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.

Needs More Cowbell and a Higher Death Rate

When you bring up “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult, it doesn’t take long before someone interjects “More Cowbell!” because of the Saturday Night Live sketch. I’ll get to that a little later but first I want to look at a different aspect of this song: the demography of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”.  The lyrics of the song include an estimate of 40,000 deaths per day.

40,000 men and women every day
(Like Romeo and Juliet)
40,000 men and women every day
(Redefine Happiness)
Another 40,000 coming every day
(We can be like they are)

So just how accurate is this estimate?  The Census Bureau provides an estimated number of “vital events” (births and deaths) per day worldwide, and the current estimate is 156,676 deaths per day.  They calculated this number by dividing the estimated population of the world, which is about 7.3 billion people, by the crude death rate, which is about 7.8 deaths per 1,000 population per year.  But of course Blue Oyster Cult recorded “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” in 1976.  Using the UNdata, the estimated crude death rate worldwide was 10.6 per 1,000 population from 1975 to 1980, and the population of the world stood at 4,160,185,010 in 1976.  Using these numbers there were about 44.1 million deaths that year, or about 120,486 deaths per day.  So 40,000 deaths per day wasn’t a particularly reliable estimate, but to be fair, it was at least within an order of magnitude, not to mention that “40,000 men and women every day” flows more smoothly than “120,486 men and women every day”.

By the way, just in case you think songwriter Buck Dharma might have been referring only to the United States, the estimated population of the United States in 1976 was 218,035,164 and the crude death rate for the United States was 8.6 per 1,000 population, which meant 1,875,102 deaths that year or about 5,137 deaths per day.  Once again within an order of magnitude, but still way off.

Because of its references to Romeo and Juliet, it’s possible “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” addresses suicide, but the figure “40,000 men and women every day” isn’t even close to the daily number of suicides.  According to the World Health Organization, there were 804,000 suicide deaths in 2012, or about 2,203 each day. That number would have been far lower in 1976 not only because the total population was so much less then but also because according to Wikipedia, the worldwide suicide rate has increased by 60 percent in the last 50 years. The suicide rate in 2012, which was the year the world’s population exceeded 7 billion, was about 11.5 per 100,000 population, so the suicide rate would have been something like 8 per 100,000 population in 1976. Using this rate with the 1976 world population (4.16 billion) means something like 333,000 people committed suicide that year, or about 910 people per day.  That number is, of course, far below “40,000 men and women every day.”

Still with me?  OK, so… MORE COWBELL!  Several years ago Wired published a “More Cowbell” timeline, which could use an update as interest in this meme has remained rather consistent (as measured by Google Trends) though perhaps slowly declining in recent years. Still, you can get a wide variety of “More Cowbell” products. You can get a “More Cowbell” T-shirt, of course (with Gene Frenkle or The Bruce Dickinson), a “More Cowbell” Euro Decal Bumper Sticker or License Plate Frame, a “More Cowbell” necktie, or even a “More Cowbell” Cowbell.

Obama more cowbellA book of career advice called The Cowbell Principle: Career Advice On How To Get Your Dream Job And Make More Money got a “thumbs up” from Blue Oyster Cult guitarist Buck Dharma. The phrase has an entry not only in the Urban Dictionary but also in the Cambridge Dictionaries Online, defined as, “an ​extra ​quality that will make something or someone ​better”. Mississippi State set a record for most people playing cowbells simultaneously (5,748), and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have embraced the cowbell, encouraging their fans to, “Ring your cowbells when the following occurs: A Rays pitcher has two strikes against a batter. A Rays player reaches base or scores a run. Prompted by our RaysVision scoreboard.” Rules that are strictly enforced, apparently.

The cowbell sketch has had a definite impact on Blue Oyster Cult‘s career, as Eric Bloom explains in this interview:

The band members are fans of the cowbell sketch. Buck Dharma has made his own “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” Behind the Music parody on his internet reality show, The Dharmas at Home.

You can also download this and subsequent episodes from “The Funhouse” on Buck Dharma’s website.


This is an updated version of a piece I wrote for the old Turn Me On, Dead Man blog in 2010.

Turn Me On, Dead Man Radio is now on Radionomy

A few weeks ago Live365 sent all webcasters a notice that they were terminating service at the end of January. I was certainly disappointed but it wasn’t a complete surprise. Live365 had been struggling even before the increases in royalty rates were to go into effect. Looking back I guess I’m just happy it lasted as long as it did. I had been with Live365 doing Turn Me On, Dead Man Radio for over 15 years. I was a “founding broadcaster,” which earned me a 20% discount on their personal broadcaster rates. Despite its quirks and aging interface I was loyal to Live365 for as long as they were around, and I think would have stuck with them no matter what.

But Live365 has disappeared. Yesterday afternoon I was looking at my listener stats, but when I clicked on one of the links an error message announced that the page I was looking for didn’t exist.

Some time ago I registered with Radionomy but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me how to get started and I set it aside. But now with Live365 gone, I took a fresh look at it and decided to give Radionomy a try. It will take a little time to get fully reestablished and figure out all of the functions of the interface, but if you look up Turn Me On, Dead Man on Radionomy you can already hear garage rock, punk and psychedelia playing again. So check out the new Turn Me On, Dead Man Radio on Radionomy.

Interview with ST 37

Austin, Texas, psych band ST 37, currently on tour with Acid Mothers Temple, played at Comet Ping Pong in Washington DC on May 8, 2015. It was a particularly interesting show with opening band Rough Francis. ST 37, worried that their van wouldn’t be able to make the trip, had held a Kickstarter campaign to rent a van for the five-week tour, and I contributed enough to get a T-shirt. In corresponding with the group, I agreed to let them stay with me when they played in DC. ST 37 had contributed a track to Conspiracy A-Go-Go, a compilation of JFK assassination-related tracks I curated for the 50th anniversary of that event, and I wanted to repay them for that. We gathered at my breakfast table the following morning for an interview before they were off to Richmond, Virginia, going, as they pointed out, from the capital of the Union to the capital of the Confederacy on successive days. I talked to ST 37 while we ate a lovely breakfast prepared by Archana, who dazzled us with her culinary prowess.

At this point they are more than two-thirds through their tour. I wish you well on the rest of your tour and a safe return to Austin.

“Paul Is Dead” Clues in “I Am the Walrus”

“I Am the Walrus” is on the Beatles’ 1967 release Magical Mystery Tour. Because of its strange imagery, “I Am the Walrus” has long been closely scrutinized by people looking for clues that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a lookalike. To search this song for hidden meanings is rather ironic since, according to Pete Shotton, John Lennon intended to write a song with nonsensical imagery to confound those who looked for significance in every Beatle lyric. After recalling a grotesque song they used to sing as children, John strung together the most ludicrous imagery he could think of. Shotton recalls that after writing the song, “He turned to me, smiling. ‘Let the fuckers work that one out, Pete.'”
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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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Ghali on Dig the Now Sound

Dig the Now Sound (Thursdays at 10:00 pm eastern on Turn Me On, Dead Man Radio) plays standout recent garage/psych. The featured track this week is “Colors” by Ghali, a psych punk band from southern California. Ghali released S/t on Resurrection last summer and I ranked it at #10 on my “Best of 2014” list.

I corresponded with drummer Cesar Marin recently.

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