Song Writing

"Stairway To Heaven" Lawsuit: A Timeline

by Carl Wiser

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Untangling the events that led to the "Stairway To Heaven" lawsuit.

In 1968 and 1969, Led Zeppelin toured with a group called Spirit, whose song "Taurus" sounds a lot like the intro to "Stairway To Heaven." We'll let you play jury: listen to "Taurus" around the 1:35 mark.

"Taurus" was written by Spirit guitarist Randy California, who was kind of the Forrest Gump of rock, crossing paths with a series of soon-to-be-famous folks (like Jimi Hendrix) without ever having a breakthrough of his own. His fascinating and tangled tale can best be decrypted by a timeline that culminates in the lawsuit filed against Led Zeppelin by the executor of his trust 17 years after his death.

Randy never brought legal action of his own or got any settlement from Zeppelin. "The guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, 'Thank You,'" he said shortly before he died. "I'm mad!"

Here's the timeline, from the origins of Randy California and Spirit to the latest legalities.
February 20, 1951 - Randy Craig Wolfe is born in Los Angeles. He later goes by "Randy California."

June/July 1966 - Wolfe meets Jimi Hendrix, who is going by "Jimmy James," at a record store in New York City. They form the band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames, and begin playing regular gigs at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. The band's bass player is Randy Palmer. To identify the Randys, Hendrix calls Palmer "Randy Texas" and Wolfe "Randy California." The name sticks.

September 24, 1966 - Hendrix goes to England, where he becomes a star. He wants to take Randy California with him, but Randy is just 15 - too young for a visa.

Later in 1966 - Randy joins the Long Island band Tangerine Puppets, which is comprised of Walter Becker, John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi. Becker later forms Steely Dan; Cummings and Erdelyi become Johnny and Tommy Ramone.

May/June 1967 - Randy moves back to California with his family and forms Spirit with his stepfather, Ed Cassidy. The first Jimi Hendrix album, Are You Experienced, is released.

August 1967 - After playing a series of shows at the Ash Grove and the Whisky A Go Go, Spirit sign a deal with Lou Adler's Ode Records.

January 22, 1968 - Spirit's first, self-titled album, is released. It does fairly well, but doesn't contain any hits. Randy decides to write one.

December 26, 1968 - Led Zeppelin make their American concert debut, opening for Vanilla Fudge in Denver. Spirit, also on the bill, plays after Zep and before The Fudge.

January 10, 1969 - Led Zeppelin play the Spirit song "Fresh Garbage" at their show at the Fillmore West in San Francisco.

March 15, 1969 - "I Got A Line On You," written by Randy with hit potential in mind and released on Spirit's second album The Family That Plays Together, reaches #25 in the US.

June 1969 - Spirit's third album Clear is released. The highest any songs come on the chart is "Dark Eyed Woman" at #118.

August 1969 - At the urging of Lou Adler, Spirit turns down an invitation to Woodstock and instead does a promotional tour of the South, hitting up a series of radio stations in hopes of garnering airplay.

1970 - Randy gets tossed from a horse and fractures his skull while riding in the streets of Topanga Canyon. The band releases the album Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus and gets a lucrative offer to tour Japan, but Randy won't go and that opportunity is lost.

November 8, 1971 - Led Zeppelin IV is released, with "Stairway To Heaven" closing Side 1.

1972 - Randy leaves the group and releases a solo album called Kapt. Kopter and the (Fabulous) Twirly Birds.

April 1973 - Randy is about to embark on a solo tour of Europe, but his band's equipment is stolen from their tour van. He jumps off Chelsea Bridge into the River Thames in London, but swims to safety. The story makes the papers.

1975 - Spirit gets back together and releases a double album called Spirit of '76.

August 29, 1976 - Firefall, featuring Spirit bass player Mark Andes, opens for Spirit at a show in Santa Monica, California. Neil Young comes on stage during Firefall's set and they cover Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." Andes invites Young onstage during Spirit's set, but Randy pushes him off the stage. The band stops playing and exits.

November 27, 1996 - In an interview with Listener magazine, Randy addresses the "Stairway"/"Taurus" controversy: "I'll just say it: It's a rip-off. The guys made millions of bucks on it and they never said, 'Thank you.' They never said, 'Can we pay you some money for it?' It's kind of a sore point with me."

January 2, 1997 - Randy drowns while swimming in Molokai, Hawaii with his 12-year-old son.

February 19, 2002 - Following the death of Randy's mother, Michael Skidmore of Quincy, Massachusetts is appointed administrator of his trust.

July 30, 2009 - Procol Harum organist Matthew Fisher wins a lawsuit giving him songwriting credit and royalties from the 1967 classic "A Whiter Shade Of Pale." The case proves that even after decades, a plagiarism lawsuit still has a chance.

June 28, 2010 - Jake Holmes, emboldened by the Fisher case, sues Jimmy Page for appropriating his 1967 song "Dazed and Confused." The case is settled in 2012, and the credit on Led Zeppelin's version changed to "Written by Jimmy Page; inspired by Jake Holmes."

May 31, 2014 - Skidmore sues Led Zeppelin, listing "Falsification of
Rock n' Roll History" as "Right of Attribution" in the filing. The lawsuit brings up several cases where Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarism and later settled ("Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," "How Many More Times"). It also claims that Randy's influence extended beyond "Stairway":

Jimmy Page's use of the Etherwave - Theremin, and other psychedelic-type audio effects which helped give Led Zeppelin its distinctive sound - especially prominent in 'Whole Lotta Love' - was inspired by seeing California effectively use these types of audio-enhancing effects on tour.

March 10, 2015 - A jury awards $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye's estate in a case brought against the writers of Robin Thicke's hit "Blurred Lines," claiming they lifted Gaye's 1977 hit "Got To Give It Up."

June 14, 2016 - The trial begins, with the plaintiff's lawyer taking a theatrical approach, saying, "copyright gives credit to creation but it does not give credit to copying." The defense argues that the chord progression in question is common to many songs, including The Beatles' "Michelle," and therefore in the public domain.

June 15, 2016 - Jimmy Page testifies at the trial, claiming he heard "Taurus" for the first time just a few years earlier when his son-in-law told him there was a debate over it online. Page says the song was "totally alien" to him. Mark Andes also testifies, recalling a night on the tiles with Page and Plant where they enjoyed snooker and beer after a Spirit show in 1970.

June 23, 2016 - The jury rules in favor of Led Zeppelin in a unanimous decision. They find that while they likely did hear "Taurus," there was not enough evidence to warrant a guilty verdict. Page and Plant issue a joint statement, saying:

We are grateful for the jury's conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of 'Stairway to Heaven' and confirming what we have known for 45 years.

September 28, 2018 - An appeals court sends the case back to trial, ruling that the lower court judge gave the jury erroneous instructions when he told them that chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes, are not protected by copyright.
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Comments: 6

  • So Obvious from Tehtruthwell the intros are the same. whatever led zeppelin says their good names will forever be tarnished by not giving credit to a person who deserved the credit. also the first line of lyrics was also stolen from a greek poet. why they do not just admit what they did is beyond me. so they had the opening lyric which plant was amazed came to him(uhmm stolen ) and they had the intro of the music(stolen) . kinda poops on the whole sone from then on. they where probably baked out of their heads the whole time and stole most of what they did that was original. probably time that we admitted it they are probably the most overrated band ever.
  • Richard Adler from New YorkI was in 2 bands with Randy. The Tangerine Puppets and Newport News. The Puppets had Johnny and Tomny Ramone as members and Newport News had Walter Becker as a member. 2 different bands.
  • Steven J. Reed from Lakewood, OhioThe timeline above is not telling the whole story:

    1) Jimmy Page in his deposition to the court stated he was inspired to use the theremin after hearing the Beach Boys "Good Vibrations" in the mid-1960s. He denied California had anything to do with it. His defence lawyers had a copy of a receipt showing he purchased a theremin in London in 1967, before anyone heard of Spirit.

    2) Led Zeppelin played a few bars of "Fresh Garbage" as part of a medley of different songs. They did not play the whole song.

    3) Jimmy Page played the guitar solo on Cartoone's "Ice Cream Dreams". The solo is very similar in structure to the opening chords of "Stairway to Heaven". "Ice Cream Dreams" was recorded in August 1968, long before Led Zeppelin played the same gig in Denver with Spirit.

    4) Led Zeppelin did not tour with Spirit. They played at three separate gigs - two of them music festivals with dozens of other bands.

    5) There is no proof "Taurus" was played live at those three gigs. The plaintiffs were unable to provide any evidence such as a setlist or recording which showed "Taurus" was played at those three gigs.
  • Myrtle from Oakland, CaYou left out Giovanni Batista Granata's 17th C version of the melody in questions. http://www digitalmusicnews.com/2016/04/27/breaking-led-zeppelin-has-already-won-the-stairway-to-heaven-infringement-case/
  • K.c. from NhThe Zep Boys have unapologetically said that "Black Dog" was "inspired" by Fleetwood Mac's "Oh, Well."
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaYea, I don't know. it is similar but not really exact. Yes, I know that Page has lifted quite a few songs but I only hear a couple of very fleeting similarities here. I'm pretty good at hearing similarities most of the time.

    Since when it is a bad thing to try something out after seeing somebody else do it? How many budding guitar gods bought talk boxes after Frampton Comes Alive came out? And lost a few fillings, but that is another story.
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