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.
“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.