Led Zeppelin is considered to be one of the most iconic bands of all time, selling millions of albums and influencing a generation of fans and fellow musicians alike. Growing up, there wasn’t a year that went by without my father finding occasion to tell the tale of racing to the record store to buy Physical Graffiti in 1975, or seeing the “mighty Zep” at the Pontiac Silverdome on their legendary 1977 tour. Their most-famous song, “Stairway to Heaven,” has become a staple of both rock radio and guitar stores. But a comparison of “Stairway” to another work by Led Zeppelin’s one-time tourmates has some questioning if indeed the song remains the same.
Representatives of the band Spirit plan to file a copyright lawsuit to try and block the upcoming re-release of the Led Zeppelin album that features “Stairway to Heaven.” The suit is being filed by the trust of Randy California, the former Spirit member who passed away in 1997. California wrote “Taurus,” the song from which Led Zeppelin is alleged to have lifted much of the opening chord progression. The song appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album in 1968, the year before Spirit began performing with Led Zeppelin regularly. According to Led Zeppelin lore, the group’s most famous song was crafted in a Welsh cottage named Bron-Yr-Aur in 1970 by guitarist Jimmy Page, though accounts from members of Spirit cast doubt upon this version of events. In a Bloomberg Businessweek story, Spirit’s bassist claims that Led Zeppelin first heard the song when they opened for Spirit at a concert in Denver in December 1968, and regularly thereafter when the groups performed together in 1969 and 1970. “Stairway to Heaven” appeared on Led Zeppelin’s untitled 1971 album, commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV. To date, the album has sold over 23 million copies, and “Stairway to Heaven” is estimated to have generated a staggering $562 million in revenue for the band.
Unfortunately, or perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not the first instance of Led Zeppelin being accused of misappropriating the work of another artist, given how steeped the group was in the American blues. The group settled with the publisher of Howlin’ Wolf Burnett over the similarities between their “The Lemon Song” and Burnett’s “Killing Floor.” They also settled a suit brought by bluesman Willie Dixon in 1987 over similarities between his “You Need Love” and the band’s “Whole Lotta Love,” as well as one brought by Anne Bredon, the writer of the original “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” in the mid-1980s. Most recently, Page and his publishing companies were sued by Jake Holmes over a Led Zeppelin version of his song “Dazed and Confused,” with the case being dismissed in November 2011. And while the group may be facing their greatest legal challenge to date, they will no doubt retain their status as titans of rock and roll with a devoted following.