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.