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A Bustle In Led Zeppelin's Hedgerow Over Who Built 'Stairway To Heaven'

Friday, May 23, 2014

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin in Hamburg, Germany, 1973 Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin in Hamburg, Germany, 1973 (Heinrich Klaffs/Wikipedia Commons)

A few weeks ago on Soundcheck, music journalist Joel Selvin talked about the early Van Morrison hit with his band Them, "Here Comes The Night." The song features some studio guitar work from a young Jimmy Page, who (along with the song's writer, Bert Berns) took a guitar lick from the Marv Johnson song "Come On And Stop" and made it the centerpiece of the Morrison/Them song. 

Fast forward a few years, and Jimmy Page was one of the most celebrated songwriters in the rock world. But, as it turns out, Page's propensity for re-purposing sounds and patterns from older music never really abated: to date, Led Zeppelin has been enjoined to retroactively assign songwriting credits -- and often divert royalties -- to the creators of source material, on multiple occasions.

Page and and the band reached a pinnacle with its untitled 1971 album, often called Led Zeppelin IV, which featured the masterful centerpiece "Stairway To Heaven." But in the latest development of a decades-long inquiry into the many sources, credited or not, of Zeppelin's material, that song is almost certainly going to be the subject of a lawsuit seeking songwriting acknowledgement to a late, largely unknown guitarist named Randy California. 

The knotty new legal troubles for Led Zeppelin is the subject of Bloomberg News reporter Vernon Silver's recent piece, "Stairway To Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar." In a conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer, Silver plays the source material in question -- 1968's "Taurus" by California's band Spirit -- and examine the case to be made that California's estate is entitled to a portion of the royalties from "Stairway To Heaven."


Check out this old Soundcheck Smackdown about "Stairway To Heaven," and you can also read John Schaefer's thoughts about the epic length of the song.


Vernon Silver

Comments [4]


The only thing that this piece shows is that rock music is DERIVATIVE. No surprise there. We can easily imagine Page hearing the Spirit song, liking the riff, and then changing it for his own sound (and of course the rest of Stairway bares no resemblance) This happens all the time, and is a huge part of songwriting - being inspired by other's music to create your own. And BTW, can't imagine how this won't get thrown out of court on statute of limitations grounds. Too many years have passed since this similarity came to light.

May. 28 2014 03:56 PM

One of the reasons people--even Led Zep fans--have always been cool to Stairway is the beginning--anyone who plays guitars recognizes the beginning, you learned in a class or a lesson or by listening to music--basic arpeggios/chords. I found this segment shoddy--the journo has obviously made up his mind, cool. But--offer some defense or explanation. Plus--let's be clear--Mr. California is dead. This is a money-grab by....? One quote may haunt Mr. C., I believe the Guardian carried a piece on this where he was quoted as saying (paraphrasing) all I want is a thanks. I guess Tolkien's estate will be suing soon for those astounding horrible lyrics. Or... the estate of the makers of "Stairway to Heaven"

May. 26 2014 05:57 PM
soul solo

this is no coincidence. artists do "steal" from other artists. when they do, they should gladly acknowledge it.

May. 23 2014 09:53 PM
embo from RVA

As much as I wish Randy California well, I just don't hear much similarity between "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven."

Is the latter evocative of the first? Sure -- but only in its opening few bars, and even then the tune is DIFFERENT. I haven't heard Taurus full-length, but I doubt it morphs the way Stairway does into heavy-metal riffing and screaming vocals, either.

Considering that Led Zep toured with Spirit during their first U.S. visit and also covered some of their songs, it's logical that some of Spirit's -- ahem -- spirit would infuse their own music-making. But I don't see any plagiarims here (the way there clearly was on the Dazed and Confused pairings you played earlier) -- and I don't think the lawsuit has any merit.

May. 23 2014 03:41 PM

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