Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” trial is rambling on, despite the fact that lawyers for the iconic rock band requested that the judge halt proceedings in the ongoing copyright infringement case and rule in Zeppelin’s favor. According to Billboard, the defendants argued that plaintiff Michael Skidmore’s lawyer Francis Malofiy failed to establish burden of proof during three days of testimony, but on Tuesday, U.S. district Judge Gary Klausner reportedly announced that the trial will last a couple more days.
The basis of the high-profile lawsuit—that guitarist Jimmy Page’s opening chords to Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1971 song copies the 1969 Spirit instrumental “Taurus”—has opened up a debate on what constitutes copyright infringement in music.
The chord progression in both songs has been dubbed a minor line cliché by musicologists, and it can be heard in a lot more than just rock songs. Classics like “My Funny Valentine” and the Mary Poppins song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” are just two examples of songs that share the same clichéd progression of “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus.” But Frank Sinatra and Dick Van Dyke never shared the same bill as Led Zeppelin like Spirit did in the late 1960s, where the band’s surviving members allege Jimmy Page and Robert Plant surely heard their song.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant testified he can’t remember ever seeing Spirit perform live, but Spirit’s Mark Andes previously said he met Plant at the UK club Mother’s in 1968 after his band played there and that they even played snooker together after the show. In court, Plant reminded the attorneys that he and his wife were in a car crash that night leaving Mother’s and they were both hospitalized with head injuries. The singer also testified that he does not know how to read or write music.
The controversy surrounding the alleged plagiarism has been decades in the making. The Music blog Turn Me On Dead Man cited an interview with Spirit founding member Randy “California” Wolfe with Listener magazine shortly before his death in 1997, in which he expressed frustration over the lack of credit for Led Zeppelin’s signature song.
“If you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment,” California said. “It’s an exact … I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that.”
Malofiy, the lawyer for the late singer’s estate, wants posthumous attribution for California, and he has called his former Spirit bandmates and two Led Zeppelin legends to testify. But before that, Spirit’s founding bassist Mark Andes recalled his band’s first show with Led Zeppelin. Andes told Bloomberg it was the day after Christmas, 1968, at the Denver Auditorium Arena, when Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit at their inaugural gig in America. Andes is confident the Led Zeppelin members heard “Taurus” that day, as the song was a fixture on Spirit’s set list at the time.
“They would have seen it in that context,” Andes said. “We did quite a few shows with those guys. Not to say they might not have heard it from the record.”
During the trial, Page admitted to owning the Spirit album that contains “Taurus,” but he did not know when or where he got it. Page also stated that he did not hear Spirit play at the Denver show and that he believed the headlining act that day was psychedelic rock band Vanilla Fudge.
Of the similarities between “Taurus” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” more than 40 years later, Andes told Bloomberg it’s “fairly blatant, and note for note,” adding that “it would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod.”
But other rock guitarists don’t hear the similarities. Dweezil Zappa, the son of the legendary Frank Zappa, thinks the songs sound “drastically” different to his ear, and former Nirvana bass guitarist Krist Novoselic writes the whole lawsuit off as “bogus.”
Then there’s the matter of all of the other songs that carry a similar chord progression. A notable example is the 1968 song “Ice Cream Dreams” by Scottish rock band Cartoone. Interestingly, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page was a guest guitarist on the track.
Even more blatant is Dolly Parton’s 1975 song “We Used To.” If Zeppelin sounds like Spirit then this song sounds like Zeppelin sounding like Spirit.
During the plagiarism trial, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page even referenced the Mary Poppins song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” as an example of the commonly used chord progression featured on “Stairway to Heaven,” according to Reuters.
Indeed, the examples are endless, as can be seen in the video below from a German TV show, which features a medley of dozens of songs that have chord progressions similar to the Led Zeppelin anthem—everything from Morris Albert’s “Feelings” to the Police classic “Roxanne.”
Take a look at the videos below to compare Spirit’s “Taurus” to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
[Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images]