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.

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”.

Combining Led Zeppelin and The Beatles

Mashups are a hit-or-miss proposition, with more misses than hits.  Here’s one that really hits, though, called “Whole Lotta Helter Skelter” by Soundhog. Originally released as an audio track on SoundCloud, Soundhog recently created a video for this mashup. You can download this track from Soundhog’s blog.

Clearly Led Zeppelin and the Beatles are a potent combination. In a somewhat different vein, one of the greatest tribute/parody performances occurred when the Beatnix set the lyrics of “Stairway to Heaven” to Beatlemania-era Beatles music for the Australian television show The Money or the Gun. Each week on this program, which ran on ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that is) from 1989 to 1990, a different artist would perform “Stairway to Heaven” in a unique style. Over the course of the show’s run, two performers combined “Stairway to Heaven” with the Beatles. The Beatnix, a Beatles tribute band that formed in 1980, drew on “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (with a little “She Loves You” thrown in for good measure) in the first section, before a rousing “Twist and Shout” conclusion, while Robyne Dunn performed her rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” in the style of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Robyne Dunn’s version is interesting, but the version by the Beatnix is truly inspired. Both of these tracks are included on the compilation Stairways to Heaven, which features the best “Stairway to Heaven” performances from The Money or the Gun. The original Australian (ABC Music) version of this compilation contained 22 of the performances, but it’s much harder to find than the version of Stairways to Heaven released by Atlantic Records in 1995, which was edited down to 12 tracks.

I got to wondering if Led Zeppelin had ever covered a Beatles song, and it turns out that Zep did give a nod to the Fab Four on at least one occasion. In concert Led Zeppelin often played extended versions of their songs that included long interludes with medleys of covers. Playing at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on September 4, 1970, Led Zeppelin included “I Saw Her Standing There” (or at least the lyrics, anyway) in a medley in an extended version of “Communication Breakdown.” The bootleg album Led Zeppelin Live on Blueberry Hill comes from this concert.