“Stairway to Heaven” has been a staple of rock radio for decades, and still gets regular airplay here at WZLX and all over the world. It’s arguably the biggest rock song in history. But now, just before ‘Stairway’ gets a fresh reissue, the band that for decades has accused Led Zeppelin of stealing a guitar riff from them is finally lawyering up.
A detailed new report from Businessweek says the now-defunct band Spirit is working with a team of lawyers to build a case against Led Zeppelin and take them to court over ‘Stairway’, saying it ripped its iconic opening riff from a song they wrote back in 1968 called “Taurus”.
Spirit toured with Led Zeppelin as the opener in 1968, when the latter band were making their American debut. They argue that this tour is when Jimmy Page heard a riff from “Taurus” and re-worked it into the opening notes for ‘Stairway’.
As you will hear at 0:44, Spirit may have a case for infringement:
The original writer of the song, Randy Wolfe (better known as Randy California) passed away in 1997, but a trust that handles his royalties is teaming up with Spirit’s founding bassist Mark Andes. Besides the obvious financial compensation, the band’s goal is to get California the writing credit for ‘Stairway’ that they feel he rightfully deserves.
This would not be an unprecedented case for Led Zeppelin. The rock icons have gone to court – and reached settlements – over other famous songs in their back catalog. The Businessweek report has a handy chart with the notable cases, but here’s a quick rundown:
- In the early ’70s, the publisher for Chester “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett reached a settlement over “The Lemon Song”, arguing that the guitar riff and lyrics were too similar.
- In the mid-’80s, folk singer Anne Bredon reached a settlement for royalties and a writing credit for “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, a song of the same title she wrote in 1960 that contained many similar elements.
- In 1987, Willie Dixon settled with a writing credit for “Whole Lotta Love”, which contained a similar melody to a song he wrote for Muddy Waters called “You Need Love”.
- In 2012, songwriter Jake Holmes settled with the band over “Dazed and Confused”, which had the same title and distinctly similar bassline to a song Holmes wrote in 1967.
British rock band Led Zeppelin, (left – right): John Paul Jones, John Bonham (1948 – 1980), Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, pose in front of an their private airliner The Starship, 1973. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
In other words, this is nothing new for Led Zeppelin. They’ve been accused – and apparently caught in the act – of ripping off other bands’ material for decades. But ardent Zeppelin supporters might point to the “All music is derivative” argument. There is only so much one can do with the notes, beats, and sounds that music contains, and even if it’s completely unintentional a song could inadvertently sound similar to something already written.
But in this case, the similarities and the bands’ past working relationship may prove too strong a case for Zeppelin to overcome. Businessweek says both sides will employ musicologists to dissect the riffs in each song to help determine whether ‘Stairway’ is similar enough to “Taurus” to give a partial writing credit to California.
If they eventually go to court and settle, Led Zeppelin probably won’t be hurt much by the case, financially or otherwise. But arguably the most iconic song in rock and roll would officially be tainted. It would no longer be solely a creation of Led Zeppelin. It would be branded with the mark of another artist.
Led Zeppelin took sounds from artists that came before them, blended them into their own uniquely heavy style, and simply executed them better than most or all bands of their time. But at times they’ve been caught speeding. The ‘Stairway’ case might be just the latest example of that.
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