Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” has faced a lot of accusations in the 45 years since it was released. It’s overplayed, some say, particularly at high volumes by dudes trying to impress other dudes at guitar shops. It’s overlong, say others. And, for years, people have said “Stairway” sounds a lot like “Taurus” — a song by a much less famous band called Spirit who performed it allegedly while sharing bills with Zeppelin in the late 1960s. (You can listen for yourself here.)
But after decades of gossip, members of Led Zeppelin — specifically, singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page, the writers of “Stairway” — will face a jury trial on May 10. The question: Did they copy at least some parts of their most famous song?
“While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure,” U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner of the Central District of California wrote in a 20-page opinion denying, in part, Led Zeppelin’s motion for summary judgment. “For example, the descending bass line in both Taurus and Stairway to Heaven appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most recognizable and important segments. … Additionally, the descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs.” Citing another opinion, he added: “Enough similar protectable expression is here that the issue of substantial similarity should [proceed to the jury].”
“This case, from our perspective, has always been about giving credit where credit was due, and now we get to right that wrong,” Francis Malofiy, a lawyer for the plaintiff, told Reuters. An attorney for the defendants did not respond to requests for comment Monday from Reuters or the Associated Press.
Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al. was brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for Randy Wolfe of Spirit, who died in 1997. Wolfe, a.k.a. Randy California, wrote “Taurus” in 1967, the suit said; the two sides can’t agree on whether Page and Plant, before they wrote “Stairway,” heard Spirit play “Taurus” while playing at music festivals in the late 1960s.
“The parties present conflicting versions of the interaction between Led Zeppelin and Spirit at these three events,” the judge wrote. “The surviving members of Led Zeppelin testified that they never toured with, shared a stage with, or listened to any of Spirit’s music during these brief encounters. The surviving Spirit members, on the other hand, recalled conversing with the Led Zeppelin members backstage between sets and performing in succession at two of the festivals.”
In 1991, Wolfe said Led Zep “used to come up and sit in the front row of all [Spirit’s] shows and became friends … and if they wanted to use [Taurus], that’s fine,” adding, “I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.” But this declaration, the court said, doesn’t mean Wolfe abandoned his claim, noting testimony that he had contemplated a lawsuit in the 1980s.
In any case, this spirit of share and share alike is now gone. Both plaintiff and the defendants had experts review the songs to determine whether they were sound-alikes. One of Skidmore’s experts noted “the presence of acoustic guitar, strings, recorder/flute sounds, and harpsichord as well as the noticeable absence of bass and drums (and other instruments characteristic of rock and roll) lend both songs a decidedly ‘classical’ style, particularly evoking a Renaissance atmosphere”; a Led Zeppelin expert remarked that such analysis “does not mention or reflect, for example, performance techniques, instrumentation and orchestration, or tempo (i.e., performance speed).”
Now, though the judge dismissed claims against Led Zeppelin bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones — who, it’s said, was the only member of the band who didn’t sell his soul to the devil — and Warner Music Group Corp., British nationals Page and Plant will face California-style justice. After all, it was a Golden State jury that awarded the family of Marvin Gaye $7.3 million (later reduced to $5.2 million) after claims Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. based “Blurred Lines” on Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”
“While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward,” Williams, Thicke and T.I. said at the time. ” ‘Blurred Lines’ was created from the heart and minds of Pharrell, Robin and T.I. and not taken from anyone or anywhere else.”