Or did it?
“I think it’s more tribute than it is stealing,” said Justin Fitz, a guitarist, Zeppelin aficionado and friend of mine. “When Stevie (Ray Vaughan) is covering a Hendrix song, he’s saluting the music, paying tribute — not stealing it.”
To be fair, covering a song is different from making someone else’s riff into one of the most legendary songs of all time and generating endless fame as the band that took it the distance. But, in any case, musicians follow suit as all artists, innovators and icons do: They stand on the shoulders of giants.
I suppose Zeppelin and not Spirit (whose guitarist supposedly wrote the original riff for “Stairway”) is the giant in this case, but the world of music is an additive form and culture. Big or small, inspiration has to come from somewhere around you — like the old writer’s tenant, “Write what you know.” Nothing is sacred, and very little in the creative world is “original.”
Today, the overlays between creative works are becoming increasingly dramatic. Back during the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps something as minute as a guitar riff may have mattered. But over 40 years later, not so much.
We see extreme examples dominating popular music culture, in the form of tireless remixes and a genre shamelessly called mash-ups. In this sense, music isn’t so much stolen as it is shared.
Regurgitating a beat and a bass drop over a song that wasn’t written for hype does get on my nerves, I’ll admit. But music samples and innovative collaborations are breaking ground and twisting genres into new and exciting forms.
Love him or hate him (I will assume the ladder), Kanye West has been the master of using samples and other techniques since his 2004 debut Grammy winner, “The College Dropout.” Samples are pieces of other songs — so, by all accounts, they’re “stolen.” But the way he uses samples exemplifies how modern musicians proudly and faithfully meld together old and new music.
Take the song “Gold Digger.” Jami Fox sings the chorus in his uncanny Ray Charles voice following his Best Actor performance in “Ray.” There is a scene in “Ray” where Ray Charles first plays “I Got a Woman” for his wife on the piano. She slams the windows shut, shocked and appalled that he would take a sacred church melody and transform it into his at-the-time blasphemous and unorthodox soul/R&B style. The song was released in 1954.
Jump forward to 2005. “Gold Digger” features what’s called an interpolation of the “I Got a Woman” lyrics, which changes the wording but sounds like that same chorus. This creates humor, irony and a sense that Kanye’s music has its roots somewhere in our cultural history. The effect, in my opinion, is elegant.
Another example of music reconnecting with its layered past is a part in Jay-Z’s title song “Holy Grail” from his 2013 album “Magna Karta/Holy Grail,” where he and Justin Timberlake sing a spin-off of Kurt Cobain’s ‘Teen Spirit’ chorus: “And we’re all just entertainers, and we’re stupid and contagious.” It speaks to the album’s recurring theme of fame and its pitfalls, and this homage underscores Jay-Z’s reflections upon fame and fortune’s sometimes-tragic outcomes.
Is this stealing, or is it celebration? And how does this relate to the Zeppelin fiasco?
I argue very simply: Writers write what they know or what they’ve read.
Modern artists use and rearrange pop culture symbols. Musicians take what’s been done before and improve it. And we’re all aware of the rampant “remake syndrome” in Hollywood cinema.
The credit for “Stairway to Heaven” is and always will be due to Led Zeppelin.
“Most of the hits off their first album were covers, anyway,” Fitz told me. They took the blues form, lit a hard rock flame beneath it, and alas, the Zeppelin made of led didn’t sink in the studio or on stage. It soared, and it’s still flying.
So, the song doesn’t remain the same, after all. The four members of Led Zeppelin sold their souls to the devil, but it appears there’s no sin here — just a crummy and laughable lawsuit.
— By Alexander Sinn, Tribune community columnist