The estate of the late Randy California is suing Led Zeppelin. They claim that Jimmy Page stole the opening riff to Stairway to Heaven from a song written by California called Taurus. Did Jimmy steal the riff? I think the simple answer is “yes.”
It’s not simple though. The riff that opens Stairway to Heaven is almost identical to the opening of Spirit’s song Taurus. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on their first American tour and wrote Stairway two years later. Perhaps the riff was lifted, but this was how many musicians approached songwriting. Ideas were borrowed and reused all the time! Just watch RiP! A Remix Manifesto to see some more examples of this and why it’s ok!
What’s more interesting and important is the fact that Randy California knew and based on comments he made over the years, didn’t seem to mind. If he was alive today, I don’t think this lawsuit would be happening.
Finally… this reusing of ideas seemed to be all Led Zeppelin could do…
If you listen closely to any music at all you can find ideas and influences that come from other sources. After years of resisting this idea I’ve come to the realization that this is how music evolves – we take old ideas, turn them around, try out new ways of playing them, and eventually something new emerges. In the case of Led Zeppelin, they may have relied heavily on those other sources but performing in their original style did bring something new to old ideas which is what is, perhaps, most important. Don’t get me started on how I feel about the blatant, bald-faced plagiarism in most pop music today. The lifting of this riff seems like nothing compared to the feeding frenzy the pop industry is engaging on the corpses of any other pop song from any era!