For better or worse, everyone is familiar with “Stairway to Heaven.” The song was the soundtrack to slow dances at middle school, traffic on the freeway and that stupid air-guitaring you did when you thought no one was watching. Since it was released in 1971, the song’s ubiquity has overshadowed almost the entirety of Led Zeppelin’s discography. The famous descending chord opening riff was overdone to the point of nausea even by 1992, so in 2016 it’s interesting to see the song in the news again.
In 1968, the band Spirit took a spirited group of Brits formerly known as The New Yardbirds on their first American tour. Spirit’s self-titled debut was successful enough, hitting the Top 40 charts and producing at least one catchy song in “Taurus.” Let’s take a listen:
Is it really a stretch to hear “Stairway to Heaven” in that opening guitar melody? Of course not. And for the first time, a judge is agreeing with that statement. Los Angeles District Judge Gary Klausner decided on Friday that a jury must decide how fervent the similarity is. Hilariously, the co-writers of “Stairway,” OBE’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, claimed that “the chord progressions were so cliched that they did not deserve copyright protection.”
The case is being pursued by Michael Skidmore, representing the late Randy California, founder of Spirit and songwriter of “Taurus.” Shortly before California’s untimely drowning death in 1997, he was asked about the musical similarities between the two songs:
Listener: Speaking of Led Zeppelin, the guitar introduction to your 1967 composition, “Taurus,” is a dead ringer for Zeppelin’s introduction to “Stairway to Heaven,” released in 1971. Did they ever acknowledge their artistic debt to you? They must of known “Taurus,” having performed as your warmup band.
California: Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact… I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, “Thank you,” never said, “Can we pay you some money for it?” It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad! [laughs]
Disregarding all of the evidence and actual musical similarities, the fact alone that Zeppelin’s early work is a big game of “Guess the Seminal Blues Recording This Song is Based Off Of!” should be enough to convince a jury that the band was at least very capable of theft. And if you think that this is a big to-do over a couple of measly notes, clearly your lines are a little blurred.
None of this is to take away from Led Zeppelin’s rightful place as one of the most successful and popular bands of all time. They have legitimately great songs that (presumably) weren’t taken from distinct other sources, but “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t one of them. The case goes to trial on May 10.
Do you think “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” sound alike? Let us know below.