A new chapter opened this week in the legal battle over authorship of “Stairway to Heaven” when
an 11-judge panel for U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard arguments from both sides of Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin.
Last year, a U.S. appeals court on Friday ordered a new trial in the 2014 lawsuit accusing Led Zeppelin of stealing “Stairway to Heaven” from the obscure psychedelic band Spirit whose song “Taurus” features a guitar figure purportedly similar to the guitar part opening of “Stairway to Heaven.” The case seemed over after a 2016 ruling, but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the lower court judge misled jurors about copyright law and sent the case back to the court for another trial.
The guitar parts in “Stairway” and “Taurus” are similar but not identical. Both are arpeggiated A-minor chords. The first three notes of the arpeggiated figure are close to each other and the descending bass is also mostly the same until the end, when Page adds a note.
And there’s ready evidence that Page didn’t lift the lick from Taurus: he’s more likely to have lifted it from someone else.
Consciously or not, Page seems to have retreaded Davy Graham’s 1950s instrumental “Cry Me a River” for “Stairway.” The guitar figure in question begins at 0:20 in the video below.
We can reasonably guess that Jimmy Page knew the song. Graham played the song on a 1959 BBC special about the then-rising trend of guitar music in Britain. Page would have been 15 when it aired and was already an accomplished guitarist who’d already appeared on television playing guitar. He clearly had an interest in the material and being that television in the United Kingdom only had two channels at the time, it seems safe to bet Page saw the broadcast.
Page was certainly aware of Graham, which is evidenced by Graham’s influence on Page’s guitar work. Graham pioneered the DAGAD guitar tuning, which Page used in Led Zeppelin songs like “Black Mountain Side” and “Kashmir.”
And with Page encountering the song while still an enthusiastic student of guitar, it’s likely he would’ve been intrigued by the point/counterpoint of that particular section of “Cry Me a River.” It’s not far-fetched that he would have learned how to play it and years later incorporated elements of it into “Stairway to Heaven.”
But without Robert Plant droning on about bustles in headrows, it’s just a passing moment in a lovely acoustic instrumental and not “Stairway.”