Compare: Did Led Zeppelin steal 'Stairway to Heaven' from Spirit's 'Taurus'?

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Published by: Dan Calabrese on Thursday April 14th, 2016

It starts to sound awfully familiar at the 0:45 mark.

Your first reaction, same as mine, was, "It couldn't be! Page and Plant didn't steal Stairway to Heaven from some band no one ever heard of." But that's been the claim for some time of the estate of "Randy California" - real name Randy Wolfe, who was Spirit's lead guitarist and who wrote the song Taurus.

Spirit recorded Taurus in 1968. Zeppelin played some shared gigs with Spirit in 1968 and 1969, and released Stairway to Heaven in 1971. The ripoff claim is hardly new. It's been around since at least 1979, when Wolfe himself made the accusation just months before his death by drowning in Hawaii. But this is the first time the claim has gotten as far as a trial.

So what do you think? First listen to Taurus, and especially pay attention right around the 45-second mark:

Most of you know Stairway to Heaven by heart, but for comparison's sake, here it is anyway:

My first reaction when I heard the melody at :45 was, Holy crap, Zep is gonna pay. But when you keep listening, it's not so clear. The two riffs develop very differently, and you certainly claim that the entire construction of Stairway to Heaven was based on these few notes. At least not to my untrained ears. Maybe someone who is more knowledgeable about the mechanics of musical composition can explain to me why this is a truly egregious ripoff.

This, I thought, was also interesting:

This isn’t the first time Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarizing other artists. In 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek explained that the band has built somewhat of a reputation for “borrowing” bits and pieces from blues and folk singers. Over several decades Led Zeppelin has been forced to alter credits and royalties for some of its biggest songs after artists successfully won similar copyright infringement lawsuits against it. The plagiarism accusations have even lead to rise in YouTube mashup videos comparing Led Zeppelin’s songs to their alleged influencers.

I guess you could look at that in one of two ways. One is: See? Page and Plant are serial music theives! But there might be a more innocuous explanation, which is simply that there are only so many ways you can combine notes and chords into sounds, and it's inevitable at some point that different people will come up with similar ideas. Also, if you listen to a lot of different music, it's entire possible that a certain song might embed a melody or chord progression in your head, and when you start working on your own stuff, you don't even realize that something you start with was influenced by something else you heard at some point.

There's a share of more than $500 million in earnings at stake if Zeppelin loses the case, so it's not just a matter of professional pride. When it comes right down to it, your assessment is as good as mine. So you heard both songs. What do you think?

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