Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Stairway to Heaven”

In the movie Wayne’s World, Wayne goes to the music store and begins to play the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” on a Fender Stratocaster that he calls “Excalibur” only to be shown a sign that reads,”No Stairway to Heaven.” Perhaps overplayed on classic rock radio and in music stores, “Stairway to Heaven” is great nonetheless. Running over eight minutes, the song is in a category by itself. Though not issued as a single and available only on Led Zeppelin’s untitled 1972 LP (often called Led Zeppelin IV or Zoso, approximating the glyphs that adorn the album), it became “the most requested song ever played on American radio.”

Led Zeppelin’s critics, such as Will Shade, are quick to point out, however, that the opening guitar riff bears a striking similarity to the song “Taurus” by Spirit, included on their self-titled debut album which was released in 1968. Randy California, who wrote “Taurus”, was aware of the similarity between his song and “Stairway to Heaven” but always maintained a low-key response when asked about it.  A number of websites have repeated (without attribution) the notion that Randy California didn’t regard “Stairway to Heaven” as plagiarism, but rather as a “reworking” of his song.  This is definitely not the case.  Randy California clearly had strong feelings about this, even though he chose not to make a big issue of it.  According to his mother, Bernice Pearl, “when people would ask Randy about [Stairway to Heaven], he used to always say, ‘Let it go.’” but then she went on to say, “There should have been at least one telephone call from Led Zeppelin, some sort of ‘Thank you.’ Something. But it never came.”

He had the chance to have his say about the similarity between “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” in his song-by-song liner notes for the 1996 reissue of Spirit, but all he wrote was, “People always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sounds exactly like ‘Taurus,’ which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played ‘Fresh-Garbage’ in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour.” He left it at that, but when asked directly about it in an interview with Jeff McLaughlin in Listener shortly before his death, Randy California was much more direct,

Listener: Speaking of Led Zeppelin, the guitar introduction to your 1967 composition, “Taurus,” is a dead ringer for Zeppelin’s introduction to “Stairway to Heaven,” released in 1971. Did they ever acknowledge their artistic debt to you? They must of known “Taurus,” having performed as your warmup band.

California: Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact… I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, “Thank you,” never said, “Can we pay you some money for it?”  It’s kind of a sore point with me.  Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it.  I don’t know.  There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists.  But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad!  [laughs]

Listener: Well, take comfort in the fact that you’re the true author of one of the most instantly recognizable guitar riffs in rock history.

California: Yeah, right…

from Jeff McLaughlin, “Spirit’s Still Willing: A Conversation with Randy California,” Listener,  Winter 1997, p. 51. Special thanks to Jeff McLaughlin for providing an original issue of Listener containing his interview with Randy California

Given the similarity between “Stairway to Heaven” and Randy California’s “Taurus”, Robert Plant’s lyrics “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west/And my spirit is crying for leaving” take on a different meaning.  Perhaps this is some sort of nod to Randy California, but Led Zeppelin never acknowledged their debt to Randy California.

Beyond that, however, other claims of plagiarism leveled against “Stairway to Heaven” are groundless.  A few other songs that predate “Stairway to Heaven” feature a descending chord pattern similar to the one that opens the song.  The website Everthing2.com mentions a couple of songs that fall into this category, “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers and “Ice Cream Dreams” by Cartoone, but the opening used in each of these songs is more rudimentary and clearly distinct from “Stairway to Heaven”.  What’s more interesting about Cartoone is that they only released one album and Jimmy Page actually plays on it.  “And She’s Lonely” by the Chocolate Watchband contains a section that is very similar to the opening of “Stairway to Heaven.”  Listen particularly to the passage at about three minutes into the song and you’ll hear the pattern, although it resolves a little differently.  “And She’s Lonely” was included on the 1969 LP One Step Beyond and in Led Zeppelin: 1968-1980 Keith Shadwick points out that the Chocolate Watchband had played a show with the Yardbirds in California when Jimmy Page was with the band.

Everything2.com also mentions that Jimmy Page’s guitar solo in “Stairway to Heaven” bears some resemblance to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solo in “All Along the Watchtower.”  Everthing2.com rightly points out, however, that these are common patterns that have been worked and reworked in many songs.

Often the charges of plagiarism leveled against Led Zeppelin involve Robert Plant’s lyrics, but that is not the case with “Stairway to Heaven”.  On the eve of the release of Led Zeppelin IV, Jimmy Page told Chris Welch, “The words are brilliant—they are the best Robert has ever written.”  They were so proud of the lyrics that they printed them on the gatefold sleeve of the album.  In Led Zeppelin – Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, Chris Welch does mention “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)” by Procol Harum as a song that predates “Starway to Heaven” and contains a similar image with the line “the stairs up to heaven lead straight down to hell”. Other than that image, however, “Stairway to Heaven” shares little with “Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)”, both in terms of the music or the lyrics.

Skip Softly (My Moonbeams)
by Gary Brooker, Keith Reid

Skip softly, my moonbeams, avoid being seen
Pretend that perhaps you are part of a dream
which seen by some other such person as me
would only glow smiling and nod and agree

Skip softly, my moonbeams, for I have heard tell
that the stairs up to heaven lead straight down to hell
that pride is the last thing which comes before fall
I’d as soon talk to you as make love to a wall

The image of a “stairway to heaven” had been employed a number of times before Led Zeppelin used it.  Jack Guthrie recorded a song called “I’m Building a Stairway to Heaven” in 1944, and a song of the same title was recorded by the Lewis Family some years later.  The 1946 British film “A Matter of Life and Death” was retitled “Stairway to Heaven” when it was released in the United States, and Neil Sedaka had a hit with a song called “Stairway to Heaven” in 1960.  No one would suggest, however, that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” had anything to do with Neil Sedaka’s song or any of the other works mentioned.  They only share the title image.  It’s interesting to note how these earlier songs use the image of a stairway to heaven in a purely positive way, while Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin use it in a darker, more ironic sense.  Neil Sedaka swoons for his “heavenly angel” and promises to build a stairway to heaven to reach his idealized love, and the Lewis Family build their “stairway to heaven” through their faith in Christ.  Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” maintains that you can’t buy your way into heaven.  The shift in the meaning of the imagery says more about the spirit of the times than about any specific debt Led Zeppelin owes to Procol Harum, though.

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