Tim English talks Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” trial

Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin.

Led Zeppelin is one of the most iconic rock bands of all-time, but this time they’re under a much less flattering spotlight. Their most famous song, “Stairway to Heaven”, is in court being challenged as a rip off of Spirit’s song “Taurus”.

While Led Zeppelin is nowhere near the only band to be accused, or even lost the case of doing something like this, it’s also not the first time that they’ve been under the spotlight for it.

In our new interview, Tim English, author of “Sounds Like Teen Spirit”, gives an in depth description of the ongoing Led Zeppelin trial, the history of plagiarism in music, and more!

Could you give a bit of a nutshell back story on the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway to Heaven,” and what you think may happen throughout the process of it?

Sure. The case is over Led Zeppelin’s iconic song, “Stairway to Heaven”, from 1971, released on their fourth album. They’re being sued by the estate of Randy Wolfe a.k.a. Randy California, the guy who wrote the instrumental piece called “Taurus”, that appeared on the first Spirit album in 1968. California died in 1997, but in the liner notes to the re-release of that album in the 90’s, he wrote that people would always ask him regarding the song “Taurus”, “hey, you ripped off Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven?” and he would say “no they ripped me off.” If you listen to the song, it’s not the same song, but they do sound remarkably similar, at least in my opinion. Of course you’re not talking about the whole song, you’re talking about maybe a quarter of Stairway to Heaven.

I’m sure that will be taken into consideration in the pre-trial run up, because Led Zeppelin won a couple of victories with their legal team which I think may prove significant. One was that they were not able to bring in other cases where Led Zeppelin has been successfully sued for not properly crediting work of other artists. The other victory is that this will just be based on the sheet music that was filed with the copyright office by Randy California in 1967. The jury will not hear the sound recordings, which will probably be the most powerful evidence, you would think, for the plaintiffs in this case. However, such was also the case with the Robin Thicke, Pharrell, Blurred Lines suit that was filed by Marvin Gaye’s family over similarities in “Blurred Lines” to Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give it Up”. You would have thought that would have not favoured the plaintiffs, but the plaintiffs won the case anyways, even based on that sheet music. So you never know how it [will] turn out.

In my book, Sounds like Teen Spirit, I document [around] 15-20 cases of Zeppelin at best, not properly crediting people, at worst, plagiarizing material from other artists. If you look at the song credits on their first two albums, what they were originally, if anyone still has the old albums (laughs) and then look at what’s out there today on DVD or CD, you’ll see that their songwriting credits are very different. Next to “Stairway to Heaven”, arguably their most famous song is “Whole Lotta Love” and you’ll see that the Chicago blues man Willy Dickson is now credited as co-author, due to legal action in the 80’s, because it’s basically a re-write of his song “You Need Love”. Jimmy Paige when asked about this said “well Robert Plant was supposed to change the words around.” (laughs) It is kind of a mindblower if you do play, especially the Small Faces version of that, which is probably where Led Zeppelin picked up on it from. Robert Plant is a huge Small Faces fan and his vocal approach is actually similar to that.

“Dazed and Confused” it wasn’t until 2010 where the guy who was ripped off in that case was a singer/songwriter called Jake Holmes and he brought forth legal action and he’s now… Led Zeppelin basically ripped that song off wholesale, they embellished it a lot and Holmes himself said that took it to a new level, but he successfully sued them. On the DVD now it’ll say “inspiration by Jake Holmes.” (laughs) But the fun thing is that you can listen to all of these for yourself now on YouTube and compare and contrast them [to] hear how blatant some of these things are.

I found that interesting too, I was listening to Howard Stern and they were talking about “Dazed and Confused” and Led Zeppelin’s song rip off’s and apparently when Led Zeppelin was approached for the song to be featured in the movie Dazed and Confused, they begged them, and Led Zeppelin still said no. 

It’s funny that you mention Howard, I have to give him credit, he talked about my book back when the first edition came out, back I guess seven or eight years ago now and he put it on the map from the discussion he had about it. You can watch on YouTube, Paige was in the Yardbirds and he had shared a bill with Jake Holmes in New York city in ’67. The song got into the Yardbirds’ act and you can watch their version on YouTube. But when it came time to record it a while later, they took the credit themselves with no mention of Jake Holmes. If you think about all of the money that song generated through the years… I mean on their live album it took up a whole side. They played it at every show they did I believe from when they started touring in late ’68, up until their ’75 tour, when they finally took it out of their set list and of course all of the live albums, DVD’s and re-releases. I believe Holmes only gets credit on everything from 2010 onward, which would probably be the case in this too, with “Stairway to Heaven”.

One of the things Led  Zeppelin has said to defend themselves was if Randy California felt that he’d been ripped off, which he did, he made a couple of conflicting statements, but one time he said they ripped me off, but if he felt that way, why didn’t he sue in the 25 years that he had, but never did. Of course the reason they said he didn’t was that he didn’t have the financial resources to do it. These lawyers don’t come cheap, especially when you’re taking on Led Zeppelin, who’ve got corporations behind them and lawyers that can string these things out. That is to their detriment though on the plaintiffs side, that the case took so long.

Led Zeppelin. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Do you think it was only because of financial reasons, or do you think there was anything else behind that?

From what I can tell, that was the main reason. He gives sort of conflicting statements. One time Led Zeppelin brought up that he had said it doesn’t matter, it’s all just music or words to that effect. But he also said too and I quote him in my book, where he said it would’ve been nice to get some sort of compensation out of it. I read in one article where they said Randy California towards the end of his life would play the Suitar at restaurants near where he lived in exchange for a meal. So he was literally singing for supper, he wasn’t exactly rolling in money, and any sort of compensation would have been much appreciated, but he never did see it.

And it’s his mother that brought this forth, right?

Well his mother was the executor of his estate and when they originally were kicking it around, his mother was, but she died some years ago too, so this is the estate now that’s springing it. I believe he has at least one child, so whatever immediate members of his family would benefit from that.

Led Zeppelin is nowhere near the first band to be accused of something like this, but it also is not the first time that they’ve been accused of it, nor the first song of theirs to be put under the spotlight. Is there anything that makes this case unique and different to when they changed the credits on Led Zeppelin 1?

Well, it’s the most famous song. Not only Led Zeppelin’s most famous song, it’s arguably the most famous song in rock history and often times these cases get settled, as with many of the other cases we talked about, almost all were settled out of court before they ever got in front of the jury. You’ll be shocked to know that money is involved (laughs). How much money a song generates has a lot to do with whether there’s a law suit or not. There are many songs that are blatant rip offs of other songs but didn’t sell a lot of copies, so it’s not worth anybody’s while to sue them. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as there would be in this case, when there is, it gets the attention of people [and] the lawyers in a hurry.

I think Led Zeppelin is determined to defend their legacy here, but on the other hand, there’s a couple reasons that these things often get solved out of court and we’ve seen that. Just to name a couple recently with the Sam Smith case… [and] the case with Coldplay. They were settled outside of court and the reason is one, that it’s very expensive to have lawyers, two, it’s very bad publicity being accused of stealing work instead of coming up with it originally, but probably the most important reason is [that] when these go to a jury, you’re standing in front of a group of amateurs who aren’t musicians.

People always ask me what the standard is to determine how similar these are. It’s a two-part test. One part of the test is [if] a typical person think that they sound alike. Extremely subjective test and I know from playing these things and doing thousands of interviews, some people think a song sounds exactly like another and others don’t hear it at all. That’s human nature. Then you have [the second test], where they break down the keys, the sheet music, and the chords and so forth. So you get these in front of a jury, who knows. It’s a roll of the dice. If you’ve got all this money at stake, a lot of times I think the reasoning is “let’s make this go away, pay it off, we don’t have to go to court, we’ll just get rid of it now.”

But Led Zeppelin is determined on this one. They had two years to settle it out of court if they were going to and it seems like they’re playing hard ball over it. I would assume because this is their legacy. I mean it is their most famous song, an iconic song and they don’t like the idea of people thinking they ripped it off.

Win or lose, how do you think this will impact their legacy? 

You try to be fair in these things and as in some of the songs we talked about… yes they were based on a certain song, but Led Zeppelin also took it to a whole other level. So saying that Led Zeppelin failed to properly credit people is not the same as saying they weren’t a great band, or weren’t talented, or didn’t achieve a lot musically. [All] are true. These cases have been around for a while, I don’t think it’s hurt Led Zeppelin’s popularity.

Among the people who really care about music and musicians, maybe it does or maybe people think a little bit less of them, but Led Zeppelin weren’t the only ones doing this. In fairness to Led Zeppelin, they did two Willie Dixon covers, “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me” and they credited Dixon properly. It’s only when we get to the second album where they did “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home” where they took credit for themselves.

The case hits the courtroom today, and while they aren’t being forced to, it’s said that Page and Plant will be present at the trial. How do you think they will react to having their most famous song put on the spot like that?

They didn’t need to be there, they could’ve done it remotely, but it seems like they want to stand united and defend this case as much as they can. It’s going to be an interesting trial, because they’ve got statements where Led Zeppelin’s said, I think they’re claiming “we didn’t know that song.” You can go on YouTube right now and see that Zeppelin covered the Spirit song “Fresh Garbage” as part of a medley they played in these early shows, that was also on the first Spirit album that “Taurus” was. So how can you say that you weren’t familiar with their work (laughs) when you’re covering one of the songs in concert? Then they’ve got interviews of Page saying “big fan… have all their records.” So I think their case of trying to prove that they wouldn’t have had access to it is not going to fly. It’ll come down to whether the jury thinks that these songs are similar and how much of the song and things like that.

Led Zeppelin, (left – right): John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, pose in front of an their private airliner The Starship, 1973. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There’s a lot of different things that’ve been said about hearing it or not and the mention of “Fresh Garbage” have been very prevalent. What do you think that they’re going to say to try to convince the jury that they’re being honest about it? 

I think they’ll say it was created independently. They’ll try to show musically that they’re not that similar. They’ll try to throw in other songs that are also similar. Things like that. They also in their pre-trial took an interview with Randy California where there’s a legal term where you can try to prove that someone gave up their rights to own something and there’s at least one interview that Randy California gave where he said they can have it or words to that effect. He [also] gave others where he said the opposite, where he said he was ripped off. So Led Zeppelin are going to drag in any statements that he made that would support their position on it.

But again, if you get these in front of the jury, half of the test is do you think they’re similar yourself, I think that again we’re not going to hear the actual recordings, you’re going to hear transcriptions or maybe a recording from the sheet music. So who knows how good a job Randy California did in transcribing the song, that’s what it’s going to come down to because the sound recordings will not be played.

That’ll be kind of difficult too for people who are not really familiar with music too much, to go through the sheets.

Yeah, that’s right and I think you could make an argument of why they try to settle these before they ever get to the jury. Because who knows who’s on the jury, maybe they tend to be more sympathetic towards the songwriter who never received a proper recognition, where these guys are the ultimate rockstars with everything that goes along with that. [They’ve] just been living the life and besides, whatever money they give, they can afford it anyways.

You never know what you’re going to get out of the jury.

Yeah, there’s also a lot of die hard Led Zeppelin fans too, so it wouldn’t be hard to believe that one of them landed on that jury.

For sure, yeah, that might be.

Your book, Sounds Like Teen Spirit, showcases many examples of things like this that have happened over the years. What are some of the most controversial accusations of stolen material that you’ve come across?

Well the most famous one, I’m dating myself, but the one I remember from being a kid was the similarities from George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” to The Chiffons hit “He’s So Fine”. When Harrison’s song was out right after the Beatles broke up, the DJ’s in the United States would be playing the two songs back to back and of course the lawyers picked up on that and it became a law suit. Harrison said, “I wasn’t basing it on that, I was trying to write a song in the style of “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins singers.” If you listen, you can hear that in “My Sweet Lord” too. That’s certainly a famous case.

In the book I try to not only look at the famous cases, another one is Ray Parker Jr.’s “Ghostbusters”. He was sued by Huey Lewis. Lewis said the producers for that movie had come to him and wanted to use the song in 1983’s “I Want A New Drug” and Lewis said, “sorry not for sale, thanks anyways.” Six months later he hears the song “Ghostbusters”, which is very similar melodically and production-wise to his song “I Want A New Drug”, and he said he drove off the road and said “you gotta be kidding me, they ripped off my song.” Supposedly it came out in the trial that the producers had gone through Ray Parker and said “we need a title song for Ghostbusters, something perky and bubbly, well something kind of like this,” and (laughs) played him “I Want A New Drug”. So that became a law suit that actually had a gag order, but then Huey talked about it a few years later on VH1 behind the scenes and that became another suit, because he was accused of breaking the gag order.

I try to not spend too much time on the legal aspect, of course it’s really a book for music fans and it’s really unique because we’re trying to provide an aha! moment for people. You may have heard The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” a million times without realizing it’s based on The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”. Plus I try to really for the hardcore fans, say for the Beatles fans, I try to break down a couple of their songs. I try to provide that musical heritage and ancestry, what came from who and that type of thing. Hopefully let people hear some familiar songs in a new way.

Yeah, like you said those aha moments, especially for people who are going through the book and they see something from one of their favourite musicians. Has that ever happened to you, have you ever discovered that any of your favourite musicians have done the same thing?

Well they all do it to one extent or another. What I try to do in the book is also look at just the influences. The Rolling Stones song “The Last Time”, which is one of my favourite songs, a great Stones track, and really the first time a Richards/Jagger track had become a hit in 1965. That song is based on The Staples Singers’ 1961 song “This May be the Last Time”, which was sort of a spiritual song, but if you listen to them [they’re] totally different styles. It’s not a rock song at all, it’s a gospel song, but it’s the same words and the music is somewhat similar. Both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have admitted that they did base “The Last Time” on The Staples Singers song. The Staples Singers were complimented and I do think it speaks well in this case of both Jagger and Richards as music fans, the fact that they’re two young teenagers in London and they’re listening to an American gospel group.

Likewise, John Lennon was listening to Blues artists that aren’t even well known in this country, it shows what a music fan he was, that he knew all of these great songs that most people even in the U.S. didn’t know. One of the themes of the book is that creative people are influenced by surprisingly broad and diverse sources. The title of the book of course comes from the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, [which] is loosely based on the riff from Boston’s “More than A Feeling”. Boston is probably the last band you’d think Kurt Cobain would be influenced by, but he was and he even played a bit of “More than A Feeling” at the Reading Festival in England as sort of a goof, to show where they got that riff from.

The Rolling Stones. (Photo: Terry O’Neill/Rex USA)

Do you think that plagiarism in music has been around for a long time, or do you think that it’s a newer thing that could be happening as a result of musicians beginning to lack originality?

It’s probably both. Plagiarism I don’t use that much in the book, because it’s a loaded term, it sort of implies that we know the intent was there and nobody can get inside someone’s head. In the George Harrison case, the judge, over “My Sweet Lord”, said it was subconscious plagiarism. Well, how in the world did he know that? That it was subconscious? You can’t get in someone’s head and know their intent and for the sake of copyright laws, [it] doesn’t really matter if you intended to do it or you didn’t, if you infringed the copyright, you’re still liable. Sometimes there’s circumstantial things that [leave] you to believe one way or another, but I think a lot of these cases, it is just accidental, or somebody was a little bit careless [and] didn’t realize the similarity.

Like the Rolling Stones song “Anybody Seen My Baby” from their Bridges to Babylon album in 1997, they were getting ready to go on tour, they had the album all ready and Keith Richards is playing the song to his daughters and [they] start singing “Constant Craving” by K.D. Lang, along with the song. Sure enough, it is the same melody. They couldn’t withdraw the song from the album, the albums had already been printed up and were all ready to go, so they had to get a hold of K.D. Lang and her co-writer and cut them in. So it’s Jagger, Richards, Lang, and Mink as the writers of that song. I think part of it is, you say “well why didn’t a producer or engineer say something?” Well, this is the Stones, (laughs) do you want to be the one to get up and say “hey, you took this from K.D. Lang,” not if you like having your job. It was up to Keith’s daughters to step in and point it out.

As far as the history of these things, how long have we had recorded sound? Over a hundred years, so what kept music alive for all those years was writing it down, but probably mostly the oral tradition. You go from town to town and he’s got a song and I play it for you, then you go play it in the next town and everybody embellishes it and that’s how it was kept alive. So you have that and now in the 21st century, you’ve got copyrights, intellectual property, and big corporations and millions of dollars at stake, there’s bound to be conflict and there is a lot. As far as whether there’s more of it now, rock n’ roll as a genre is over 60 years old now and a lot of it, at least at the start, was just three chords. At some point, it’s harder to come up with original stuff than it was at the beginning, but you can still do it.

I saw this video on YouTube one day and there’s these three guys that did something that really relates to this. It was a showcase to the popular songs since the 90’s and it’s hilarious how the guy playing keyboard is playing the same four notes, singing them one after another

I don’t know if it’s the same thing, but there’s the guy, I think it’s four chords and he was showing how again with mostly recent songs, how those four chords are in most songs. I don’t know how many songs it was, maybe 25 different songs all based on that.

I think that happened a lot in the 90’s with the pop-punk power chords and four chords.

Well if you look at who writes the songs, a lot of people say “oh everything sounds the same,” but if you look at who’s writing the hits for Katy Perry and Britney Spears and whoever else, it’s a couple of guys for a bunch of different people. They’re writing all these songs. Look at the list of Max Martin, or look at the guy who was mixed up with Kesha recently, Dr.Luke, this guy’s written a million songs, it’s amazing. For all different people. People say everything sounds the same, well, it’s written by a handful of people. (laughs) It’s a little different from how they used to do it.

Can you think of any differences or similarities between this case and the Ed Sheeran case?

Sheeran, the plaintiffs in that case have hired the lawyers that successfully sued Pharrell and Robin Thicke, so they’re not playing and I think they figure they’ve got a pretty strong case. I’ve listened to those songs a couple of times [and] they do sound pretty similar. Sheeran’s hit generated a pretty good amount of money, so we may be looking at an out of court settlement there, it’ll be interesting to see.

What are some examples of other songs that sound extremely similar?

One of the Nirvana songs, there was legal action considered but I don’t think [it] every happened and that was over “Come As You Are”. When they were going to put it out, Kurt Cobain argued against releasing it as a single, following “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, because he thought it sounded like the Killing Joke’s “Eighties”, which it does. It does sound like a slowed down version of that riff and Kurt Cobain was afraid that they would get sued. Of course they did put it out and they weren’t sued and the song was a big hit.

In your book, you talk about songs that influenced the work of musical favourites, and among many, you talk about Led Zeppelin. For people who haven’t gotten a chance to read the book, who are some of the bands and songs that you attributed to influencing them and give any teasers towards what else can be found inside that book?

 Well, some of them we talked about. Mainly the blues guys. Certainly Willie Dixon, who they did record and properly credit two of their songs on their first album. Then Whole Lotta Love and Bring It On Home. I’ll give you one that I hear I’ve never heard too much… I’m dating myself here, but I remember the first time I heard Zeppelin’s song “Trampled Under Foot” and I thought “gee, that’s that Doobie Brothers song “Long Train Runnin’”, People might want to compare those two, they sound an awful lot alike to me. (laughs) Zeppelin rocks it up a lot, but the words are the give away when you get to Led Zeppelin, because as Jimmy Page said, Robert Plant was too lazy to re-write the song, like “Whole Lotta Love”. That’s always a fun one that I’ve picked up on that not too many others have. Not yet at least.

This article can also be found on Aesthetic Magazine’s website.

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