Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are heading back to court. Unfortunately, they’re still innocent.
Late last week, a U.S. appeals court on Friday ordered a new trial in the lawsuit accusing Led Zeppelin of stealing “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus” by the largely forgotten psychedelic band Spirit. The case was presumed 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.
There’s no amount of understanding of copyright law that’s going to help this case.
It’s clear Page wrote the song. And that’s something I write with a certain amount of sadness. I’d love to see an asterisk next to the “Stairway to Heaven” entry in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Led Zeppelin is a good band, but an extremely puffed up good band. And the record shows that they were serial plagiarists. Led Zeppelin deserves to be knocked down a peg. Just not this peg.
Led Zeppelin “Stairway To Heaven” live
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.
Page’s guitar line is more clever than the Spirit song. Page plays two notes at the same time, creating a series of two note harmonies that travel against each other. As the bassline descends the higher, string part ascends. It’s like a classic blues turnaround.
The Taurus song just plays out the notes of the chord. That’s actually kind of infuriating. Do they think they own arpeggiating a minor chord? Are they going after Tom Petty for the intro “Into the Great Wide Open” or the Beatles for “Abbey Road”?
The allegedly plagiarized section is only in the first half. They cycle through about three more sections before getting to the outro (which, honestly, bears more than a passing resemblance to “All Along the Watchtower”).
Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit a couple of times in the late ‘60s, and members of Spirit claim that Zeppelin covered one of their songs live. It’s possible that Jimmy Page heard the song and composed something to match it. It’s equally possible he independently composed a similar figure. What’s certain is that Led Zeppelin utilize it much more effectively than Spirit. It’s the intro of “Stairway,” which slowly builds into a big crescendo. The Spirit song starts off with a 45 second soft barrage of “Nights in White Satin” orchestration before the guitar part floats in and out of the song without going anywhere.
The song didn’t go anywhere either, despite having a three-year head start on “Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t like to argue for the wisdom of the market, but there’s a reason “Stairway” is the most classic classic rock song and “Taurus” is an obscurity.
That’s not to say that Spirit didn’t have success. The band actually hit the Top 40 a couple of times. And away from the band, former members charted as well. Bass player Mark Andes hit the charts multiple times in the ’80s as a member of Heart, a band whose members coincidentally performed “Stairway to Heaven” with John Bonham’s son when Led Zeppelin were honored by the Kennedy Center.