Although it is one of the greatest songs of all time and has earned Led Zeppelin more than $550 million, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ might have been plagiarised from a song by American band Spirit. Here’s what we know so far.
In 2014, a lawsuit was brought against Jimmy Page, lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin and writer of ‘Stairway To Heaven’, by a trust acting on behalf of Randy California, who wrote the Spirit song ‘Taurus, alleging that the introduction to the famed song was stolen by Page, which he denies.
While the plaintiff can’t take any previous royalties from the original recording, as it is protected by the statute of limitations, any future royalties could be paid, as well as royalties for a previously unreleased version of the song that appeared on a 2014 reissue of Led Zeppelin IV, if the plaintiff is successful.
In court a few days ago the attorney for the plaintiff, Francis Malofiy, played the Spirit song ‘Taurus’ to Page before questioning him about the similarities between the two, but it ultimately proved to be a fruitless move, as the trial is pertaining to the underlying musical structure of the two songs, not any recorded versions of them.
He also questioned page on the influence of ‘Chim Chim Cheree’ a song from the 1964 film Mary Poppins, which Page had mentioned in his pre-trial statement. Page mentioned in the statement that he liked the idea of “music going at a counterpoint”, which he used in the riff in question on ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The judge in the trial, R. Gary Klausner, frustrated by the rambling nature of Malofiy’s questioning, warned him that he was ‘wasting a lot of time’.
On this same second day of questioning and for the first time in the trial, the musical theory linking the two songs was presented to the court. The plaintiff called Dr. Alexander Stewart, a noted musicologist and music professor at the University of Vermont, to the stand, where he described the music similarities. The main point that he raised was that both songs, “in an unusual way”, skip E before resolving on an A note, a characteristic that is exclusive to the pair in the 65 compositions that the defence had submitted that shared similar musical qualities. Importantly, Stewart noted that none of these 65 songs have the “unique and distinctive elements” that ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway To Heaven’ share, which can be protected under U.S. copyright law.
The defence also called their own musical expert to the stand, with Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, a professor of music at NYU, tellingly demonstrating the difference between the two pieces by playing them on the piano. However, this seems to be pretty much the most effective thing he did for the defence, as much of his testimony seemed to be akin to an academic lecture, and he often struggled to stay on topic.
On the fourth day of proceedings, band member John Paul Jones was brought in by the defence team, supposedly for the prime reason of discounting the long-believed narrative of the creation of ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The story was that Page and singer Robert Plant returned from a cottage in the Welsh mountains with the start of the song to play to the other band members. Malofiy played to Jones a recording of a 1972 BBC interview with him, where he says, “We were all in the country at Headley Grange when [Page and Plant] came back from the Welsh mountains with a guitar intro, verse and maybe more [of "Stairway to Heaven].” To this Jones had to say that, “It sounded like I was guessing. I was guessing.”
He was also questioned about how Led Zeppelin used to play a cover of ‘Fresh-Garbage’, a song by Spirit. He said he couldn’t remember who introduced it, but it was he who liked it, “It was a two-bar bass riff that popped out from somewhere. It was a catchy little riff, had an interesting time thing and it caught my ear. I didn't know where it was from.”
Public opinion is split pretty much down the middle on this issue, with some fans saying that the progressions are similar, but that they’re so simple and obvious that it would be ridiculous to try and claim them, whereas others accuse Page and Led Zeppelin of being blatant thieves, not only in this instance but in others as well. It will be interesting to see how this case plays out, and if the result, either way, changes the opinion of many people on the song, Page, and Led Zeppelin in general.