As of this week, Jimmy Page can say without legal challenge that he wrote the worst part of “Stairway to Heaven,” a song everyone alive is sick of.
On Monday, a US appeals court reinstated a jury verdict that found the Led Zeppelin guitarist did not steal the opening guitar riff for “Stairway to Heaven.”
It’s the final act of a prolonged legal battle over the authorship of the song’s opening figure. The psychedelic band Spirit, played with Zeppelin early in the British supergroup’s career, accused Page of lifting the “Stairway” from their 1968 song “Taurus.” Their legal case seemed to have run its course when a 2016 ruling finding in favor of Zeppelin. But in 2018, a federal appeals court panel demanded another trial on grounds that the lower court judge misled jurors about copyright law.
But as this week’s verdict illustrates, equipping jurists with a nuanced understanding of copyright law doesn’t make Spirit’s claim any more correct.
Page clearly wrote the guitar figure at the top of “Stairway.” I write that with reluctance, for two reasons: 1) Led Zeppelin, while good, is a criminally overrated band and 2) they were serial plagiarists and it would be poetic justice for their most famous song to be proven as a rip-off.
But when you look at the musical statements made by Zeppelin and Spirit side by side, it’s clear that while the two guitar pieces share some surface similarities and, maybe, a mood, they are distinct compositions.
The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” are similar to notes played about 45 seconds into the Spirit instrumental “Taurus.” Both are arpeggiated A-minor chords in the fifth fret barre position. The first three notes of the arpeggiated figures are similar. Both songs have a similar descending bass part until the end, when Page adds a note.
That added note towards the end isn’t the only difference. Page’s guitar line is more clever than the Spirit song. It casts an ascending chromatic melody on the D string against a descending one on the high E string, creating a simple series of two-note harmonies that sound much more intense than the sum of their parts. It’s like a classic blues turnaround.
Spirit’s “Taurus” doesn’t have that parallel ascending and descending part. It’s closer to simply out the notes of the A-minor chord, a musical figure so rudimentary and foundational to Western music that it would be absurd to claim ownership of it.
Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit in the late ‘60s, and members of Spirit say Zeppelin played a Spirit song during their concerts, showing that their music had at least some demonstrable influence on Page. But there’s probably far more evidence that the song “Cry Me A River” by Davy Graham influenced Page.
Graham played “Cry Me A River” in a 1959 BBC special about guitar music in Britain. Page would have been 15 when the special aired. An already accomplished guitarist, Page almost certainly would have watched the show, particularly in light of how BBC was one of two television channels in the UK at the time.
It’s almost certain that Graham influenced Page’s guitar work, as Page employed Graham’s signature DAGAD guitar tuning in several Led Zeppelin songs. At the very least, Page would have been familiar with this song and performance and it could have sparked the idea for “Stairway.”