Led Zeppelin Exonerated in Stairway to Heaven Case
It’s no surprise. Americans are celebrity hounds. They are star-struck in the presence of any celebrity — and celebrities win most court cases as a result.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant (and John Paul Jones, a lesser light) testified at the trial, and by all accounts were charming and deflected the plaintiff’s case in amusing ways. Jimmy Page admitted that he owned the album containing “Taurus,” which clearly inspired the opening of “Stairway” — but claimed that he first heard the song on the Internet two years ago.
Which is funny, because I highlighted Taurus on this blog more than three years ago — on June 8, 2013 — stating:
Taurus, by Spirit.
Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit early in their careers, and heard this song live. You will not have to listen closely to hear the inspiration for Stairway to Heaven.
A year later, when the case was filed, I summed up my feelings in this post — and I see no reason to change my erudite and well-stated opinion today:
I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, if you listen to the piece, it’s pretty clear they ripped off part of California’s piece — and the fact that they were touring with Spirit at the time just solidifies the conclusion that you would have come to anyway regarding the similarities. It would have been nice for them to credit California and give him a piece of the royalties. And, as I say, I pointed out the similarities last year, long before the lawsuit — so it’s clearly not a made-up claim. (Do any of the lawyers read this blog?)
That being said, California himself never filed suit. And in “Stairway to Heaven,” while Zeppelin took some of California’s music, the more famous band also transformed the germ of that idea into something quite different, taken as a whole. Patterico reluctantly hereby enters judgment for defendant in the court of public opinion, but awards no costs — and encourages Led Zeppelin to give California his writing credit anyway.
I admit to being a Spirit partisan: I saw them live, from the front row, in Dallas’s West End Marketplace in the late 1980s. Randy California was charismatic, talented, and unforgettable. To the jury that rendered the verdict, though, he was almost surely some no-name shmoe. Maybe I was wowed by my perception of California’s celebrity, while Zeppelin — a band I have always enjoyed and respected — is a band I never saw live. The closest I came was seeing a solo Robert Plant show from middling seats, 15 rows back. Nothing very memorable. When I started writing this post, I forgot I had even seen that concert. But the Spirit show is burned deeply into my brain. To think: California was only in his late 30s when I saw them live. Damn. I’m old.
Anyway, Randy California is long dead and gone, having drowned off the coast of Molokai in 1997 while heroically rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current. But he definitely thought the song was ripped off, and as noted above, so do I. Here’s California:
Here’s a transcript of the relevant part of California’s statement:
Questioner: Speaking of Led Zeppelin, another sort of legendary story is the, which is true, I guess, is regarding the song “Taurus” that you also wrote. In the introduction. Um, did Led Zeppelin ever acknowledge their debt to you for that introduction? Was there ever anything said about that, or is it just sort of a story that’s floating around?
California: It’s not a story. It’s absolutely true. If you listen to the two things, you can make your own judgment.
California: It’s an exact, I’ll just say it, it’s a rip-off.
California: And the guys made millions of bucks on it and they never said, “Thank you” and they never said, “Can we pay you some money for it?” or this or that. So I just think it’s —
California: It’s kind of a sore point with me. And they, maybe some day they’ll — their conscience will make them change and they’ll do something about it. I don’t know. It’s not right. You know?
Questioner: Yeah, yeah. I agree. I mean, I think they did that in a few other cases too. [You bet they did! — Ed.] With a couple other —
California: It’s funny business, dealing between record companies, and managers, and publishers, and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, to me, there’s no excuse for that. You can quote me on that. I’m mad.
I am too. Even if I probably have ruled the same way the jury did.