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.
In 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.