Anyone who does anything creative — painting, writing books, or penning epic rock songs — knows that the creative process is a mysterious lady. Ideas can materialize out of nowhere. And right now, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page may be trying to rack their aging brains to recall what inspired them to write “Stairway to Heaven.”
That’s because a now-deceased songwriter long claimed that “Stairway to Heaven” didn’t arise like magic one day (as the legend goes, according to BBC News) while Plant and Page stayed in a remote Welsh cottage.
That man, the late Randy Wolfe, and now his trustee claim the inspiration instead came from his eerily-similar instrumental “Taurus” by Spirit.
The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” are arguably the most recognizable in rock music. As the Washington Post joked, the song has been criticized for the past 45 years for being over-played on the radio and by “guitar dudes,” a bit indulgent and a tad too long.
On Friday, a U.S. District Judge out of Los Angeles named Gary Klausner ruled that the famed first two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven” are similar enough to “Taurus” to warrant a copyright infringement trial before a jury, Reuters reported.
That trial will begin on May 10.
At the heart of the case and the eventual trial is a “he said, he said” disagreement about whether Led Zeppelin and the band Spirit ever hung out together in the 1960s. The man who brought the copyright infringement suit to court, Wolfe’s trustee Michael Skidmore, claims the two bands toured together in 1968 and 1969.
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The question is whether or not Page and Plant heard “Taurus” during one of three music festivals before writing “Stairway to Heaven.”
According to the judge, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin said they never “toured with, shared a stage with, or listened” to Spirit’s music. Band members with Spirit say this is a lie. Wolfe attested to that fact himself in 1991.
“[They] used to come up and sit in the front row of all [Spirit’s] shows and became friends… and if they wanted to use [Taurus], that’s fine. I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.”
The court has ruled that this statement didn’t mean Wolfe handed over his rights to the song; he apparently considered suing the band in the 1980s and wanted writing credit for “Stairway to Heaven.” The defendants claim Randy was a “songwriter-for-hire” with no copyright claim and that the chord progression in the song was so “clichéd” it doesn’t deserve protection.
“This case, from our perspective, has always been about giving credit where credit was due, and now we get to right that wrong,” said Skidmore’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy.
In May’s trial, the jury will ultimately decide if “Stairway to Heaven” is a “Taurus” rip-off. If they do, the trustee is only entitled to half the damages awarded, per a decades-old contract signed by Wolfe.
As the judge’s lengthy ruling on Friday implies, the trial will examine in excruciating detail the songs’ chord progressions, bass lines, and tempo. The jury will no doubt be experts in music theory by the time the trial is over.
“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. For example, the descending bass line in both ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most recognizable and important segments. … Additionally, the descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs.”
One of Skidmore’s experts has argued that “the presence of acoustic guitar, strings, recorder/flute sounds, and harpsichord as well as the noticeable absence of bass and drums (and other instruments characteristic of rock and roll) lend both songs a decidedly ‘classical’ style, particularly evoking a Renaissance atmosphere.”
A trial that argued Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. stole “Blurred Lines” from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” didn’t end well for the former. They had to pay Gaye’s family $5.2 million. Do you think Spirit’s song and “Stairway to Heaven” are similar enough for the trial to reach a similar conclusion?
[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]