So, Zeppelin is being sued over Stairway. No, they haven’t been sued because it is the song most overplayed by hack guitarists in music stores. Rather, the heirs of guitarist Randy California of Spirit claim that the iconic tune was plagiarized from the song Taurus. Click on the link and see what you think.
Much has been made over the use of strings in the Spirit song. However, to my ear this arrangement sounds nothing like John Paul Jones’ Mellotron melody on Stairway to Heaven. And Jones is certainly capable of writing his own arrangement (I am not aware of California having the same level of musical training).
The main similarity between the two songs is merely an A minor chord played with a descending bass. Now, keep in mind that we are talking about one chord with various “colors” or changes in degree. This is not even a chord progression.
The last time I checked, you could not even copyright a chord progression. Otherwise, every jazz artist who composed a song using “rhythm changes“, otherwise known as the chord progression of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” (and they are legion), would be in violation. Usually, a melody is involved in copyright violation suits. Try singing Stairway to Heaven over Taurus. Once the chord with the descending bass line is over you will have real problems singing the melody. This should tell you something.
Jimmy Page was indeed a master at absorbing his influences and transforming them into transcendent works. If you want to see the genesis of Stairway to Heaven you need to go further back than Spirit and Randy California. You need to go all the way back to Davy Graham, someone whom Page has acknowledged as being one of his influences. Why, Page’s White Summer/ Black Mountainside was partly based upon Graham’s “She Moved Through The Fair” and “Blue Raga”. You will find Graham playing the opening chordal riff from Stairway in the video below. This was in 1959, and documented by the BBC.
Davy Graham was a much larger influence on rock music than Spirit (and I mean no disrespect to Randy California or his heirs). Graham pioneered DADGAD tuning, think Suite Judy Blue Eyes, and inspired Stephen Stills, Paul Simon, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, John Martyn, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Ray Davies and many other acoustic and electric folk and rock guitarists.
I can think of much better examples of rock plagiarism than this. If I were arguing for the defense, I would play the clip of Davy Graham followed by Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and variations thereof, followed by, oh let’s say, “Soul Dressing” by Booker T and the MG’s (which contains the same minor chord with descending bass as Taurus and Stairway only from 1965) . What do you think?