Next month, the battle between the surviving members of the classic rock group Led Zeppelin and Michael Skidmore, trustee for Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, heads to court. Just last week, a U.S. district judge claimed that there was enough evidence in the case to warrant a trial, which will begin May 10th of this year. The two sides will clash over who should get the writing credits for the timeless rock masterpiece “Stairway to Heaven,” a song released by Zeppelin in 1971 which bears striking similarities to the guitar riff found in Spirit’s “Taurus.” “While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry,” the district judge wrote in a 20-page opinion, “the similarities here transcend this core structure.” Many, including Skidmore, believe that Led Zeppelin purposefully stole the riff from the band without giving credit to Wolfe or any of his fellow bandmates. While I do believe that there is a strong resemblance between the two riffs, I do not think Skidmore should win this legal battle.
First, when “Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971, Wolfe did not take any legal action and he maintained this stance until his death in 1997. In an interview with Wolfe in 1991, the Spirit guitarist stated that “if [Led Zeppelin] wanted to use [‘Taurus’], that’s fine…I’ll let them have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.” A lawsuit battle with Zeppelin did not seem to be something Wolfe desired, and I do not think Skidmore is acting on Wolfe’s wishes but rather on his own interests.
Second, although the riff in “Taurus” resembles the one found in “Stairway to Heaven,” the chromatic chord progression is common in many songs, and it is not the first time a similar chord progression was used in two different hits. As demonstrated by the Australian comedy rock band Axis of Awesome, just 4 simple chords are found in a large handful of pop hits and are played in the same order and rhythm. In addition, the riff found in “Taurus” is not exactly the same as the one in “Stairway to Heaven.” The last chord differs in both progressions, and although it seems “Taurus” may have been Zeppelin’s inspiration for that specific guitar riff, It does not warrant legal action against the band. After all, “Stairway to Heaven” is famous for much more than that one opening section. The entire song lasts for about 8 full minutes, and most of it doesn’t steal anything from Spirit. The lyrics, the guitar solo, and even the majority of the guitar parts themselves are original and were written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.
Every musician gets influence from somewhere, and although the two riffs sound very similar, Led Zeppelin still managed to create an original classic rock masterpiece. At the very most, Skidmore should only receive a small percentage of the revenue generated by the track, which should also be proportional to the amount of times the riff was used in the entire song. Led Zeppelin should still get the majority of the credit and the money for “Stairway to Heaven” since the whole track and its success wasn’t due to one guitar riff; there were many other elements that made it such a hit. During his lifetime, Randy Wolfe stated that he didn’t really mind that the riff sounded the same. If he was still alive today, I do not think his stance would be different.