Led Zeppelin Probably Lifted “Stairway” From Spirit. So Why Sue Now?

This is not Led Zeppelin. This is Spirit.

This is not Led Zeppelin. This is Spirit.

I’m normally a big proponent of proper attribution in all media. I’m also a proponent of giving Jimmy Page hell for the sheer number of guitar licks he lifted without attribution throughout Led Zeppelin’s existence, and I dig the band Spirit. You’d think, then, that I’d applaud former Spirit bassist Mark Andes and the estate of that band’s virtuoso guitarist, Randy California, for finally getting around to suing Led Zeppelin over an uncredited nick that turned into the introductory passage of “Stairway to Heaven.” But… I just don’t like the sound of this lawsuit thing.

Here’s the thing: Jimmy Page probably based the acoustic guitar figure that opens “Stairway” off of “Taurus,” an instrumental track from Spirit’s self-titled 1968 album. Spirit and Zeppelin shared a number of dates in 1968. Zeppelin went so far as to incorporate a cover of Spirit’s song “Fresh Garbage” into their live set in 1969. Page, at the time, was in the habit of lifting riffs or entire songs from earlier blues and folk artists, then re-arranging them for his own purposes. (In one particularly egregious case, The Yardbirds, with Page on guitar, heard “Dazed and Confused” performed in 1967 by an opening act of theirs, singer-songwriter Jake Holmes, who had already recorded the song; The Yardbirds promptly covered it in a heavier arrangement, and Page took the arrangement with him when he formed Led Zeppelin, which in turn recorded their version with no credit whatsoever to Holmes. More on that later.) It might’ve been a coincidence that one of “Stairway’s” central motifs came out sounding an awful lot like one from “Taurus,” but from an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t look or sound like a coincidence. Randy California himself went on record in interviews as having noticed the similarities. The internet has been a handy tool for spreading awareness of the source material. With all due respect to a guitarist friend of mine who pointed out that if a descending chromatic acoustic guitar pattern is at the heart of the argument, this lawsuit might as well have been filed by every tango guitarist who ever lived — it’s likely that Jimmy Page based his motif specifically on California’s. The allegation of plagiarism, or improper attribution, or whatever you want to call it, is very old news at this point.

If anyone’s going to make a fuss over it, it should be Randy California, the guitarist and composer of the melody in question. But California’s been dead for over a decade and a half. He drowned while in turn saving his son from near-drowning in Hawai’i in 1997. He acknowledged a parallel between “Taurus” and “Stairway,” but he didn’t seem to be torn up about it. He didn’t try to engage a war of words in the music press, and he never filed a suit of his own. A bunch of blogs today are reprinting a quote (a citation for which I’d like to see) from a 1997 interview in which California said of the whole Zeppelin affair, “It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.” But it didn’t seem like California himself was inclined to take the initiative. Really, when you look at his whole story, he seems like a lot of these rock’n’roll people you hear about: flirted with something like fame at a young age, parachuted out of the music biz, returned now and again to the steady professional gigging grind, but ultimately preferred being left alone far from the spotlight.

There is a case for “Taurus” being the stealth, uncredited source for “Stairway.” But Randy California didn’t need to make it, and I’m uncertain his estate and former bandmate will need to make it now. Record collectors, music journos, guitar geeks, trivia nerds and other assorted heads know this story. They’re willing to tell it, and they’ve been telling it for years on blogs, in podcasts, on YouTube, in their Facebook posts. If we’re still talking about Led Zeppelin in 100 years, I expect we’ll still be talking about “Taurus,” too, and about all of Zeppelin’s source material, thanks to the wisdom of the crowd and the ease of sharing information digitally. It’s a discussion that can only grow richer, I predict, as long as the public curiosity around the subject matter remains high enough.

Public forums are the right place for this discussion. A court of law isn’t. Court is, when you think about it, a pretty poor place for a discussion about composition, or about aesthetics. A courtroom is good for language and for visuals. It’s not so good for musical notes. I keep thinking about how John Fogerty was sued by his old record label for essentially plagiarizing himself — it came down to a point where he hauled his guitar into court and demonstrated how his solo cut “The Old Man Down the Road” was not the same thing as his older Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Run Through the Jungle.” No matter whether you’re on the prosecuting or defending side, you’ve got an uphill battle to make a musical plagiarism case in court.

I have to wonder how this current case is going to go for the Spirit camp, considering the caliber of lawyers Zeppelin’s people can afford. Let’s revisit the case of our buddy Jake Holmes. Now, Randy California never made many waves over “Taurus”/”Stairway” while he was alive. Jake Holmes was considerably more assertive. He sent a letter to Jimmy Page’s people in the 1980s asking for credit or payment for “Dazed and Confused.” Nothing came of it. Finally, in 2010, he sued. The case was promptly dismissed, and while there’s some question of what happened, it’s likely the case was settled out of court. On most official Zeppelin releases and in the records of the music publishing houses, Jimmy Page is still credited as the composer of that band’s “Dazed and Confused.”

That all sounds like a matter of some has-been honing in to collect on a payout he never received 30 years earlier. But while most people have never heard Holmes’ original version of “Dazed and Confused,” you’ve probably heard a lot of his later work. There’s a good chance you know this one: “BE! ALL THAT YOU CAN BE!” Or maybe this one: “RAAAISE YOUR HAND, RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU’RE SURE!” Or this one: “GILLETTE! THE BEST A MAN CAN GE-E-ET!” Or maybe one of his less strident numbers, like: “Come seee the softer side of Sears.”

Yeah. That’s right. Jake Holmes, the onetime Greenwich Village folkie who wrote “Dazed and Confused,” went on to become one of the more sought-after ad jingle writers of the 1980s. If he was in fact hurting for money by the time he sued Led Zeppelin in 2010, he had bigger problems than I can guess. A lawsuit like that, for someone like Jake Holmes, probably isn’t about money — it’s about a songwriter’s credit. And he didn’t get it. So where does that leave the long-departed Randy California and his legacy?

The legacy question is the one that bothers me the most in the lawsuit Andes and California’s estate are bringing against Led Zeppelin. California probably deserves a songwriter’s credit, but if past plagiarism lawsuits against Zeppelin are any indication, this case is probably going to come out looking more like a matter of money than of artistic integrity. And it’s a real bummer the way so many bloggers are rolling their eyes at Spirit now, as if Spirit was just some old band coming out of the woodwork that never went anywhere and never mattered. They did, and they do.

Spirit was an interesting band that deserves more respect than they’re getting from some corners at the moment. Randy California was a teenaged guitar wiz who, while he was still in high school, played with a pre-fame Jimi Hendrix when Hendrix was living in New York and calling himself and his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. California later formed Spirit with his 40-something stepfather, jazz drummer Ed Cassidy. When Spirit’s first album came out in 1968, California was only 17. They had some serious momentum right out of the gate: On those dates they shared with Zeppelin in 1968, Zeppelin opened for Spirit! That era of Spirit aged well, too. The band’s early albums threw together elements of rock, blues, jazz and psychedelia, and to this day those records get a huge amount of respect from niche psych-rock and prog rock audiences for their experimentation and ace musicianship. As far as I’m concerned, The Family That Plays Together, their second album, from late 1968, is an album that every serious rock musician should hear at one point. It’s not necessary to love it, but it should at least be heard, at least once. That album featured “I Got a Line on You,” a Top 30 hit that crystallizes a certain kind of uptempo blues-rock perfectly: Everything about it sounds like something you’ve heard before, but when you paw through all your records and .mp3s, you realize you haven’t, and that in fact it’s an archetypal nugget that seemingly just fell from the sky. (As widely as “I’ve Got a Line on You” has been anthologized, there’s a pretty good chance you’d recognize it as soon as you heard it, even if you previously didn’t know where it came from.) Spirit had a few hits, a handful of albums, and then a bunch of breakups and reunions, but through a series of bad luck breaks and California’s growing unwillingness to commit to long-term engagements with the band, they stalled out, never becoming the stars they perhaps should’ve been.

Spirit deserves a little respect. And Randy California wrote a guitar lick that Jimmy Page probably transformed into “Stairway to Heaven,” just as Jake Holmes wrote a moody little song called “Dazed and Confused.” You know this and I know this. I don’t know how a lawsuit is going to help that.

Here’s “Taurus,” for your reference. The motif in question comes in at 0:45, and again, more noticeably for Zeppelin-trained ears, at 1:37.

And here’s “I Got a Line on You,” which is a lot more fun in general.

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About Brian

"About you," it says? This whole THING is about me.
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