I hit the many streets and guitar shops of London to find out.
There are three sounds that all human beings can universally recognise from any distance, at any volume. One of them, of course, is the sound of a baby crying – a Darwinian instinct instilled to protect our offspring and the future of the species. The slow pulse of a beating heart is second, wherein humanity has been granted the ability to detect life or the absence of it. But the third and final sound is the most important, because the third and final sound all human beings have been genetically engineered to recognise from birth is the opening eight bars of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”.
Yet, as we speak, an ongoing court case is arguing that the most recognisable rock song of all time didn’t come from Led Zeppelin, nor an ancient serpent-cock-scripture, or the brain of Christ, but was actually stolen from the mind of Randy Wolfe: a very real guitarist from the band Spirit, whom Zeppelin supported on their American tour. The original track by Spirit was called “Taurus”, and was recorded three years before Zeppelin managed to release “Stairway to Heaven”. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the tears of my guitar teacher crumbling onto the floor.
But nevermind us, or a courtroom, or an internet comments section – what do the real old timer Led Zeppelin hardcores think about "Stairway to Heaven" potentially being as hijacked as "Hotline Bling"? Has this gross betrayal left them incensed with rage? Where does this leave the notion of Real Music? And is it affecting guitar sales? I decided to head on into the oldest London heartland of Led Zeppelin fans – where Jimmy and Robert themselves used to roam – to approach random people on the street, vet them for fandom, and then question their beliefs.
Denmark Street. Standing in front of its tight, long and slender Victorian builds, I could almost hear the typewriters and romance of the music publishers that populated Tin Pan Alley for decades. Well, I might have been able to if it wasn’t for the fuck off Crossrail building site that has swallowed the area. The defining apex of London’s musical heritage, half-dismantled and destroyed – if ever there was a place to convince you that legend can simply be demolished and eradicated, this is it. It feels particularly symbolic for Zeppelin today. if there’s an area to find one of their fans, it’s noodling in one of Denmark Street’s dozen guitar shops. Maybe I would even witness one of their hearts break, in real time.
FREDDIE, 60-SOMETHING, FAN
Noisey: Hi Freddy. How far does your relationship with Zeppelin go back?
Freddie: I saw them three times in the seventies, so yeah, you could say that it’s a pretty long one.
Wow, right. So you’ve really been there from the beginning?
I’ve had moments where I’ve tuned in and out but they’ve always been there for me.
So would it change your opinion if you found out that a court is currently deciding on whether their most iconic song was actually stolen from a dead man?
They may have stolen "Stairway to Heaven", Freddie!
Oh... Is this the court case that’s been in the news? I’ve heard about this nonsense.
Nonsense? A judge thinks there’s something in it. That changes things, doesn’t it?
Does it fuck? I couldn’t give a shit, mate. Look, everybody stole things back then. You’re talking every band that released an album in that period, so it was hardly just Led Zeppelin.
But does that make it right?
There’s no right or wrong here. This is rock and roll!
I can tell your heart is not for breaking.
KEN, 66, MUSIC FESTIVAL PROMOTER; THIS AUTHOR; BERNIE, 66, MUSICIAN
Noisey: Hello lads! How long have you lads been hip to the Zep?
Ken: Goodness, where do I start? Well, Bernie and I used to be in a band in the sixties with Jim McCarthy, who played in the Yardbirds and in many ways was the original drummer for Led Zeppelin.
Wow! Do you still play?
Ken: I don’t, but he does.
Bernie: Yeah, I play in the band for people like Chris Farlowe from the sixties if you remember him and a million other people.
Ken: And I run a festival in California by the name of ‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’. It’s interesting for you, really, because Robert Plant comes every year.
Wow! Seriously? I've actually randomly approached someone who knows Robert Plant?
Ken: You could say that, yes.
Interesting, interesting. My senses are tingling. What do you think he’d say if I asked: ‘Robert, did you and Jimmy really write ‘Stairway to Heaven’ all those years ago?'
Haven’t you seen the news, mate? There’s a court case, where it’s being put forward that Zeppelin stole their most famous song from a band called Spirit. Would you like to hear the song they ripped off? I have it here.
Ken: Absolutely not.
Ken: It just seems like nonsense to me. I don’t want to taint the memory of a piece; it deserves more than to be tampered with this long after release. Especially when it’s all to do with money.
The truth is important, Ken. For what is life, without any truth?
Ken: Since when did that become apparent?
TREVOR, MAN IN GUITAR SHOP
[I entered a guitar shop in Soho and clocked Trevor actually playing "Stairway to Heaven" while I was there.]
Noisey: Hello, there. Fan of the little known rock band Spirit are we?
You were playing “Taurus” right? By Spirit? I’d recognise that riff anywhere.
Ha! That was "Stairway to Heaven", mate.
I could’ve sworn it was a song by Spirit?
You’re joking, right?
No. Let’s put it on. Do you have speakers?
[The shop assistant Googles the song before finding today’s news at the top of the search. With a wide-eyed glance, he clicks through to YouTube. I watch him reading each line as that descending run plays.]
It’s the same isn’t it? Note for note, the same.
Sort of, yeah. At least the most memorable bit is.
Yeah. Will you ever listen to them again?
Well, that’s a bit much. It’s like Picasso says, “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Have you heard the "Viva La Vida" Joe Satriani rip-off? That’s so much worse than this. Coldplay completely ripped off their track from him. It makes the Zeppelin thing seem like child’s play. Have you heard "Viva La Vida"?
JIMMY, FILM CREATIVE DIRECTOR
Noisey: So describe, in the shortest way possible, what the name ‘Jimmy Page’ means to you?
Jimmy: Charisma. Hair. Inventiveness.
Ok. Now hold that thought and bottle it. What if I was to tell you that a judge today ruled that they may have stolen “Stairway to Heaven”?
Yes. Now tell me in the shortest way possible, how do you feel when I say Jimmy Page?
Shocked. Is that real?
Oh for crying out loud. How heart breaking. Just pay up and give the poor man some money, for pity’s sake, Jimmy. Isn’t the Tower House enough?
Will you ever listen to "Stairway to Heaven" again?
Well, I don’t think it’s possible not to, my dear.
JACK BOND; 76; LEGENDARY SURREALIST FILM DIRECTOR
Noisey: Holy fuck, you’re Jack Bond.
Jack: Holy fuck, who are you?
My name is Oobah. I love your films. The Blueback Hussar was unbelievable!
You don’t have an opinion on Led Zeppelin do you? I’d like to crowbar you into a piece I’m writing.
I quite like their stuff, yeah.
Well, you know "Stairway to Heaven"? A judge has declared today that it may have been stolen from a band they toured with years before.
That’s curious. It’s difficult to talk about this. The truth is too detached now; so much time has passed that you’d never find it. Time has a habit of making things descend into murkiness or sludge, especially when there’s money involved.
Wow. Anyway, see ya later mate. Good on ya!
Aside from Mr Bond, it felt like there was a matter of defiance in the Led Zeppelin heartlands. As though anyone over the age of 35 was required to be utterly belligerent whenever I suggested Led Zeppelin may not have written absolutely everything they released. It was almost as if the sands of time couldn’t weather a legend that had been cast in stone, even in the heaviest of storms.
I’d retraced the footsteps and tributaries into the old Soho haunts, record shops and bars that Page, Plant and co had been known to frequent since the seventies, and not one person wanted to speak out against their rock god masters. But I knew better than that. If there was one place in the world that took rock music seriously, one chapel where those who believe in authenticity could head to in dire times of need, then it was around the corner. A “high-energy vibe” with a “cool, rock taste” – I knew where I needed to be.
Expecting to see flags at half-mast and public outpourings of grief, I went into the Hard Rock Café. Passing through its darkened doors, I asked to see Jimmy Page’s guitar on display. After mentioning the words Led Zeppelin, eager helper Davide excitedly took me to the front of the queue.
Davide: So here it is, man, Jimmy Page’s guitar from the seventies!
Noisey: But the guitar, Davide... is it even real? If I touch it, will it just dissolve in front of my eyes?
You’re not allowed to touch the stuff, sorry man.
I just don’t know what’s real any more. Didn’t you hear about "Stairway to Heaven"?
Man, that’s my favourite song. Or one of them. I busk most days in Camden and I always play this song. It makes people feel good, it makes them feel happy.
Yeah, man. I love to play it.
I’m glad it makes you happy.
And with that, I felt as if my journey had come to an end. I decided not to tell Davide about the court case. It didn't seem right. It seemed that, no matter what evidence was posed or whether Page or Plant are found guilty of stealing the song in court from May 10th didn’t matter. Empowered and nodding to their own existence, Led Zeppelin fans were going to carry on living in the fantastical reality that the group’s oeuvre created for them. The song remains the same. Life goes on. We will all one day walk up the stairway to Heaven.
You can follow Oobah on Twitter