A U.S. Court Thinks the Most Famous Song in History Might Be Stolen

Source: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Everything you know about classic rock music history may be a lie, according to one federal lawsuit.

Years ago, a relatively unknown '70s band called Spirit accused Led Zeppelin of stealing the famous opening riff to "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's song "Taurus." The claim was mostly overlooked at the time, but now descendants of Spirit's founders have taken the accusation to a Pennsylvania court, where the surviving members of Led Zeppelin are being tried for the "falsification of rock history."

Source: YouTube

Legend has it that Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page divined the riffs for "Stairway for Heaven" while holed up in a remote cottage in Wales, sitting by a fire beside singer Robert Plant. Spirit claims otherwise. The prosecution alleges that Led Zeppelin got their inspiration while Spirit was on tour opening for Led Zeppelin the year they released "Taurus." 

That's true — and it seems Zeppelin was struck by Spirit. Page said in interviews that Spirit's performances were "very good" and moved him on an "emotional level." He even integrated certain elements of Spirit's set into Led Zeppelin's performances, covering their song "Fresh Garbage" on multiple occasions, and experimenting with some of the electronic instruments Spirit pioneered, such as the theremin.

Source: YouTube

In all likelihood Page did hear "Taurus" on one occasion or another, and the opening to "Stairway" does bear a resemblance. It's up to the courts to decide whether enough was taken to constitute adding Randy California, Spirit's lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, to the track's writing credits.

Source: YouTube

This is not from the first time that Led Zeppelin has gone to court for failing to credit borrowed riffs and melodies. Page has previously blamed Robert Plant, the band's singer and lyricist, for most of the earlier instances, as in this 1993 interview with Guitar World:

"I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used. I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases you would never know what the original source could be. Maybe not in every case — but in most cases. So most of the comparisons rest on the lyrics. And Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn't always do that — which is what brought on most of the grief. They couldn't get us on the guitar parts of the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics. We did take some liberties, I must say."

This time around, this case has no lyrics; this is about a riff-for-riff comparison. But a solid seven minutes of music in "Stairway to Heaven" have nothing to do with the Spirit track. It's a compelling story — especially given the similarities in the opening — but the rest of the song is different enough that giving California a writing credit would be far more credit than is due.

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Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes is a senior staff writer at Mic focused on music, activism and the intersection between the two. He's based in New York and can be reached at tom@mic.com.

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