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Audio Rewind: The Embroiled History of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”

Audio Rewind: The Embroiled History of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”

I first recognized the mastery of “Stairway to Heaven” as a young child, sitting on the floor of my house after asking my dad for a couple of his “coolest” records. IV was spinning and so was my head—in an “I don’t quite know what’s going on but holy shit” kind of way. Soon enough, a “Stairway” lyric poster adorned my bedroom wall and I was clumsily plunking out Jimmy Page’s arpeggios on my mom’s nylon guitar. (My mom, incidentally, didn’t like the song because when it played at her high school dances, she’d be “stuck with the same dance partner for an eternity.”)

“Stairway to Heaven” is a consummate epic, a spiritual triumph, a sonic “orgasm”—as Page has described it on more than one occasion (the perfect ice breaker for that awkward high school romance). It’s like the entire Lord of the Rings concentrated into a single song. And it’s about as ubiquitous and culturally immersed as the Lord of the Rings, too.

The Led Zeppelin standard appears on numerous GOAT lists, coming in third on VH1’s 100 Greatest Rock Songs chart and ranking 31st on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 1991, it was calculated that the song had been played on the radio 2,874,000 times, which amounts to 44 years of radio time. And that was 25 years ago! Needless to say, “Stairway” is an epochal piece of art.

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably noticed that the Zeppelin classic has been embroiled in controversy. In 2014, Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the band Spirit’s late guitarist Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California, a nickname bestowed by Jimi Hendrix), presented a lawsuit against Zep, claiming that “Stairway” plagiarized the Spirit song “Taurus.” The suit was recently concluded (mostly), but it and the Tolkien-esque lore that precedes it are worth remembering.

“Stairway to Heaven” was constructed in several different recording sessions, but the impetus for the track came while Page and Robert Plant were staying at Bron-Yr-Aur, a Welsh cottage that would later inspire a song of its own. Page had collected lots of disparate musical ideas on tape, and he would eventually coalesce them into a single piece with a singularly distinct song form. How natural the final product turned out, considering its many pieces, is quite remarkable; given the testimonials of the band, one can nearly imagine that he had invoked some kind of magical ring to do it.

“Page and Plant would come back from the Welsh mountains with the guitar intro and verse,” said bassist John Paul Jones in Chris Welch’s 1994 book, Led Zeppelin. “I literally heard it in front of a roaring fire in a country manor house!” Such imagery! And, while Page was playing the guitar parts for Plant, the vocalist nearly “leapt out of his seat” when his hand was bewitched by paroxysmal flicks and twirls and lyrics suddenly appeared on the page—as he recounted in Total Guitar.

Plant has also credited the British antiquarian, Lewis Spence, as inspiration for the song, specifically citing his book, Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Led Zeppelin were also notorious Tolkien fans, and many of their songs contain references to Lord of the Rings. Even though there are no explicit LOTR references in “Stairway,” Plant’s words still evoke the sort of pastoral character that might be found in Lothlorien or the Shire: “rings of smoke through the trees,” “pipers,” and “songbirds” are redolent of Gandalf, his beloved halfling’s leaf, and some Valinor-like domain.

That character is reflected at the outset of the song, too. The plucked guitar chords and renaissance style recorders establish a whimsical realm fit for wizards and elves. From there, the elven tale evolves flawlessly into a rock ‘n’ roll anthem. The guitar variations become increasingly textured. John Bonham makes his prominent arrival at the song’s halfway point. And Plant transitions in seamless gradations from storyteller to rockstar, fully manifesting the epic that is “Stairway to Heaven.”

Considering the song’s complexity, it’s difficult to imagine any legitimacy behind claims that “Stairway to Heaven” is a plagiarized copy of Spirit’s “Taurus,” a two-and-a-half-minute instrumental track. It’s more complicated than that, though. For one, Led Zeppelin has a checkered past when it comes to song rights. A 1972 lawsuit by Chess Records, for instance, ended with Led Zeppelin II‘s “Bring It On Home” getting solely credited to songwriter, Willie Dixon (who, for those counting at home, is not in the band). Several other Zeppelin songs have had their credits revised, too—enough so that the topic has its very own Wikipedia page.

The decision to accept Skidmore’s case, though, seems not to be predicated on that past. U.S. district judge Gary Klausner cited musical commonalities as his reason for bringing the case to trial: “While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure.” He adds, “What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works… a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury.”

Music copyright law is strange because of that inherent subjectivity. What constitutes infringement? Five of the same notes in a melody? Six? What if the seventh note introduces a key modulation? What if the harmonic progression resolves on the tonic instead of the dominant? And then there are things like instrumentation and lyrics to consider, too. Point being, it’s tough work.

Under U.S. copyright law, Spirit’s camp would have to prove two things in order to win the case: first, that “Taurus” was copied to make something substantially similar. And, second, that Led Zeppelin had access to the song.

There are indeed similarities between the two songs. They’re both in a-minor, they both feature the aforementioned descending chromatic chord progression, and they both render that progression in similar arpeggiated guitar patterns. The buck stops there, though, as from that point it’s impossible to extrapolate “Taurus” into the saga-esque “Stairway.” Still, it’s something to work with.

There’s some credibility in terms of access, too. According to court documents, Spirit shared a bill with Zeppelin three times between 1968 and 1970, which means that Page could have ostensibly lifted features of the song, either consciously or unconsciously, and incorporated them into the 1971 hit. This idea wasn’t exactly new, either. In the 1996 reissue of Spirit, Wolfe intimated that the connection between the songs was well established and even hinted at Zeppelin’s guilt, writing, “People always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sounds exactly like ‘Taurus,’ which was released two years earlier. They opened up for us on their first American tour.”

During the trial, Page himself took the witness stand to defend the song, essentially pleading ignorance and claiming that there would be no way to know if, amongst his collection of “4,329 LPs and 5,882 CDs,” he had ever come across “Taurus.” “To be honest,” he said, “I could’ve bought it or been given it.”

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The jury ultimately sided with Zeppelin on the basis that the “original elements of Spirit’s song are not extrinsically similar” to “Stairway to Heaven.” To many of us, this seemed like an unmitigated victory for our beloved Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin’s crew have even gone so far as to seek 800 thousand dollars from the Spirit camp as court fee reparations. And hey, Zeppelin’s the best and they deserve it, right?

Again, there’s more to it than that. Maybe Skidmore’s pursuit of $40 million in damages seems exorbitant, but consider that Led Zeppelin have netted more than a half billion dollars from “Stairway to Heaven” alone. Perhaps it was a lot for Skidmore to expect to get a songwriting credit for Wolfe, who died in 1997; a seemingly cheap attempt to aggrandize the guitarist’s legacy.

But when it comes down to it, why does Led Zeppelin care so much if Wolfe gets credited? It wouldn’t really diminish their legacy. It wouldn’t ruin—or even dent—them financially. But maybe this wasn’t about money, at least not primarily. “The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven,” Skidmore said in court. As you can read in this Bloomberg article, nobody on their team had high hopes and this seemed more like a last ditch effort to get Wolfe posthumously included to the song. And given Zeppelin’s past songwriting transgressions, there was already some precedent for this kind of case.

The two songs do have some key features in common, after all. Plus the histories line up, at least marginally, to make plagiarism plausible. I’m not claiming that “Stairway to Heaven” owes its success to “Taurus,” and I wouldn’t even blame Page if he had tuned his ears to Spirit’s sound. Moreover, this case was a lost opportunity to honor the memory of a man whose music deserves remembering. Couldn’t there have been an out-of-court settlement that somehow recognized his contributions to music? Something like that, at least? As things stand, Wolfe remains most famous for claiming that his work was plagiarized by a more famous band, and he deserves at least a little more credit than that.

Image: Atlantic/Swan Song

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