So, what’s going on with Zeppelin this week?
First, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will be in court next week for the “Stairway to Heaven” lawsuit. If you haven’t been following the news, a couple of weeks ago a judge decided that the lawsuit originally filed two years ago by the estate of Randy Wolfe could go forward to a jury trial. In short, the band Spirit, of which Wolfe was the guitarist, is claiming that the distinctive guitar line from “Stairway to Heaven” was appropriated from Spirit’s lesser known instrumental work “Taurus.” The two bands never toured together, but they did play the same festivals a few times from 1968-1970. It’s also possible that Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit once in 1968 in Denver. Wolfe’s estate offered to settle for $1 if given a writing credit for the song, which means royalties, of course. “Stairway to Heaven,” to this day, is one of the most popular rock songs ever written, having earned about $562 million dollars alone. So yeah, if you think it’s a rip-off, it’s definitely worth pursuing.
But is the song a rip-off? It’s such a complicated manner. Jimmy Page has described himself as a musical magpie, while others call him a transformer, but not a thief. And from a musician’s standpoint, it’s very, very difficult to determine what has been “inspired by” and what has been “copied.” I know musicians who struggle with this in every song they write. The two guitar riffs do sound very similar. But honestly, any broken chord progressions sound very similar. Spirit’s song comes in at just under 3 minutes, while the full-length “Stairway” is more than 8 with little shared except the one progression. I can totally see how the songwriter of “Taurus,” feels that it was copied, but I can also see the argument that there are large enough differences in “Stairway” to negate any similarities.
It’ll be a tough case, and one that industry people are watching pretty closely. Interestingly enough, the case was moved to the same California court that ruled in favor of the estate of Marvin Gaye last year over the “Blurred Lines” copyright infringement case, so it’ll be interesting to see if this case has a similar outcome. You can read a pretty good round up of the case at NPR here.
Listen to a comparison of the two songs:
My determination: both need more cowbell.