Say it ain’t Zoso.
The news that Led Zeppelin is being sued for allegedly plagiarizing the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” has been all over the news today, along with audio comparisons of the tune with the alleged source of that intro, “Taurus” by the band Spirit. Does the knowledge that Spirit’s guitar riff may have seeped into Jimmy Page’s skull while they were touring together in 1968 and 1969 in any way diminish The Greatest Song in the World? Has your entire Stairway-loving life been a lie?
Really, how similar are they?
Okay, that’s pretty similar, similar enough for the family of Spirit guitarist and awesome name-haver Randy California to sue Led Zeppelin for a songwriting credit. The similarities have long been noted, but even now, some people are under the impression that California wasn’t all that bothered about it. That’s clearly not the case, if this 1996 interview with Listener magazine is any indication:
Listener: Speaking of Led Zeppelin, the guitar introduction to your 1967 composition, “Taurus,” is a dead ringer for Zeppelin’s introduction to “Stairway to Heaven,” released in 1971. Did they ever acknowledge their artistic debt to you? They must of known “Taurus,” having performed as your warmup band.
California: Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact… I’d say it was a rip-off. 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 some day their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad! [laughs]
Listener: Well, take comfort in the fact that you’re the true author of one of the most instantly recognizable guitar riffs in rock history.
California: Yeah, right…
According to Rolling Stone, California’s family waited this long to bring the suit because “they did not have the means to pay attorneys,” adding that “At the end of California’s life, he would play sitar at an Indian restaurant in exchange for food.”
Of course, California and Page just might owe something of a debt to this guy:
Led Zeppelin also has a history of crediting others after the fact, under threat of legal action, and frequently danced around the line between influence and appropriation. It’s hard to argue, though, that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t vastly superior to the seeds from which it allegedly grew.
Some would even argue that it’s the Greatest and Best Song in the World, as Tenacious D did in this sketch from their eponymous 1999 HBO show:
The joke, of course, is that they can’t remember the greatest song in the world, but their “Tribute” is loaded with musical references to “Stairway to Heaven,” which, come to think of it, might just have been a sly meta-critique of Jimmy Page’s suggestibility. Perhaps to avoid being hauled into court by Zep, Tenacious D removed any and all musical references to “Stairway to Heaven” from the album version of “Tribute.”
That may have been a good call on their part. In a bit of hilarious irony, Led Zeppelin agreed to allow “Stairway to Heaven” to be used in the 2006 film Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny, then demanded it be removed after the scene had already been shot. The D, on the other hand, are famously lax about guarding their shit, encouraging fans to tape and share their concerts.
If California’s relatives should prevail, though, does any of this diminish the power and legacy of “Stairway to Heaven?” I mean, it is just the intro, and if a million guitar class recitals (and Pat Boone) couldn’t ruin it, can anything?