Like a nasty dose of some STD that simply won’t go away, the issue of whether or not Jimmy Page and, to a lesser extent, Robert Plant, nicked the opening bars of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ from an instrumental by Spirit entitled ‘Taurus’ grabbed many column inches earlier this week, causing Just Backdated to listen very carefully to the music in question. ‘Stairway’ is credited to both Page and Plant but it’s a safe bet to assume that Page wrote the melody and Plant the lyrics, so if culpability becomes an issue then it is Jimmy who is in the frame.
We are concerned with just the introduction to ‘Stairway’, no more and no less, and those in Spirit’s camp will argue that this is its key element, four crucial notes that are nowadays as well known to rock fans as any Chuck Berry intro that took the fancy of Keith Richards. ‘Taurus’ does not open with this melody but reaches it at around the 45 second mark, but apart from this similarity each song thereafter does its own thing, ‘Stairway’ reaching for the heavens as it inflates and develops, ‘Taurus’ noodling along at the same pace throughout, enhanced by strings as it reaches its conclusion but never really working up much of a sweat.
Both songs hover around an A-minor key. The descending sequence of notes on the D-string are identical, no doubt about it. The tempo or meter, too, is identical, ditto the general, slightly medieval feel which is Zep’s case is enhanced by John Paul Jones playing a bass recorder. ‘Stairway’, however, has a simultaneous ascending run of notes on the top E-string and the phrases in each song are resolved differently. ‘Taurus’ seems to hang loosely, while ‘Stairway’ moves down to a D chord, then a slightly discordant F-major 7th, then a G major and an A minor chord, a far more satisfactory and pleasing sequence to my mind. In ‘Taurus’ the tranquil little sequence is repeated several times with pretty much the same feel and intensity while in ‘Stairway’ Jimmy pushes down on the power button as each verse comes around, thus disguising and diminishing the similarity.
‘Taurus’ first appeared on Spirit’s debut album released in 1968, a full three years before Led Zeppelin IV, on which ‘Stairway’ appeared. That Spirit debut album also included the song ‘Fresh Garbage’ which Led Zeppelin covered at the beginning of their career, which proves that Jimmy Page was aware of the album. Also, in those early days before Zep established themselves as a top flight attraction, they were on the same bill as Spirit; among the dates they shared Zep’s first ever appearance in America, at Denver on December 26, 1968. They also appeared together at two festivals in 1969, at Atlanta on July 5 and Seattle on July 27, but I have no way of knowing whether Spirit included ‘Taurus’ in their sets; probably unlikely as meandering instrumentals are hardly festival fare.
The lawsuit has been brought by the Estate of Randy California (whose real name was Randy Wolfe), Spirit’s leading light and songwriter, who died in a drowning accident in January 1997, rescuing his 12-year-old son in the process.
The big question, of course, is why it has taken so long – over 40 years – for the Estate to bring the case. Surely Randy, when he was alive, was aware of the similarities between the two songs and, had he felt sufficiently aggrieved, would have brought the case himself. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ will have generated a tidy sum in royalties but far be it for me to suggest that in the present era, when litigation has become a nice little earner, pecuniary motives are at the heart of this. Many plaintiffs bring a case in the hope that a quick out-of-court settlement will resolve an issue and save high legal costs but Jimmy Page has a deep pocket and I don’t see him capitulating easily.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that descending chord sequences in a minor key such as this are as common as muck. Zep used something similar in ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, which isn’t that different from George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on The Beatles’ White Album. Jack Bruce once told me that JS Bach was the master of the descending bass line and, were he alive today, might have a case against loads of rock songwriters, not just Procol Harum. On the negative side, it’s also worth adding that Led Zep have a bit of previous in this regard too: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ = ‘You Need Love’ (Muddy Waters); ‘The Lemon Song’ = ‘Killing Floor’ (Chester Burnett); ‘When The Levee Breaks’ = Memphis Minnie; and a hush seems to have settled over ‘Dazed And Confused’ which songwriter Jake Holmes claims to have written (another descending sequence of notes) and which it is believed was the subject of an out-of-court settlement in 2011.
I wouldn’t like to predict the outcome of the ‘Stairway’ issue but if I was on the bench I’d award a small settlement to the Randy California Estate, perhaps 5% or less of the money the song has generated. This judgement is based on the fact that only 50% of the song is the melody (and 50% the lyrics, which is not the issue), and of that 50% only 10% – at the most – can be attributed to ‘Taurus’, the remaining 90% – not least the entire second half of the song after John Bonham comes tumbling in – pure Page/Led Zep.