I should say at the outset that I’m a ride-or-die Led Zeppelin fan. I owned their posters and t-shirts and a scratchy bootleg of their last show ever. I learned how to play the drums by figuring out the beat to “When the Levee Breaks.” I even like John Paul Jones.
I’m surprised it’s taken so long for Zeppelin to get called out. They’ve covered, ripped off, appropriated and approximated the sounds of many other performers (albeit very well, imo). Like their peers at the time they shamelessly copied from black American blues music. On paper it looks kinda bad.
However, The New Yorker’s Alex Ross thinks the case against “Stairway” is shaky when you consider the influence Baroque & Renaissance music had in pop music at the time, and on bands like Spirit and Zeppelin in particular. Ross further says the “issue” began way before these two bands ever started up (I bolded a few things in here).
[I]f “Stairway to Heaven” is plagiarized, so is a good portion of the classical canon. Bach, the master of them all, routinely helped himself to the music of colleagues and predecessors. To name one of countless examples, the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor takes off from André Raison’s Trio en Passacaille, in the same key. Of course, the modern concept of intellectual property did not exist during the Baroque; a musician such as Bach was considered not an individual genius but a craftsman working with material in circulation. This raises the question of whether the mammoth achievement of Bach and other canonical composers did not in some way depend on a culture of borrowing. Would Bach have been able to reach so high if he had not stood upon an edifice of extant music?
The millennial-old Gregorian chant is in the DNA of Western music. Once the chant became the foundation for writing large-scale, multi-part Masses and motets in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, composers were given a laboratory for developing what became modern harmony, counterpoint and rhythm. And as the Mass developed, the more commonplace the source of the Mass’s foundational melody the better.