Randy California’s Thoughts on “Stairway to Heaven”

Several years ago when I was researching Led Zeppelin’s sources of inspiration, I was looking for any quotes from Randy California about the similarity between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus,” which was written by Randy California and included on Spirit’s 1968 self-titled debut album–three years ahead of “Stairway to Heaven”. The only reference I found was in an interview with Jeff McLaughlin in the Winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine. McLaughlin interviewed Randy California in late November, 1996, and the magazine was published just before his death in January, 1997. Randy California drowned rescuing his 12-year-old son caught in a rip current swimming in the ocean in Hawaii.

Listener-Winter1997In the interview, Jeff McLaughlin brings up the subject of “Stairway to Heaven” and Randy California makes it clear that he regarded the Led Zeppelin song as “a rip-off”. Randy California didn’t take any legal action against Led Zeppelin but with Zep’s recent reissues and Jake Holmes’s success in having the songwriting credits for “Dazed and Confused” changed, the estate of Randy California has sued Led Zeppelin. The case is about to go to trial.

I’ve corresponded with Jeff McLaughlin a few times as this case has unfolded. Recently I asked him about something I read in the May 4, 2016, Bloomberg article entitled “This Bar-Brawling Lawyer Might Just Take Down Led Zeppelin.” The article states, “Before his death, he had mentioned in interviews how he felt cheated out of credit for the Led Zeppelin song, but he had never acted on it.” I noted the plural “interviews” and asked Jeff McLaughlin if Randy California made any public statements about this issue other than the interview in Listener.  I wanted to know if this was just lazy reporting by Vernon Silver (who referred to Spirit as “a relatively forgotten band” in a 2014 article and as “a long-forgotten band” in this most recent article), or if Randy California been more candid in interviews than I had been aware of. Jeff McLaughlin responded,

My first assessment would be that this is – as you said – somewhat lazy reporting. Randy did not discuss this issue publicly, but there was some common knowledge among Spirit fans and there were references in others’ writings. I don’t recall exactly how much I knew about the Taurus issue when I interviewed Randy, but it was obviously enough to formulate a question. What I do clearly recall, however, is that after the interview was published, I heard from (or read comments from) Spirit fans who were glad that Randy (known for his humility and peaceful nature) finally expressed himself on the issue. In the ensuing years (as you know), references to the infringement by Led Zep have frequently cited that one interview as evidence of Randy’s views. So, it is true that Randy “felt cheated” and that he “never acted on it,” but, from what I know, it’s not true that he broadcast those facts very widely. By the way, in my interview, he did not explain (nor did I ask, which in hindsight, maybe I should have) why he did not take any action. From some of the reporting I’ve seen on this, that is depicted as a weakness in the case, i.e., “If the composer didn’t care about it then, why should we take it seriously now?”

Jeff McLaughlin also sent along an audio clip from his interview with Randy California where they discuss “Taurus”. As McLaughlin explains,

Randy had just finished talking about why Spirit did not play at Woodstock. He dropped the name of Led Zeppelin, which gave me a lead-in to the question about Taurus. In a part of my question that was edited out of the printed version, I refer to it as a “legendary” story and then Randy confirms it. But I feel fairly certain that, if I hadn’t asked about it, he wouldn’t have mentioned it.

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

Despite not taking legal action, I think it’s safe to say Randy California had strong feelings about “Stairway to Heaven” and Jimmy Page’s failure to give credit where credit was due.

Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Trampled Under Foot”

“Trampled Under Foot” was included on the 1975 album Physical Graffiti. By the this time criticisms about Led Zeppelin lifting ideas from African American artists were commonplace, regardless of whether these claims had any substance or not, and Led Zeppelin were clearly aware of their reputation as music thieves. As Physical Graffiti was climbing the charts, Led Zeppelin performed at Earls Court Arena on May 17, 1975. Just before they played “Trampled Under Foot” Robert Plant told the audience that Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” had been the source of inspiration for the song. John Bonham then jokingly accused Robert Plant of stealing the lyrics. Led Zeppelin didn’t appear to have a care in the world at this point, though–plagiarism or otherwise. According to his review of the concert in Melody Maker, Chis Welch asserted, “This was the band firing on all cylinders, at their absolute best”.

John Bonham jokingly accuses Robert Plant of stealing the lyrics to “Trampled Under Foot” at Earls Court Arena, London, May 17, 1975

But did Led Zeppelin really steal the lyrics from “Terraplane Blues”?
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Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism “In My Time of Dying”

“In My Time of Dying” is a song that already had a long history by the time Led Zeppelin recorded their version, which was included on their 1975 double-LP Physical Graffiti. With its roots in spirituals dating before the twentieth century, this song has been recorded under a number of titles. Perhaps the earliest recorded version was by country blues and gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson, who recorded it under the title “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” in 1927. This recording and others mentioned below are included in a MixCloud compilation embedded at the end of this post.
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Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Boogie With Stu”

Despite my criticisms about Led Zeppelin’s sorry history of not citing their sources I remain a Led Zeppelin fan. Physical Graffiti
has always been one of my favorite albums and I pre-ordered the Deluxe Edition of that album a few weeks ago. It arrived in the mail late last week.

As I’ve said elsewhere, though Led Zeppelin failed to give proper songwriting credit in several cases, they (almost) always brought something original to each recording, enough to justify partial songwriting credit. Two Led Zeppelin tracks, however, stand out as particularly flagrant examples of plagiarism: “Dazed and Confused” and “Boogie With Stu”. Recent releases now acknowledge that “Dazed and Confused” is “inspired by” Jake Holmes, though it took the threat of legal action to make even that insufficient alteration. The songwriting credits for “Boogie With Stu,” however, remain the same as when Physical Graffiti was released in 1975.
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When the Levee Breaks

On Led Zeppelin IV (or Untitled, The Runes Album, Zoso or whatever you want to call it), Led Zeppelin listed Memphis Minnie along with the four band members on the songwriting credits for “When the Levee Breaks”. In this case, Led Zeppelin fairly gives credit where credit is due in the creation of this monumental masterpiece. The lyrics follow Memphis Minnie’s original “When the Levee Breaks” but this is not a straightforward cover of that song. Led Zeppelin completely reworked the music into a heavy psychedelic track that bears only a distant relationship to the original. As performed by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe, “When the Levee Breaks” is a country blues number with spare but deft instrumentation. Kansas Joe sings and accompanies himself on guitar, while Memphis Minnie plays lead guitar with a “Spanish” tuning, according to Steve Calt in the liner notes for the Yazoo compilation Roots Of Rock (1991).
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Babe I’m Gonna Leave You

One of the reasons Jimmy Page liked the name “Led Zeppelin” was that it suggested music that was both light and heavy.  Jimmy Page’s vision for the group was to mix heavy, blues-based rock with acoustic, folk-influenced music.  In their initial meeting, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant played a number of songs to introduce their musical tastes to each other.  One of the songs Jimmy Page chose was an acoustic folk song Joan Baez had performed called “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”.  Jimmy Page knew from the start that he wanted to rework this song in a style that would become characteristic of Led Zeppelin, contrasting heavy rock with the lighter acoustic sections.  “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” was included on Led Zeppelin I with the songwriting credits “Traditional, arr. Page”.  On recent reissues, however, this song is now also credited to Anne Bredon.
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Black Mountain Side

Jimmy Page was well versed in a variety of guitar styles.  Beyond blues and rock, Page was fascinated with folk styles, and one of his biggest influences was the British folk guitarist Bert Jansch.  Page loved to combine Celtic and Indian influences, so he took the main theme of Bert Jansch’s “Blackwaterside”, performed as an instrumental adding a tabla and retitled it “Black Mountain Side”.  Where Jansch’s recording of “Blackwaterside” is credited as “Traditional, arranged Jansch”, Jimmy Page gave songwriting credits for “Black Mountain Side” to himself.  In a 1977 interview in Guitar Player Page admitted, “I wasn’t totally original on that. It had been done in the folk clubs a lot; Annie Briggs was the first one that I heard do that riff. I was playing it as well, and then there was Bert Jansch’s version. He’s the one who crystallized all the acoustic playing, as far as I’m concerned.”
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Randy California’s Relatives Sue Led Zep Over “Stairway to Heaven”

Several news outlets are reporting that Randy California’s relatives are suing Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over Jimmy Page’s use of a riff written by Randy California. The lawsuit seeks damages for Page’s use of the opening of Spirit’s song “Taurus” for “Starway to Heaven”. Because of the statute of limitations, they can only sue for damages from the last three years but given that Jimmy Page is working on reissuing Led Zeppelin’s catalog, this could result in a substantial amount of money. Other such cases, such as Jake Holmes suing over “Dazed and Confused” have also resulted in changing songwriting credits. CNN had an interesting discussion about the legal aspects of this case.

Some of the news stories used a quote from an interview Jeff McLaughlin did with Randy California in the Winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine, shortly before Randy California died. This quote is included in my “Stairway to Heaven” post and the NPR article by Bill Chappell included a link to my blog. Rolling Stone and The Guardian quoted from the McLaughlin interview, as well. It’s interesting how I got this article. I had found part of Randy California’s quote on a discussion forum and included it in an earlier version of my piece on “Stairway to Heaven”. At that time Jeff McLaughlin contacted me to tell me that I only had part of Randy California’s quote from the interview. He told me that Randy California was actually much more direct in accusing Jimmy Page of stealing his work and expressed some resentment that was missing from the partial quote I had originally used. Jeff McLaughlin sent me the full issue and I’ve used the full quote in subsequent updates of my post on “Stairway to Heaven”.

Jimmy Page Interviewed in the New York Times

On May 15, 2014, The New York Times published an interview with Jimmy Page. He’s remastering Led Zeppelin’s catalog again. I have no problem with his concern about Led Zeppelin’s legacy but then they get around to talking about Led Zeppelin’s music being sampled:

Q. In part because of Led Zeppelin’s classic riffs, you guys are right up there with George Clinton and James Brown as sources for samples. And, of course, you did something yourself with Puff Daddy involving “Kashmir.” So how do you feel about your music being sampled for hip-hop records?

A. In a creative sense, it’s fantastic. Even if you don’t play an instrument, you’re writing new things. These guys come up with some amazing work, in the electronics and the mixing. I find it really fun to listen to. As far as the business side of it, however, the issue of sampling is thorny. The problem is people not getting paid for performances, Across the board, they are being pirated. Their music gets played, and they don’t get paid. I have a problem with that. I really do.

Q. You’ve also been on the other side of that debate, especially on the first couple of Led Zeppelin records, where you were criticized for using the material of Chicago blues greats, especially Willie Dixon, without acknowledging their authorship.

A. Yeah, but he got credited.

Q. But only after a lot of legal wrangling, so I wanted to ask in retrospect how did that happen, and once it was brought to the attention of your management, why did they resist it?

A. I had a riff, which is a unique riff, O.K., and I had a structure for the song that was a unique structure. That is it. However, within the lyrics of it, there’s “You Need Love,” and there are similarities within the lyrics. Now I’m not pointing a finger at anybody, but I’m just saying that’s what happened, and Willie Dixon got credit. Fair enough.

As I’ve said elsewhere, Led Zeppelin is among the greats. Yet I’ve always been bothered by their resistance to cite their sources, even after their not only their success was assured, but their lasting legacy, as well. What this interview shows is that over the years Jimmy Page has learned to choose his words carefully–saying “not getting paid for performances” as opposed to not getting paid for creative work or songwriting, for example–and he’s skillful in framing the issue in such a way as to minimize his own plagiarism. Instead he implicates Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin’s history of not properly citing sources, even though there are numerous examples where he was unwilling to give credit where credit was due (for example, “Dazed and Confused“, “Boogie With Stu”, “Black Mountain Side” and “Tangerine“). Whether the lift was Robert Plant or his own, Jimmy Page had no intention of giving credit to a variety of songwriters and only did so under threat of legal action.

Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Since I’ve Been Loving You”

“Since I’ve Been Loving You” is a slow blues number on Led Zeppelin III, which was released in 1970. The common perception of Led Zeppelin’s blues tracks is that they were plagiarized from an older African-American artist, but that is not the case with “Since I’ve Been Loving You”. On this track Robert Plant drew on the work of Moby Grape, a roots-oriented psychedelic band from San Francisco who were active in the late 1960s. Moby Grape’s song “Never”, which was on the 1968 album Grape Jam (packaged as a double-LP release with Wow), is an extended blues workout with a tempo and meter similar to “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” More importantly, “Never” features some of the same phrases and lyrical theme that Robert Plant uses in “Since I’ve Been Loving You.”
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