stones and the Small Faces in 1968), and Paul McCartney recorded much of his debut solo album at home, you needed to be a fairly wealthy musician to get together the kind of gear required to make recordings that could be put out on record. Now you can make decent, if somewhat lo-fi, recordings for a fraction of the cost. And since recording budgets have mostly vanished into thin air, anyone who isn’t a wealthy musician isn’t going to have the money to camp out for weeks on end in a professional recording studio. I saw a documentary recently about the studio where Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers  recorded Damn the Torpedoes. That studio closed recently and the people who worked there said in the documentary that they couldn’t see a place for a studio like theirs in the modern recording industry.

It’s a shame in a way. But musicians have long enjoyed recording in more informal settings. Perhaps the most renowned home demo album of all is The Basement Tapes, recorded by Bob Dylan and The Band in Bob Dylan’s home in Woodstock, NY over the summer and fall of 1967. At the time those recordings were never intended to be heard by the public, although they were soon bootlegged. Part of the charm of these recordings is the relaxed atmosphere in which a group of friends gets together and plays a bunch of tunes- and discovers something magical in how they can play those tunes. The Band went on to record their 1969 eponymous LP in a rented house made into a temporary recording studio.

For me, recording at home means that whenever I have an idea I can record it quickly, although I am limited in what I can record, chiefly by space. There is no space for a drum set, although I have a couple of percussion instruments. And although I have a keyboard we don’t currently have space to take it out of storage. I have been able to use drum and keyboard samples from http://www.looperman.com/. And it is now easier to share demos and experiments with the public, through SoundCloud.
 

 

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Fifty Years Ago

In June 1966, the Beatles released the first fruits of their spring 1966 recording sessions, the Paperback Writer/Rain single. “Paperback Writer” combined Whoish power pop with Beach Boys-like harmonies (yes, they are singing “Frere Jacques”!). The B-side, though, was possibly the first released recording by a pop band to include a backwards recording (John Lennon’s singing on the fade).

Recently I recorded an acoustic version that nevertheless also has some backwards stuff going on. Since I left out the chorus my version emphasizes the droning aspect of the song even more than the original.

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“Apples and Oranges” and other Obscure Covers

An article I recently read has some advice for singer-songwriters doing live gigs: sure, sing your own songs, that’s what you’re there for, but for God’s sake break it up with some covers…covers people in the audience will actually know:

There’s no sense in playing an obscure cover from the 80s by a band only 327 people in Australia know. Play a song, in your style, that everyone in your crowd will enjoy.

I understand, I really do. People like the familiar. Unfortunately, I prefer playing the more obscure songs. Maybe it’s because if fewer people know the song, people in the audience are less likely to have expectations of how they’re supposed to sound. I also really dislike the idea of doing a song that, to my mind, has already been done to death. Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is a fine song, but I’ve no interest in playing it because so many other people do. What’s the point? That’s what I think.

Now, Pink Floyd is not an obscure band, that’s for sure. The 1967 Syd Barrett-led incarnation of the band is less well known, more of a cult thing in North America. A lot of the musicians I know know about it, but that’s not the same thing, is it?

Within the oeuvre of 1967 Pink Floyd “Apples and Oranges” is an obscurity. It was a flop single released in November 1967, rarely if ever performed by the band except in a couple of promotional videos. In his book on Pink Floyd A Saucerful of Secrets music critic Nicholas Schaffner described the song as “glaringly out of tune”. I first got to hear it from a vinyl copy of an obscure compilation called Masters of Rock. Here it is:

I haven’t actually performed it live but I did recently record my own version (see above), and it is currently the second most popular track on my SoundCloud (behind the “Golden Girls” theme). It is actually played more than songs like “Across the Universe”, “Eye of the Tiger”, and “I’ll Fly Away”.

 

Still, I haven’t actually played it live. Not yet anyway. If I want to bring out a song at a show that people know, it tends to be “Across the Universe”. I can do something with that one.

I should probably start doing the “Golden Girls” theme for variety, though.

 

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As a Mellotron

A few years ago I wrote a poem:

Woozy as a Mellotron, a misty version of magic music ran through my mind
as a stream of consciousness. When the stream runs dry, will I cease to exist?

Exitement flashes pierced through the mist of waking sleep like lightning,
and the loud thunder startled me. Was I free? No, it was a false alarm.

When this road ends I’d better find new friends, I say to myself.
This mistiness must be bad for my health, there must be something I missed.

When this stream runs dry, will I cease to exist?

I believe that I will leave fading traces in people and places:

Some are fading
even as we speak,
but death leaks
through life
and life through death,
or at least
that’s one way to see things.

If you don’t like it, there are others, but I have to ask you not to argue with me right now,
for now I yawn constantly

I’m as woozy as Mellotron music
emanating through a misted dawn.

 

Later on, I took the same idea and made a song out of it.

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It’s About Time (for that revolution)

I don’t know if Bernie Sanders will succeed in spearheading that political revolution of which he speaks but you know…it’s about time. Includes electric guitar playing by Shane Watt and piano, organ, and electric guitar samples from http://www.looperman.com/. I play acoustic guitar, tambourine, hand drum and do a whole lot of singing.

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A Guest Appearance

I make an appearance as guest vocalist and lyricist on “HJKL” on Swall’s album A Swall Kinda Feeling, just released. One of Swall’s members is Shane Watt, who’s been a producer and collaborator on my own albums since 2011. This album is an eclectic mix of styles. Why not skank along to the reggae feel of this track even if it is a winter day…although the lyrics reflect a bleak urban landscape.
 

 

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