Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar
Weary from touring, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page retreated in 1970 to a stone cottage in Wales, called Bron-Yr-Aur, with no power or running water. Legend has it King Arthur fought his last battle nearby. Not far off is the mountain Cader Idris where, it’s said, those who spend a night at its summit are fated to die, go mad, or become poets. At Bron-Yr-Aur, by candlelight, Page constructed the bones of what may well be the most popular, and valuable, rock ’n’ roll song of all time, Stairway to Heaven. This included the introductory finger-picked section that launched a million guitar lessons.
Back in England that winter, Page laid out the budding epic for the band at another house, Headley Grange, where the magic continued around a fire fueled on one occasion by a section of stairway banister. As Page plucked, singer Robert Plant seemed to channel another world as he wrote the lyrics. To Page, who has referred to the song as “my baby,” it was Zeppelin’s crowning achievement. “Stairway crystallized the essence of the band,” he told then-teenage rock writer Cameron Crowe in a March 13, 1975, Rolling Stone interview. “It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did it with Stairway.”
For generations of middle-class youth, the song is the 8-minute soundtrack of adolescent romance—or at least the anticipation of it. Stairway is slow dancing, the last song played at high school proms, sweet-16 parties, and summer camp mixers across a broad swath of the late 20th century.
Stairway’s stature—financially, culturally, and musically—is towering. By 2008, when Conde Nast Portfolio magazine published an estimate that included royalties and record sales, the song had earned at least $562 million. It was so profitable in part because Led Zeppelin refused to release the song as a single, forcing fans to shell out for the entire album, which is untitled but known as Led Zeppelin IV. In the U.S., the album has sold more copies (23 million, according to the Recording Industry Association of America) than any save Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-75). To this day, Warner Music Group cites the song in its annual reports as an example of its publishing portfolio.
For live audiences, Stairway’s power starts with its introductory notes. “Can you think of another song, any song, for which, when its first chord is played, an entire audience of 20,000 rise spontaneously to their feet, not just to cheer or clap hands, but in acknowledgment of an event that is crucial for all of them?” Observer critic Tony Palmer wrote in a 1975 profile. Dave Lewis writes in Led Zeppelin: The Complete Guide to Their Music that “Stairway has a pastoral opening cadence that is classical in feel and which has ensured its immortality.”
But what if those opening notes weren’t actually written by Jimmy Page or any member of Led Zeppelin? What if the foundation of the band’s immortality had been lifted from another song by a relatively forgotten California band?
You’d need to rewrite the history of rock ’n’ roll.
In 1968 a Los Angeles area band called Spirit put out its first album, the self-titled Spirit. Among the songs was an instrumental piece, Taurus, written by the band’s guitarist, Randy California. (Born Randy Wolfe, California got his stage name while playing with Jimi Hendrix’s band in New York in 1966. Hendrix took to calling him Randy California to distinguish him from another Randy in the band. California, only 15 at the time, chose to make it stick.) Taurus runs just 2 minutes and 37 seconds. About a minute of it is a plucked guitar line that sounds a lot like the opening measures of Stairway to Heaven.
For Led Zeppelin, 1968 was a big year. The band recorded its first album and flew to the U.S. to promote it with a series of shows. The day after Christmas, it played its first concert in America at the Denver Auditorium Arena. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit.
Mark Andes, Spirit’s founding bassist, says he believes the members of Led Zeppelin heard Taurus that day, beginning a process that would lead to its appropriation for Stairway. Taurus was a fixture of Spirit’s set at the time. “It was such a pretty moment, and it would typically come after a big forceful number and always got a good response,” Andes says at his home in a Houston suburb, where his music room is lined with framed gold records, many from the decade he later spent with the band Heart. “They would have seen it in that context.”
Within four days of its inaugural U.S. gig, Led Zeppelin had already assimilated some of Spirit’s other music into its act. At Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., the band played a medley that included Spirit’s Fresh-Garbage. The song, with its grinding bass line, shares side one of Spirit with Taurus. Set lists posted on Led Zeppelin’s official website name Fresh-Garbage as a song for the Spokane show and at least 11 other shows in the following months. Even if Page hadn’t heard Taurus at that first gig, he would have had other chances to hear it live as the bands crossed paths through 1969. “We did quite a few shows with those guys,” says Andes. “Not to say they might not have heard it from the record.” On May 16, 1969, the bands played a concert together in Detroit at the Grande Ballroom. On July 5, 1969, at the Atlanta Pop Festival, Spirit played right before Zeppelin. The two bands played the closing day of the Seattle Pop Festival on July 27. The weekend of Aug. 30, they played on two separate days at the Texas International Pop Festival.
California doesn’t seem to have griped about Stairway’s genesis, at least publicly, for decades. Finally, citing the gigs they played together, California told journalist Jeff McLaughlin in the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine that Led Zeppelin had filched his song. “I’d say it was a ripoff,” California said. “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 someday their conscience will make them do something about it.” On Jan. 2, 1997, California drowned while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current in Hawaii.
Now the late California’s allegation may get its day in court. Andes and the trust that handles California’s royalties say they’re teaming up to seek credit for Stairway. They’re working with Francis Alexander Malofiy, a Philadelphia lawyer whose cases include a pending suit against the singer Usher over the writing credit for the song Bad Girl, which Usher is fighting. Starting in June, Led Zeppelin is preparing to cash in anew on Stairway and other hits by releasing all its albums in deluxe, remastered vinyl and CD editions. Malofiy says he is going to file a copyright infringement lawsuit and seek an injunction to block the rerelease of the album containing the song. “The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on Stairway to Heaven,” says Malofiy, 36, who says he grew up with posters of Led Zeppelin on his bedroom wall. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Andes, 66, says he was so wrapped up in his music back then that he only recently noticed how similar Stairway was to California’s song. “The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement. I can’t explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note,” he says. “It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely.”
Jason Elzy, a spokesman for New York-based Warner Music, says, “Both Led Zeppelin and Warner Music will be offering no comment for this story.” Hollenbeck Music, which publishes Taurus and receives a portion of the royalties, is run by music mogul Lou Adler, a childhood friend of Randy California’s mother, who signed Spirit to its first record contract. Associates of Adler say he’s told them he believes the lick was lifted, but Adler isn’t part of the lawsuit and didn’t respond to requests for comment. Hollenbeck has compared the songs and doesn’t think there is a case, says Howard Frank, an executive at the Santa Monica (Calif.)-based company.
It’s no secret Led Zeppelin borrowed from blues and folk musicians in what it said was part of an organic tradition that created new, original works. Page has explained how he crafted songs with bits of others. “I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used,” he said in an interview for Light & Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski. “I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases, you would never know what the original source could be.” Zeppelin histories that address the issue seem to favor Page, calling him a transformer rather than a thief. In When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin, Mick Wall details the Welsh genesis of the song and writes that if Page was influenced by the chords from Taurus, “what he did with them was the equivalent of taking the wood from a garden shed and building it into a cathedral.”
But songwriters from whom Led Zeppelin drew inspiration, or more, have brought legal challenges for decades, often successfully. Since its 1969 debut album, the band has altered the credits and redirected portions of the royalties for some of its biggest songs, including Whole Lotta Love and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You. A copyright infringement suit over Dazed and Confused, a defining number that formed the centerpiece of Led Zeppelin’s live shows, was settled in 2012. The rise of the Internet has made comparisons by amateur plagiarism detectives easier, with mashup videos of Zeppelin songs and their alleged antecedents appearing on YouTube.
After its first two, mostly hard-rocking albums met with instant acclaim, Led Zeppelin put out the mainly acoustic Led Zeppelin III in October 1970, only to see it panned by critics. It did not sell well. The band called off a planned British Christmas tour so it could go back to the studio, according to When Giants Walked the Earth. The press speculated about a breakup. Against this backdrop, “Jimmy would soon discover his compromise between the two realms of music, the acoustic and the metallic,” Stephen Davis writes in Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga. The six-string intro, according to Davis, was recorded at the Island Records studio in London in December 1970 before the band decamped to Headley Grange, where Plant wrote the lyrics.
The song that emerged is a concerto in three movements. The first is the finger-picked portion, with a recorder accompaniment played by bassist John Paul Jones. The second section, on which Page switches to a 12-string guitar and drummer John Bonham comes in, is the “and it makes me wonder” section. The third and final “and as we wind on down the road” movement speeds up the tempo. A headbanging three-chord progression repeats under Page’s guitar solo before the instruments surrender to Plant’s final, a cappella “and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” The song made Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, released in November 1971, its biggest.
As the band rose to rock deity status on the back of Stairway, behind the scenes the slow and expensive unraveling of its intellectual-property foundations was already beginning. In the early 1970s, Chester (Howlin’ Wolf) Burnett’s music publisher sued Led Zeppelin for The Lemon Song, saying it was derived from Burnett’s Killing Floor. The parties settled, according to When Giants Walked the Earth. Burnett got a writing credit.
The next case started around 1979, after Shirley Dixon-Nelson, the daughter of blues legend Willie Dixon, heard Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love at a friend’s house in Chicago. It’s Led Zeppelin’s highest-charting U.S. single, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. To Dixon’s 13-year-old daughter, the song sounded a lot like her father’s You Need Love. Dixon sued, reaching a settlement in 1987, and the song is now credited to the four Zeppelin members and Dixon, who died in 1992. Despite the settlement, “there was no significant money to Willie from record sales. He went to his grave feeling that he was not represented properly,” his wife, Marie Dixon, told Barney Hoskyns in Led Zeppelin: The Oral History of the World’s Greatest Rock Band. Today in Chicago, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation runs a blues education program in local schools and awards college scholarships to study topics including artists’ legal rights.
In the mid-’80s, another artist stepped forward. To reach the home of the 83-year-old woman who wrote the original Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, you drive up a dirt road on the edge of California’s Sierra National Forest. In a house made from two double-wide mobile homes, Anne Bredon, silver-haired and lanky, spends her days making jewelry, which she sells at craft fairs. To get to town for supplies, she drives a white electric car plastered with bumper stickers like “My Other Car Is a Broom.” She’s not a fan of hard rock.
Bredon wrote Babe around 1960 as a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She shared the chords and words with a fellow student, Janet Smith, who took Babe with her to Oberlin College and popularized it there. In 1962, Joan Baez came through the Ohio campus, heard Babe, and added it to her repertoire, including it in a songbook (credited to Bredon) and on a live album (not credited). In 1969, Led Zeppelin’s first album included a version of the song based on the Baez recording, listed as “Trad. arr. Jimmy Page.” “Jimmy Page must have assumed it was a folk song,” Bredon says. She, in the meantime, had no idea that her song was in the pantheon of classic rock.
In 1981, Bredon’s old college friend, Smith, was strumming the tune at home when her 12-year-old son popped into the room. “Gee, Mom, I didn’t know you did Led Zeppelin songs,” he said, according to Smith. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Smith happened to look at a copy of the debut Led Zeppelin album in a Tower Records store and realized her friend hadn’t gotten credit. She contacted Bredon with a proposal to hire a lawyer, and the two agreed to split any money they could recover. To resolve the dispute, Led Zeppelin’s publisher made an offer: Because the band had made the song famous, the authorship of the Zeppelin version should be split 50-50, with half going to Bredon and the other half to Page and Plant. Future editions of the song would be credited, “Words and music by Anne Bredon, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant.”
Bredon, who was married to a math professor and living in New Jersey at the time, got what she says was a small amount for back royalties and has collected royalty checks regularly since. “I just wish we could have known about it earlier,” says Bredon in her living room, holding her banjo. “I lost out on a lot of money. … What I really wanted was my credit. I wanted to get my name on the song so they knew I wrote it, damn it.”
In June 2007, Howard Stern had Denny Somach on as a guest. Somach was the producer of the syndicated Led Zeppelin show, Carol Miller’s Get the Led Out. A big chunk of Somach’s appearance with Stern was devoted to Dazed and Confused and how it sounded a lot like another song called … Dazed and Confused. The earlier version, by a folk singer named Jake Holmes, has the same slow, descending bass line, a similar melody, and some lyrics in common. Holmes had since left folk music to write advertising jingles, including Dr Pepper’s Be a Pepper and the U.S. Army recruiting song Be All You Can Be. After the radio program put Holmes in the spotlight, “He hired a lawyer,” Somach says.
On June 28, 2010, Holmes sued Page and his publishing and record companies in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, alleging copyright infringement of his 1967 Dazed and Confused. He demanded damages, profits, and an accounting. In a 2007 interview published in Somach’s book, Get the Led Out: How Led Zeppelin Became the Biggest Band in the World, Holmes said he’d known Led Zeppelin had done a version of his song but had been unaware it was a highlight of its live show, with renditions running as long as 20 minutes. “I wasn’t interested in Led Zeppelin,” he said. “It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I really thought this wasn’t fair.”
On April 6, 2011, Page’s lawyers filed his response to the lawsuit, denying any copyright infringement and saying the 1969 Led Zeppelin song was independently created. Additionally, Page’s filing said of the Holmes song, “plaintiff’s composition entitled ‘Dazed and Confused’ lacks originality and is thus not protectable by copyright.” Page also requested attorneys’ fees and costs. At the time, Led Zeppelin was preparing for the 2012 release of Celebration Day, the DVD and double CD of its 2007 London reunion concert—on which Dazed and Confused, at 11 minutes and 19 seconds, was to be the longest track. On Nov. 7, 2011, the two parties stipulated to the court that the case should be dismissed, which it was, on Jan. 17, 2012. When Celebration Day came out in November of that year, Dazed and Confused was credited as “Jimmy Page; inspired by Jake Holmes.” Citing the settlement, Holmes declined to comment for this story. “I can’t really talk about it,” he said in an e-mail.
Now it’s Spirit’s turn.
On an afternoon in March, Spirit bassist Andes is standing in the study of his Texas home listening to a recording of the Howard Stern episode for the first time. His lawyer, Malofiy, who is visiting from Philadelphia, has found the audio online and plays it from Andes’s laptop into a pair of speakers above the desk. A barefoot Andes, wearing a white T-shirt, his gray hair in a ponytail, listens as Somach and Stern pick through the hits of the band that once opened for him.
“Everyone knows Dazed and Confused, I mean, that’s a dead ripoff,” Stern says on the recording after playing both versions.
“That’s amazing,” Andes responds.
“Give Jake Holmes a credit,” Stern says.
“I agree. Give credit,” Andes says, laughing. Then Taurus comes on. “Aww,” Andes says. Stern plays a clip from Stairway for comparison. “Yeah,” Andes says, fluttering his left hand over his heart. “Aww. That’s so great.”
Later, in his kitchen, which overlooks a pond and a pasture for the four horses he and his wife own, Andes leafs through a copy of Somach’s book. He reads aloud from the pages that list Spirit’s shared touring history with Led Zeppelin. “It’s so interesting that this is all coming out and it’s so well documented. I love it,” he says. He’d heard that Led Zeppelin had played Spirit’s Fresh-Garbage, but this is the first time he’s seen it written about.
Part of the reason Stairway’s authorship hasn’t been challenged is Spirit’s members and their survivors haven’t had the means. Randy California’s career sputtered. Spirit had some small hits with I Got A Line On You and Nature’s Way, but his original record deal left him with meager payments. In his final years, living in Ojai, north of Los Angeles, he bartered songs for food. “He’d play sitar at an Indian restaurant in return for being fed,” says Bruce Pates, Spirit’s archivist, who worked with the band in the 1980s and ’90s. After California drowned, his nephew Josh Keiser helped clear out his rental apartment and found he was living on ramen noodles, Keiser says.
After California died, his mother ran the trust that collects his royalties with Mick Skidmore, a London-born former rock journalist who works as a customs consultant in Boston, handling paperwork for importers and exporters. Since her death in 2009, Skidmore has done the job himself. “I don’t have the resources and barely have the time to do the trust stuff and hold down two jobs. It’s like a hobby,” he says. Randy and his mother had talked about a legal challenge but never acted, he says. “Nobody had any money, and they thought the statute of limitations was done.”
Neither issue may be a problem. While the statute of limitations for civil copyright infringement under U.S. law is three years, courts often read that as only restricting back royalties to the previous three years, not barring old infringements. As for money, it appears Malofiy, who had already been representing Andes on other matters, will handle the case on contingency, though he wouldn’t comment on the exact financial arrangements. Skidmore says he’s ready to take a shot at it. “It will be nice if Randy got the credit,” he says.
To show infringement under U.S. copyright law, you generally need to demonstrate two elements: that an original work was copied to make something substantially similar, and that the copier had access to the original work. If a Stairway-Taurus case were to go to trial, each side would hire musicologists who would present opposing analyses of how alike, or not, the songs are, says John Hartmann, a record executive and lecturer on the music business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “In a court this would be measured by experts, and a jury would have to decide,” he says.
Ultimately, the legal test isn’t what experts say. Under U.S. law, the standard a jury or judge would apply is whether the song in question sounds like a copy to an ordinary lay listener. To get an idea in this case, I conducted an informal poll of passersby on Los Angeles’s Venice Beach and Hermosa Beach, playing clips from Taurus and asking what song it sounded like. Of the 58 people surveyed, 18 named Stairway to Heaven, without being given any song titles to pick from. It was the only song anyone mentioned by name, with the exception of one young man who recognized it as Taurus.
One of the respondents who suggested it was Stairway happened to be a copyright lawyer, Eric Maier. “It certainly sounds like it would be hard to argue it’s a coincidence,” said Maier, who asked if Spirit needed a lawyer. “If it did get to a jury, it can’t be good for Led Zeppelin.”
“Of course, there’s millions of dollars at stake here,” Malofiy says. Who would actually get any cash could be as sticky a question as infringement. According to Andes, Skidmore, and Pates, most of the money from Spirit’s earliest songs goes to the publisher, Adler, with the rest going to the composers. If a ruling or settlement were based on the Taurus copyright, which is in Randy California’s name, the composer’s share would go to his trust. That means it would end up at the Randy California Project in Ventura County.
On an evening in March, about 50 children wearing Randy California Project T-shirts take the stage at a middle school there, where Randy once lived. These performers get their music lessons, loaner instruments, and band direction paid for by Randy California’s trust, which has made the music project its sole mission. Over the past four years the trust has given $93,000 to Ventura schools and $27,000 to schools in Quincy, Mass., where Skidmore lives, he says. California’s sister, Marla Randall, is attending the concert. She stands in the back of the room, wearing a peace sign pendant around her neck.
The first group, third graders with recorders and xylophones, plays Old MacDonald Had a Farm. They’re followed by the Randy California Band, a brass, woodwind, and percussion ensemble of fourth and fifth graders. Halfway through the show, Ventura Unified School District Superintendent Trudy Arriaga takes the microphone and pays tribute to the man whose music has made this all possible. “Randy California is watching over, looking over, the children of Ventura,” she says.