Did Led Zeppelin rip off Stairway to Heaven?
Accusations of plagiarism in music happen every other day, but what if a song that defined a genre came into question? What if Stairway To Heaven was ripped off another song?
Love it or hate it, Led Zeppelin's 1971 eight minute folk-rock opus is one of the best-known and most covered pieces of modern music. And it is estimated to be worth more than $560 million.
The trust of the late Randy California (born Randy Wolfe) from the band Spirit, and the band's former bassist Mark Andes, want to see California receive a songwriting credit on the coming remastered re-release of the untitled album widely known as Led Zeppelin IV. Their lawyer, Francis Alexander Malofiy, will seek an injunction against the release of the album and also file a copyright infringement lawsuit.
Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page in an undated Led Zeppelin concert photo. Photo: Neil Zlozower
Their allegation is that the intro for Stairway To Heaven, which Jimmy Page is said to have written by candlelight in 1970 and has called "my baby", was pinched from Spirit's 1968 song Taurus.
California drowned in 1997, aged 45, after saving his son Quinn from a rip swimming off Molokai in Hawaii. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, he told Listener magazine Zeppelin had stolen the song: "I'd say it was a rip-off," California said. "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."
Fairfax Media contacted Sydney's Conservatorium of Music for an expert opinion. Dr Charles Fairchild, an American author and senior lecturer in popular music, acknowledged a similarity in "about 10 seconds" of music but concluded the claim against Led Zeppelin was "unlikely to succeed".
"The obvious and only similarity between them is the finger-picked guitar passage that starts off the guitar playing in both songs," Fairchild says.
"In the [Spirit] version, it starts at 0:43 and in Led Zeppelin's it starts off the track. It is that easy, slow descending figure that sounds like a few slow steps down to a nice resting point. This constitutes three measures of music in both songs, which in both cases takes up about 10 seconds or so. However, the two songs go off in completely different directions after this.
"It seems to me that anyone claiming to have been the first person to have ever written this passage is making quite an ambitious claim. This passage is little more than a stock standard chord progression whose origins would be very difficult to determine. It also happens to be a very easy and satisfying thing to play on any guitar in standard tuning.
"There are probably a lot of other versions of it out there that would be equally similar."
The musical argument is crucial but not the only factor in proving copyright infringement in the US. Aside from showing the original song was substantially copied (and sounds the same to the ordinary listener), the prosecution would have to prove Zeppelin had access to Spirit's song Taurus. The latter point should be straightforward.
Questions over the similarities between Taurus and Stairway to Heaven are not new. On the sleeve notes for the 1996 re-issue of Spirit's debut album, California wrote: "People always ask me why Stairway to Heaven sounds exactly like Taurus which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played [our song] Fresh Garbage in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour [in 1968]." The two bands were also on the same bill several times in 1969.
Fairchild says Zeppelin "has form in the area of musical borrowing". Indeed it has: several of the band's songs, including Whole Lotta Love, The Lemon Song and Dazed and Confused, have had songwriting credits altered after legal action, to include writers of similar previous works.
But he says Zeppelin "have mostly taken fairly obvious blues and folk cliches and put their own grandiose 70s rock spins on them".
And what about the not-insignificant matter of why the claim has taken 43 years to emerge? Andes seemed to suggest to Bloomberg that he didn't notice until recently. "The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement. I can't explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note," he says.
"It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely."
Representatives for both bands have so far declined to comment.