No, Led Zeppelin Didn’t Really Steal “Stairway.” But They Stole Everything Else

Fucking Zeppelin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Believe me, I’d love for  Led Zeppelin to be guilty of plagiarism. But with “Stairway to Heaven,” I have to reluctantly admit they’re innocent.

Earlier this month, California jazz rock group Spirit accused Led Zep of stealing the guitar intro of “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus.”

For Zep haters, this is a great story. The supposed rock geniuses look like nothing more than lazy thieves. There’s a bitter satisfaction at knowing the rightful person got screwed out of credit for something famous, like the anonymous engineers at Zerox who were robbed of authorship for what became Microsoft and Apple.

Page is a known thief, as the story of “Dazed and Confused” shows Page stole the bass line and most of the words from folk singer Jack Holmes, first for the Yardbirds and then for Led Zeppelin.

The Yardbirds version hews even closer to the original than the Zep re-do.

The Zep version includes a long section of sturm und drang bowed guitar strings and heavy riffage totally absent in the folk original. Robert Plant added lines like “soul of a woman was created below” for a vibe that’s probably misogynistic and definitely a little overdramatic.

Also: The b section of “The Lemon Song,” which starts about 1:30 in, is a noisier, distorted cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor.” Zep defenders often say reworking a classic blues song isn’t a big deal. But this was not a classic blues song in the sense that it was old (it’s classic in the sense of being awesome and funky, though). “Killing Floor was released a mere five years before Led Zeppelin II. And it was a radio hit familiar to most rock fans. It’s like if Mumford and Sons did a banjo-fied cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and slapped different lyrics on it. Or didn’t even bother to change some of them: the lyrics throughout “Lemon Song” song are a direct lift from “Killing Floor.”

Similarly, the “Moby Dick” riff sounds a lot like the Bobby Parker soul song “Watch Your Step,” which was released only eight years before Led Zeppelin II. 

Zep usually appropriated blues songs from the ’40s or earlier, like “When the Levee Breaks” or “Traveling Riverside Blues.”

And then there’s Bert Jansch, whose delicate guitar work Jimmy Page copied and pasted for Led Zeppelin I.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkX7Q2J7k48]

“In My Time of Dying” was a folk blues standard despite being credited to the band. The real author of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” wasn’t properly credited until 1990. There’s more, too. Led Zeppelin appropriated and/or stole a lot of stuff. Just maybe not “Stairway.”

Holmes sued in the early 2000s and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum according to court documents. I expect a comparable outcome for the Spirit case. Zep will likely treat it as a nuisance lawsuit and pay to make it go away. For Spirit it will be a windfall. For Page, Plant and Jones it’ll be a drop off on licensed merchandise on a random Tuesday.

Still, it’s unfair. 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 figure are close to each other and the descending bass is also mostly the same until the end, when Page adds a note.

Page’s guitar line is more clever. He’s fingerpicking and playing two notes at the same time. As the bass line descends, he plays a simple but effective counter melody on the high e string. 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 guitar part in “Into the Great Wide Open”?

But also, as everybody knows, “Stairway to Heaven” is a long song. Its saving grace is that it has a lot of different parts. 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 a big stupid rock epic that the whole world is sick of and “Taurus” is a deep album cut for a band that’s largely been forgotten.

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.

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7 thoughts on “No, Led Zeppelin Didn’t Really Steal “Stairway.” But They Stole Everything Else

  1. Good entry. Zep was shameless. Taking the Killing Floor without crediting it was like putting a baby shark up a . . . well, you know.

    But. They all do it.

    Some wag once said the two best Zep songs of all time were “Barracuda” and “Lonely is the Night.”

    The Monkees ripped off the Beatles, but so did the Stones. And now I hear Drive-By Truckers songs that sound a lot like the Stones and Skynyrd. Grand Funk Railroad stole the intro of “I’m Your Captain” from “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Or it least it sounds like it. And Hendrix stole “Steppin Stone” from the Monkees. Okay, “covered ” it. But Jimi stole a lot of the Who’s act and even their cast-off drummer. Zep stole from Robert Johnson, who stole it from the Devil or maybe just a bunch of other struggling Depression era blues guys doing similar stuff down the road from him in Mississippi. And Dolly Parton ripped off “Stairway to Heaven” for “We Used to.” Lennon stole “Come Together” from Chuck Berry. Elvis stole the Vegas thing from Tom Jones. Harrison stole “My Sweet Lord from “He’s So Fine.” “Big Jet Airliner” and “Crossroads” have the same riff. And “Crossroads” was a cover to begin with. De Palma stole from Eisenstein and Hitchcock, and Tarantino stole from Goddard and bad WWII movies and grindhouse and god knows how many other sources. Kevin Costner said Babe Ruth copied Shoeless Joe’s stance. And Johnny Cash stole “Folsom Prison Blues” from some guy whose name is forgotten to history now and a bad B-movie about the prison, too. New Coke stole from Pepsi and the Flintstones stole from the Honeymooners and I bet Jackie Gleason stole from some Vaudeville guy who was around before TV. Denis Leary ripped off Bill Hicks and Procol Harum stole the organ riff for “Whiter Shade of Pale.” And I bet Mozart has his sources, too.

    They all do it. If it’s stolen enough, it becomes a chord progression, or folk, or a cliche, like blues guys sayin’ “Woke up this morning….” But we like their music anyway. Or don’t.

  2. Musicians have taken bits of songs from each other since the dawn of time. The rule is, you can take something and add to it……improved it (or not). Embellish it. That’s what Page (and many others before and after him) did. It only pisses people off when someone becomes successful along the way. Then it becomes ‘stealing’. I find that hypocritical and envious rather than principled.

    As for the Stairway melody……Davy Graham played that little riff a good 8 or 9 years before Spirit came up with Taurus…….just in double time. Check out ‘Cry Me a River’. That little line has run through Irish and English folk long before that too. Spirit haven’t got a case.

    Spirit should be more annoyed at themselves for not having the talent Page had, who did something way better with it.

  3. This article needs to chill out. Led Zeppelin found beauty out of boring and simple chord progression that were common in their era. To say that led zeppelin flat out copied other bands is flat out preposterous. More so along the lines of inspiration. Led zeppelin also toured with Taurus during the time they were writing Spirit. Spirit was an awful song, Taurus should’ve been happy that led zeppelin produced one of the greatest rock and roll songs with a slight variation of their tune as the intro. And to state this obvious, this is THREE out of EIGHTY SEVEN songs the band produced. Please listen to more before you criticize the greatest band of all time, PLEASE.

  4. I feel like you’re all not true musicians making comments about true musicians. You’ve written this whole article and not one part of it was news to me as a 21 year old and massive fan of Zep. None of these songs you’re talking about which have been reworked remakes of originals, inspired music and lyric writing and sharing of artistic styles and emotions are news to me, Page has me denied who’s guitiar styles he’s mimicked out of appreciation, we all know he remade dazed and confused, twice, SNF you call it a little over dramatic? This article is a little over dramatic you twat, music is art, nothing is original everyone’s artistic perspective comes from inspirations, page And plant are ledgends in their own right, as are all other artists mentioned in this. Stop being such a little bitch and realize that the music industry is the real world too and you are sitting here nit picking and viewing it from your small perspective.

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