Everybody knows Stairway to Heaven. Literally everyone. The song is considered one of the most covered rock songs of all-time, and is estimated to be worth around $560 Million. That’s a hell of a lot of cheddar for one song, and recently, Led Zeppelin has been coming under fire recently for allegedly stealing the intro for Stairway to Heaven, from Spirit’s Taurus. A lawyer who is representing Randy California’s (Spirit’s late guitarist) trust, is suing Led Zeppelin under these allegations. The plaintiffs in their complaint said
"What happened to Randy California and Spirit is wrong. Led Zeppelin needs to do the right thing and give credit where credit is due. Randy California deserves writing credit for 'Stairway to Heaven' and to take his place as an author of Rock’s greatest song,"
Now, this sounds like a ridiculous claim from someone who’s just trying to make a little money off of them, but even more recently, the band attempted to dismiss the case, and were denied by U.S. District Court Judge Juan Sanchez. So, the case is on, apparently, but why did this not come up 40 years ago when it happened? Manager of California’s trust, Mick Skidmore, said
"Nobody had any money, and they thought the statute of limitations was done."
CBS also reported that
“Apparently, California was so low on cash he would play sitar in an Indian restaurant in exchange for food."
Well, that’s all well and good, but it definitely doesn’t add too much validity to the claim. After hearing the song, however, some similarities can be drawn. The chord progression is extremely similar, although just a bit different. You can listen to it here. Wait until around the 45 second mark for the guitar part to come in.
and here’s Stairway to Heaven if you didn’t know it already (or at least to save you time looking it up)
Now, there’s no denying that the songs sound very similar, but this kind of chord progression has been used at so many points in history. If a simple slow, descending guitar arpeggiation (worth about ten seconds of music) can be copyrighted, then the estates of some classical composers will probably want to get in on this too. People were doing this way before Spirit or Led Zeppelin were even thought of. For example, this Davy Graham piece
So, yes, this style of writing music has been done at least thousands of times before. It can’t be owned by any one person. Dr. Charles Fairchild, an American author and senior lecturer in popular music even said
"The obvious and only similarity between them is the finger-picked guitar passage that starts off the guitar playing in both songs,"
"In the [Spirit] version, it starts at 0:43 and in Led Zeppelin's it starts off the track. It is that easy, slow descending figure that sounds like a few slow steps down to a nice resting point. This constitutes three measures of music in both songs, which in both cases takes up about 10 seconds or so. However, the two songs go off in completely different directions after this."
He goes on about whether the claim is legitimate or not, by saying
"It seems to me that anyone claiming to have been the first person to have ever written this passage is making quite an ambitious claim. This passage is little more than a stock standard chord progression whose origins would be very difficult to determine. It also happens to be a very easy and satisfying thing to play on any guitar in standard tuning. There are probably a lot of other versions of it out there that would be equally similar."
There you go. Led Zeppelin aren’t guilty of stealing anything, they’re just guilty of using a very common idea in music, and Randy California is just as guilty. If somebody is going to be suing anyone, let’s hope that it’s zombie Brahms, back from the dead to sue people for stealing all of his motives.