Surprising all who thought the first lawsuit that would be brought against “Stairway To Heaven” would be Guitar Center v. Led Zeppelin, the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy California has filed suit against the band for allegedly plagiarizing the intro riff to the most inescapable rock song of all time. It’s a charge that’s been made off and on for decades, with numerous fans pointing out the similarities between “Stairway” and the Spirit instrumental “Taurus,” written in 1968—two years before Jimmy Page says he first pieced “Stairway” together. Adding fuel to those claims was the fact that Led Zeppelin had opened for Spirit during an early tour of America, where Page almost certainly heard “Taurus” live. However, the accusation has never really progressed beyond YouTube comparison videos and fervent arguments in record shops that reek vaguely of cat litter.
But all that has changed with the belated suit now being put forth by lawyers for the late California and Spirit bassist Mark Andes, who lays out the case to Business Week that Led Zeppelin certainly would have heard—and quite possibly been taken with—“Taurus” during the bands’ joint tour. (“It was such a pretty moment, and it would typically come after a big forceful number and always got a good response. They would have seen it in that context,” Andes says.) As for why he’s only now doing something about it, Andes says he “only recently” noticed the similarities between Spirit’s plucked arpeggios and the famed opening of “Stairway,” adding, “The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement. I can’t explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note.”
As far as California—who drowned while rescuing his then-12-year-old son in 1997—he remained mostly quiet on the debate while he was alive, though became more open about it in his final years. In the liner notes to a 1996 reissue of Spirit’s debut, California mentioned that people often brought up the similarities, and while he stopped short of making any accusations, he did point out that Zeppelin had also been known to cover his group’s “Fresh Garbage” in its set. In an interview released the year of his death, he was far more forthcoming:
I’d say it was a ripoff. 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.
The timing of this new lawsuit also isn’t coincidental, as Led Zeppelin is preparing to reissue all of its albums this summer—a release that could add to the already-considerable sales and royalties earned by “Stairway” to date. (By 2008, Conde Nast placed its value at around $562 million.)
It also isn’t the first time Zeppelin has faced such charges: Past lawsuits over “The Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Dazed And Confused” shed light on the band’s frequent appropriation of other artists’ blues and folk songs, and resulted in the belated addition of writing credits for their authors—and those were just the successful settlements.
Credit is all that Andes and lawyers for California’s estate say they’re seeking right now, with Andes saying, “It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely.” Of course, to get there, they would have to prove that “Stairway” and “Taurus” are substantially similar—something that could be difficult to argue, given the way Led Zeppelin expanded on those chord progressions to create a song so strange and unique. No doubt attorneys for Zeppelin are already preparing the classic “Bustle In The Hedgerow” defense.