Spirit vs. Led Zeppelin: The Stairway to Heaven Lawsuit

My guess is most people know the story by now. If not, here it is. If so, consider this a refresher:

To summarize: Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page must face a U.S. jury trial over whether they stole opening chords for “Stairway to Heaven.” The song they allegedly stole from is called “Taurus” by Spirit, a considerably lesser-known band. (But fairly popular in their day).

The lawsuit was brought by a lawyer for the late Randy California (née Wolfe), who swam out to sea one day and never came back. His heirs say they have wanted to sue for years but have not had the financial means to do so.

The defendants said, among other things, that the “chord progressions were so clichéd they did not deserve copyright protection and that Wolfe was a songwriter-for-hire who had no copyright claim.” (Maybe. But if they didn’t steal it, wouldn’t it just be easier to say that?)

If you’ve never heard the comparison, you’re by now probably dying to do so. This brief clip compares the two contested parts. This is one of the better comparisons because first it plays “Taurus,” then “Stairway,” then mixes them together:

Now I am not always good at these infringement suits. I could not at all hear the similarities between, say, “My Sweet Lord,” and “He’s So Fine” at first. But George Harrison supposedly lost $2 Million on that one.

But this one?  Are you kidding me? And unlike Harrison’s, this appears not to have been a subconscious lift. For one thing, the Led Zeppelin we know and love were not always headlining Madison Square Garden. In fact in 1968, before Zep released their first album, they were a supporting act for, among others, Spirit.

Spirit had done an album and had a terrific song called “I Got A Line On You.” (On my iPod to this day. Guitar solo by Randy California). As to Spirit’s influence on Zeppelin, I will here quote Wikipedia:

“[Zeppelin] incorporated parts of Spirit’s song “Fresh Garbage” in an extended medley during their early 1969 concerts. Spirit also appeared with Led Zeppelin at two outdoor music festivals in July 1969.

Jimmy Page’s use of a theremin has been attributed to his seeing Randy California use one . . . and Guitar World magazine stated “California’s most enduring legacy may well be the fingerpicked acoustic theme of the song ‘Taurus’, which Jimmy Page lifted virtually note for note for the introduction to ‘ Stairway to Heaven.”” (Guitar World said that!)

Add to this the fact that Zep have a track record of this sort of thing. Several songs on their first album which were originally attributed to Page have now had their writer credits changed and royalties paid out. I think there are maybe three or four different songs that fit that bill, most notably “Dazed and Confused” which a guy named Jake Holmes clearly wrote and which Page put his name on. They later settled out of court.

So, listen, I love Zep’s music as much as anybody else. In fact I plan on a series of posts about them in the not-too-distant future. This issue doesn’t change my enjoyment of their music or admiration of their place in rock history.

But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Page has a history of doing this, it’s very well-known and I think he got caught here with his knickers down.

If you’d like to see a guitarist give a technical comparison, check out the following site:

In a different video, he speculates on whether or not Page lifted it. As much as it pains him, he admits that due to Page’s previous history, he may well have done so. Or even if he lifted it subconsciously, he should have done the right thing and given Randy California writer’s credit.

He makes the point that The Stones did this on a song called “Anybody Seen My Baby.” Once they realized they’d subconsciously copied K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving,” they called her and gave her co-writing credit. They did the right thing.

By the year 2008, “Stairway to Heaven” had earned a reported $562 Million in royalties.

A trial is scheduled for May 10.

Note – See update here.

6 thoughts on “Spirit vs. Led Zeppelin: The Stairway to Heaven Lawsuit

  1. I agree with you that credits must be given and especially on the fact that this doesn’t in any way lessen the greatness of those Zeppelin songs! Way too many fans seem to be dismissive nowadays of the band because of the that – and what I say is, they may be assholes for not giving credit to anybody, but those classic songs are still classic.

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  2. I listened to taurus greatest hits to see the fuss. Its an A minor arpeggio but has 4 notes while stairway intro has 7 notes in it’s arpeggiated Am mode which resolves on a different note or octave.. Same mode. Do you have any idea how many songs have been written in A minor? The way the strings are plucked are very different also and on 12 string at that
    . How about Jim Croce’s time in a bottle. Shall we dig him up too and sue him? Pagey! You are one of THE greatest ever period. This spirit guy is still struggling from the grave.

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  3. Well I agree with you that Page is one of the greatest and a million songs have been written in Amin. But Page knew these guys and the whole feel of it is very, very similar. So I don’t know, we’ll have to see how this one goes. If the jury thinks a couple of similar notes isn’t enough, to sue, no issue. But if, as Zep’s lawyer says, the chords are cliched, I am definitely writing my own song with that intro. Totally up for grabs.

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  4. The interesting thing is that it goes beyond whether it has just the same notes. There are so many things that do feature the same progression but what the jury needs to decide is whether it’s both the notes and give a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’.

    As a Zep fan there’s no way to get around that they’d lifted things before (doesn’t everyone lift from somewhere) but when I heard the Spirit track for the first time last week when this came up in the news I admit I thought “shit. They’re gonna have to pay out”.

    It’s more than those lifted notes and I think a jury will feel like what they borrowed does transcend this core structure. They may well have written the song in relative seclusion in a Welsh cottage but they certainly plugged Taurus straight into the intro.

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  5. Well said. That’s exactly it. Consider that My Sweet Lord and He’s So Fine couldn’t possibly be mire different. And yet Harrison had to pay out. This is a lot closer. And so yeah, it breaks my heart too. The other commenter was right – Pagey’s the man. But let’s be honest and admit the man has a bit of a problem. 😦

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