Who Were Spirit, the Band From Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway’ Trial?
Who the hell were Spirit? It’s not a crime if you don’t remember the Los Angeles band that flourished in the late Sixties and early Seventies. They barely brushed the mainstream during their time, and since then, their songs haven’t exactly become staples of classic-rock radio. Spirit have become noteworthy in recent years, though, as the band facing Led Zeppelin in a high-profile copyright suit. A section of their 1967 song “Taurus” bears a resemblance to the intro of “Stairway to Heaven,” one that’s either vague or uncanny, depending on who’s making the assessment.
The trial begins June 14th, and it’s raising many questions about the increase in songwriting litigation against artists, following recent cases like Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke (over “Blurred Lines”) and Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith (over “Stay With Me”). It’s also bringing Spirit back into the public eye. So whether you’re an old head whose brain cells are a bit foggy or a savvy millennial with an ear for vintage psychedelia, here are seven songs that demonstrate why Spirit are worth remembering as more than a Zeppelin footnote.
Spirit came together in 1967 in Los Angeles with an unconventional lineup. Drummer Ed Cassidy was 44, a veteran of World War II as well as the West Coast jazz scene – and his stepson Randy Wolfe, who took the name Randy California, became the singer/guitarist. California also had some experience under his belt as a former member of Jimi Hendrix’s short-lived group Jimmy James and the Blue Flames. With Spirit, Cassidy and California whipped up a heady, potent answer to San Francisco’s psychedelic scene via their 1968 self-titled debut, which featured a single called “Taurus.”
The instrumental, lush and symphonic, heralded the dawn of progressive rock just around the corner – and it also sported, among its many mini-movements, a descending guitar figure by California that the band later claimed was stolen by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. Their circumstantial evidence: Spirit and Zeppelin shared a stage a handful of times in 1968, giving Page plenty of opportunity to absorb “Taurus” before writing “Stairway,” which was released in 1971. And it’s not like Zeppelin hasn’t been accused of plagiarism before, most notably when folk artist Jake Holmes sued the band in 2010 over his 1967 song “Dazed and Confused,” the clear (and uncredited) basis of Zeppelin’s 1968 song of the same name.
“I Got a Line on You” (1969)
The closest Spirit ever came to becoming a household name was in 1969, when the single “I Got a Line on You” hit Number 25 in the Billboard charts. Unlike the vocal-free atmospherics of “Taurus,” “I Got a Line on You” featured harmony galore, straddling the line between the soulful hard rock that was on the rise at the end of the Sixties and the lingering traces of peace-and-love trippiness that still informed California’s supple guitar work. California’s voice is gutsy and melodic, helping to propel the single to success – a little less sophistication, and “I Got a Line on You” could’ve been a Steppenwolf mega-hit. It also established the dynamic between riff-hungry rock and psychedelic abandon that would become more pronounced as the band forged ahead into the Seventies.
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