By ANDREW TAVANI
Led Zeppelin is being sued for copyright infringement over 'Stairway to Heaven,' perhaps the most well-known song in the legendary rock band's vast music catalog. The suit is being brought by the founding bassist of Spirit, an obscure 1960s band that Led Zeppelin toured the U.S. with back in 1968 and 1969. Bloomberg Businessweek was the first to report the news of the lawsuit, which brings with it the potential to have a seismic impact on the history of rock and roll.
At the heart of the lawsuit is a claim that the iconic opening notes of 'Stairway to Heaven' were lifted by guitarist Jimmy Page from 'Taurus,' a relatively unknown folk song Spirit often played in concert, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Lawyers for Spirit say that Randy California, the original composer of 'Taurus,' wrote the song back in 1968. They argue that Page had the opportunity to hear the song while the two bands played several shows together, and that Page then used those notes to write the beginning of Stairway to Heaven, which in 1971 appeared on Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth studio album known as 'Led Zeppelin IV' or 'Runes.' The rest was history as 'Stairway to Heaven' went on to become one of the most celebrated rock and roll songs ever, claiming such sensational titles as 'the most requested song on the radio' and simply the 'greatest song of all-time.' In 2000, it ranked No. 3 on a VH1 list of all-time greatest rock songs, and it placed 31st on Rolling Stone's list of the '500 Greatest Songs.'
Randy California (or Randy Wolfe, as his parents named him) died in 1997, but Bloomberg Businessweek reports that just before his death, he finally spoke out to a journalist about having always felt that the opening of 'Stairway' was stolen from his work.
California told journalist Jeff McLaughlin in the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine that Led Zeppelin had filched his song. "I'd say it was a ripoff," California said. "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."
As WZLX points out, the move comes just before Led Zeppelin is about to release a remastered version of 'Stairway' along with many of its other classic hits, and even some never-before heard material.
Mark Andes, Spirit's founding bass player, and his legal team are aiming to force Led Zeppelin to share proper writing credit for the iconic song with the late California.
In addition, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that this is hardly the first such legal claim made against the rock and roll titans. Similar accusations have been leveled at Led Zeppelin throughout the years over hit tracks like 'The Lemon Song,' 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You,' 'Whole Lotta Love,' and 'Dazed and Confused'. In all of those cases, Led Zeppelin was forced to change writing credits as they appear on albums and share subsequent royalties.
One high-profile case involved the band's highest-charting U.S. single, 'Whole Lotta Love.' Attorneys for blues legend Willie Dixon argued some music and lyrics in 'Whole Lotta Love' were lifted from 'You Need Love,' a Dixon-Muddy Waters collaboration that dates back to 1962. In 1987, Led Zeppelin settled that suit and agreed to include Dixon's name in the song's writing credits.
But in an interview with the New York Times published on May 15, Jimmy Page seems to dispute that the music in the song was even inspired by the blues great. 'I had a riff, which is a unique riff, O.K., and I had a structure for the song that was a unique structure. That is it,' he told the Times. Then he added, 'However, within the lyrics of it, there's "You Need Love," and there are similarities within the lyrics. Now I'm not pointing a finger at anybody, but I'm just saying that's what happened, and Willie Dixon got credit. Fair enough.'
Ultimately, a court will decide whether Led Zeppelin stole the famous opening notes of 'Stairway to Heaven' from Spirit's 'Taurus.' WZLX found versions of each song on YouTube. Take a listen to the two songs below and decide for yourself whether the song was plagiarized or if, as Mick Wall wrote in 'When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin,' what Jimmy Page did 'was the equivalent of taking the wood from a garden shed and building it into a cathedral.'
'Taurus' by Spirit, 1968 (wait for the :44 mark):
'Stairway to Heaven' by Led Zeppelin, 1971:
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Led Zeppelin's fourth studio album is commonly known as 'Ruins.' The correct spelling of the name is 'Runes.'