Led Zeppelin are in a bit of trouble at the moment. They’re currently in court fighting allegations that they ripped off their iconic tune ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from an earlier song called ‘Taurus’ by the American prog-rock band Spirit.
Guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant, who co-wrote ‘Stairway’, both claim to have never heard Spirit’s composition, even though Led Zeppelin had opened for Spirit when the UK rock legends made their US debut in December 1968 in Denver.
Page, meanwhile, has insisted the opening ‘Stairway’ riff is a common musical refrain that can be heard in many other songs, including ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from the soundtrack to the Disney film Mary Poppins.
Music expert Lawrence Ferrara testified on Friday that the only similarity between ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is a “descending chromatic minor line progression”, which has been used in many pop songs.
In fact, its use in a classical composition from the early 1600s by pre-baroque composer Giovanni Battista Granata could mean that the ‘Stairway’ opening riff is in fact in the public domain and thus not subject to any copyright whatsoever.
The opening of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ admittedly sounds a lot like the riff in ‘Taurus’, but take one listen, for example, to a 1950s version of Granata’s piece or a composition unearthed by Ferrara entitled ‘To Catch a Shad’.
As Digital Music News reports, ‘To Catch a Shad’ is an ancient folk song that is also in the public domain and just one listen to a 1963 rendition performed by the Modern Folk Quartet will help you understand just what Ferrara, and Plant and Page, are getting at.
“That progression, that movement, has been around for 300 years, dating back to the 17th century,” Ferrara told the court. “In the 20th century, before ‘Taurus’, a large number of popular musicians, artists and composers also used it.”
According to Digital Music News, the court had trouble telling ‘Stairway’ and ‘To Catch a Shad’ apart. So does that mean that Zeppelin ripped off an old obscure folk song? After all, they were known for rearranging and reinterpreting old blues numbers.
But perhaps they did. Despite the fact that we can hear songs that sound almost identical to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ appearing throughout history, lawyers for Spirit must prove to the jury that Page and Plant intentionally ripped off ‘Taurus’ for their composition.