They're some of the most famous, instantly-recognizable notes in music history. A slow, steady build that promises eight whole minutes of nonsense lyrics and meedly-meedly guitar solos. The ultimate classic rock wank-fest. The song your dad puts on to show how cool he used to be/thinks he still is.
Yup, I'm talking about Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
But in the years since the release of "Stairway" on Zeppelin's Zeppelin IV, many keen-eared critics have pointed out that this FM mainstay may not, in fact, be a singular anthem so much as facsimile of another, lesser-known song by American rock group Spirit. And now, a federal judge has ruled representatives of that band will get their day in court to prove Spirit deserves credit for the iconic riff.
According to The Associated Press, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled last week that lawyers representing the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy "California" Wolfe will be able to present evidence at an upcoming jury trial to determine whether "Stairway" did, in fact, copy elements of Spirit's 1967 instrumental, "Taurus."
Here are the two songs, back to back:
The charge of copyright infringement is one which Wolfe himself seemed to support, having reportedly written in the liner notes of the 1996 reissue of the band's self-titled debut album:
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.
The AP reports that Judge Klausner dropped Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones from the suit, but singer Robert Plant and guitar player Jimmy Page remain named.
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," Klausner reportedly wrote. "What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works … a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."
The "Stairway" trial is scheduled for May 10, in California.