A federal judge has ordered a jury trial in the dispute over authorship of Led Zeppelin’s classic rock staple “Stairway to Heaven.”
The legal action was filed several years ago by the estate of Randy California, guitarist for the Los Angeles band Spirit.
The suit alleges that defendants Robert Plant and Jimmy Page copped the opening finger-picked section of “Stairway” from Spirit’s “Taurus,” which was recorded in 1967. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and the band’s distributor Warner Music were dropped from the case in the April 8 ruling by U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner.
The jury trial is scheduled to begin May 10.
The lawsuit was filed in May 2014, although the songs’ similarities have long been debated. There were statute of limitations issues in the dispute, but California’s estate hitched its complaint to the 2014 reissue of Led Zeppelin’s album.
“Taurus” was an atmospheric 3-minute instrumental on Spirit’s debut album, released in 1968. It is mostly known to Spirit fans. The global hit “Stairway to Heaven” debuted on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, in 1971.
California, also known as Randy Wolfe, drowned in Hawaii in 1997.
“People always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sounds exactly like ‘Taurus,’ which was released two years earlier,” California wrote in the liner notes to the 1996 CD reissue of his band’s first album. He noted that Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on the British band’s first tour and sometimes quoted the U.S. band’s FM hit “Fresh Garbage” as part of a hard-rock medley.
Spirit and Led Zeppelin both were regulars on the rock festival circuit in 1968 and 1969, and Jimmy Page previously was cited as an admirer of Spirit, known for incorporating jazz and Eastern influences in its sound.
Page said in his deposition in the case that he did not remember seeing Spirit perform and had never heard “Taurus” before 2014. He said he had a copy of Spirit’s first album in his collection, but had no idea how it got there. Plant said he had never heard Spirit in concert and disputed a member of the L.A. band’s story that they had gone to a pub together in England.
Spirit bassist Mark Andes has said that the duplication “is fairly blatant, and note for note.”
Led Zeppelin responded in February that the similar material in the songs came down to a commonplace “descending chromatic scale of pitches” used throughout musical history. Page said the technique was part of the “basic skills” learned by any guitarist.
The judge said in his ruling: “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.” He cited the role of the bass in both songs.
The classic power ballad arguably is another in the long line of Led Zeppelin’s “borrowed” songs.
Led Zeppelin’s song credits have come under fire for decades. Tracks involved in authorship disputes included “The Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “How Many More Times,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Dazed and Confused.”
Disputes over the borrowing of riffs and song lyrics are common in the music business. Bob Dylan and the Beatles are among the many top artists who have been targets of claims.
The self-titled “Spirit” debut album is No. 29 on this web site’s list of the best psychedelic albums.