‘Still of the Night’- the story behind Whitesnake’s blatant Led Zeppelin rip-off.

As David Coverdale would say: Here’s a song for you!

For as long as I can remember, Whitesnake have been one of my guilty pleasures. Not up there with my favourite bands, nor one I’ve even seen live, but whenever I hear Whitesnake I can’t help but appreciate just how many classic rock songs they’ve released.

Recently I was listening to a new greatest hits playlist and all the old memories came flooding back. Among those were a fair few that have stood the test of time and are bona fide classic rock songs. One of the reasons for this is that in a constantly changing line-up, David Coverdale has always surrounded himself with top-notch musicians.

Despite his huge success spanning some 40 years, originality was never one of Coverdale’s virtues. Indeed, he’s one of those artists for whom the word derivative could have been invented for.

And of all Whitesnake’s many hits, none is more derivative than Still of the Night, the first single from the band’s seventh studio album 1987. Listening to it again for the first time in years, what struck me is what no doubt struck many people when it was first released 34 years ago: it’s a blatant Led Zeppelin rip off. And when I say that. I mean everything about the song owes its origins to Zeppelin. One could even argue it’s the ultimate Zeppelin song.

Now none of that devalues the song, but you have to wonder what made Coverdale create something that was such a brazen homage to Zeppelin. Whether it’s his vocals, the song’s structure or its sound, it has Zeppelin’s DNA running right through it. That’s not to say it’s a bad song, it’s not. It’s just so barefacedly unoriginal.

I was curious enough to want to find out more, so I began to research how it came about, where it was recorded and who produced it.

It took a lot of work, but the more I found out, the more interesting the story became. At the same time, I found myself becoming a little obsessed with Coverdale himself. Today, he’s almost a Spinal Tap figure, the archetypal senescent hair metal rock star.

Listen to some of his interviews, and you’ll hear him admit quite how many of his recordings are derived from other songs. That being said, as derivative as they are, he still manages to imbue most of them with a distinctive Whitesnake sound.

On the subject of originality in music, Journey’s Neal Schon recently put it this way: “It’s so difficult to come up with anything that’s that’s never been done before, so you take rhythms that you like and you do it your own way.”

So let’s begin a deep, deep dive into perhaps the most unabashedly plagiaristic of all Whitesnake’s songs, the rock classic Still of the Night.

Speaking in 2017 at the release of the 1987 30th anniversary edition, Coverdale said of Still of the Night:

“It’s one of the biggest rock songs I’ve ever been involved with and it’s one of my favourite songs to perform. It’s a big Guitar Hero lick and a chest-beating song.”

The song’s origins actually date back two years before the 1987 album was released. It was written by Coverdale and the band’s then guitarist John Sykes when the pair had retreated to Le Rayol in the South of France in early 1985 to begin writing Whitesnake’s next album.

This is a rare demo recording of the song from those 1985 sessions:

Like many a Whitesnake song it has an underlying sexual theme. The lyrics are suggestive of either a vampire or a stalker, someone obsessed with a woman and who wants to be with her all night. The daylight seems to hurt him as he has to keep his head down and hide his face from the sun.

The making of the album was far from a smooth affair. By early 1986, most of the instrumental tracks had been laid down, but when it came to record his vocals, Coverdale noticed his voice was unusually nasal and off-pitch. Following consultations with several specialists, it was revealed he had contracted a severe sinus infection.

After taking antibiotics, Coverdale flew to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to resume recording. However, the infection resurfaced in March 1986 which caused his septum to collapse requiring surgery, and the need for a six month rehabilitation period. John Sykes however disputes this and says Coverdale was just suffering from nerves, and that he used every excuse possible not to record his vocals.

By his own account, Coverdale admits developing a “mental block” that prevented him from singing. After recovering from surgery and some failed sessions with Ron Nevison, he was finally able to record his vocals with producer Keith Olsen.

By late 1986, much of the album had been finished. In addition to the core English players of John Sykes, bassist Neil Murray, drummer Ainsley Dunbar, and keyboards player Don Airey, Bill Cuomo provided additional keyboards, while Dutchman Adrian Vandenberg and Dann Huff were brought in to do some guitar overdubs. It was produced by Mike Stone and Keith Olsen.

Of those musicians involved in 1987, what can’t be disputed is the impact John Sykes had on the album, not only with his writing (he co-wrote all but one of the tracks), but especially with his playing. As Coverdale would later remark:

“John’s playing and soloing on the 1987 album is truly landmark stuff and so influential to a lot of people. I hope he’s very proud of it, because I am.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sykes himself has a different recollection on what happened with the album. Here’s what he told the Baltimore Sun in 1994:

“Me and David wrote the songs between us. We went to France, wrote the songs, then took the whole thing over to Los Angeles, which is where we found Aynsley Dunbar. We started recording up in Vancouver with Mike Stone at Little Mountain Studios, and as the closing part of the drum stuff was getting finished, Aynsley comes to me and says he’s been fired. I thought that was kind of strange, because David hadn’t talked to any of the band members about it. We couldn’t really figure it out. Then Neil [Murray, the bassist] finished up his parts, and he got fired. This is over a period of months. And then, I was just wrapping up guitars, when Mike Stone phoned his office and found out he’d also been fired.”

“My option was to quit right then, but that would mean he’d get someone else in to do guitars — and I didn’t want that to happen, seeing as I’d written most of it with him. So I finished up the guitar leads, and then just walked away.”

When Sykes found out Coverdale was mixing the album at Keith Olsen’s Goodnight LA Studios, he flew out from England for a final confrontation.

“I went to the studio and caught him, and we got into a little bit of a shouting match. One thing led to another, and he wound up locking himself in his car, shrugging his hands like ‘It wasn’t my choice.’ Then he just drove off.”

Apparently, Olsen recorded Coverdale’s vocals on the same Austrian-made AKG 414 condenser microphone he had used in the 70s to track Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s vocals on Fleetwood Mac’s Rhiannon.

Released on 13 June 1987, Still of the Night was the first single off Whitesnake’s career breaking self-titled album, now widely known as 1987.

After already perilously skirting Zep plagiarism with 1984's Slow an’ Easy, Coverdale went all the way over the edge with Still of the Night which lifted its main riff from Physical Graffiti‘s In My Time of Dying, and threw in a spacey middle part that owed much to the psychedelic breakdown in Whole Lotta Love — complete with Robert Plant-like howls.

Coverdale (who would later team up with Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page for 1993’s Coverdale/Page LP) was deeply miffed when Plant started referring to him in the press as “David Cover-version,” but many would agree the sobriquet was well-earned.

Although the Led Zeppelin influence is unmistakable, speaking in 2017, Coverdale gave his own viewpoint:

“With all the Led Zeppelin comparisons and stuff — it was very much a hybrid of ‘Jailhouse Rock’ by Elvis Presley and the middle piece was inspired by a Jeff Beck Group song called ‘Rice Pudding.’

“I had a scrubby little riff and when I played it to John [Sykes] On the 1987 30th anniversary edition, you can hear it evolve and John’s contribution to that guitar lick is just astonishing.”

This six minute epic is Whitesnake’s Stairway to Heaven. You can tell that Whitesnake were heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin as their influences appear throughout the song. Aynsley does a really good impression of John Bonham with his huge drum sound.

Coverdale’s fascination with Led Zeppelin has always been apparent in his vocal stylings. None more so than on Still of the Night, where his phrasing, his whoops, his ‘ooh-ing’, the quiet parts, the multitracked screams are clearly inspired by Robert Plant

Of course it’s not the only Whitesnake song that’s borrowed heavily from Zeppelin. Others include Judgement Day and Crying In The Rain to name but two.

In the still of the night I hear the wolf howl, honey
Sniffing around your door
In the still of the night I feel my heart beating heavy
Telling me I gotta have more

In the shadow of night I see the full moon rise
Telling me what’s in store
My heart start aching, my body started shaking
And I can’t take no more
No, no, no

Now I just want to get close to you
And taste your love so sweet
And I just want to make love to you
Feel your body heat

In the still of the night
In the still of the night
Over here baby

In the heat of the day I hang my head down low
And hide my face from the sun
Through the light of the day until the evening time
I’m waiting for the night to come
Ooh, baby

In the still of the night
In the cool moonlight
I feel my heart is aching
In the still of the night

Ooh, baby
Ooh, baby
Can’t keep away
Need to be closer
I can’t keep away
Can’t keep away, can’t keep away
Oh, can’t keep away, no

You gotta give me love
You gotta give me some lovin’ everyday
I can’t keep away, no

Ooh, baby, ooh Lord, ahh

Get over here, baby

Ooh, mama

Now I just want to get close to you
And taste your love so sweet
And I just want to make love to you
Feel your body heat

In the still of the night, ooh yeah
In the still of the night
I will be sneakin’ ‘round your door
In the still of the night
In the still of the night
Ain’t nothing gonna stop me now

Still of the night, still of the night, still of the night
Still of the night, still of the night, still of the night
Still of the night, still of the night, still of the night
Still of the night, still of the night, still of the night
Still of the night, still of the night, still of the night

The video was directed by Marty Callner, who so the story goes, even fronted Coverdale the money to make it. At the time, Coverdale was said to be in debt to the tune of $3 million and couldn’t get his label, Geffen, to pay for it.

The video was the first of many by Whitesnake to include Coverdale’s then wife, Tawny Kitaen and quickly became the most requested video on MTV in the first week of its release.

Since the band had changed personnel from the time the song was written until it was recorded, Whitesnake’s lineup had changed to Vivian Campbell and Adrian Vandenberg on guitars, Rudy Sarzo on bass and Tommy Aldridge on drums.

In large part thanks to Callner’s videos, the 1987 album turned the band into a household name as the record would go on to sell 8 million copies, a commercial success that Whitesnake was never able to repeat.

Here’s one of the best live recordings of Still of the Night, it’s from their 2004 show at London’s Hammersmith Apollo…

There’s no doubting that Still of the Night is one of the all-time classic 80s rock songs. It’s arguably also Whitesnake’s best and most enduring song. Despite Coverdale’s assertions to the contrary, there’s little doubt it owes a lot to Led Zeppelin. And there’s no doubt Coverdale owes a huge debt of gratitude to its co-author John Sykes for his contribution, not only to the song, but to the breakthrough album it appeared on. Without the huge commercial success of 1987, it might have spelled the end of Whitesnake. Taking into account the circumstances around the song’s evolution and recording, the fact it even got finished is pretty amazing. But as Benjamin Franklin famously said: Out of adversity comes opportunity.

David Coverdale: Born on 21 September 1951 in Saltburn by the Sea in North Yorkshire, to Thomas Joseph Coverdale and his wife Winifred May, David Coverdale would go on to study at Green Lane Art College in Middlesborough. While there he began singing with local bands most notably The Government who once had supported Deep Purple in 1969.

Four years later, when Ian Gillan left the band in 1973, Coverdale responded to an ad in Melody Maker. In August 1973, after sending a tape, he came down to Scorpio Sound Studios in London to audition for Deep Purple! A few months later, the band would release Burn, their first album with Coverdale on vocals.

Forty-five years ago, in 1976, Purple disbanded and Coverdale went on to begin a solo career in 1977 with his debut album. Entitled White Snake, it would lead to his forming the band of the same name in 1978. Since then, Whitesnake has seen an ever-changing line-up — some 40 musicians have played their part, including no less than 12 lead guitarists!

Not surprisingly, Coverdale remains the only original member of Whitesnake. He has lived in America since the mid-1980s and became a US citizen in March 2007.

“I’ve been a tax exile since I was 21 years old. When the ’87 album just started to go batshit, we had a seven-hour meeting in Los Angeles, and they were wooing me to Delaware or Miami. The centre of the music business, at that time, was Los Angeles. Funnily enough, back in England, I’d done a school project on the Squaw Valley Winter Olympics. So I said, ‘What’s the closest place to there?’ And that’s where I went.”

Only recently, he’s moved out of his longtime home in Incline Village, Nevada and set up a new base near Reno in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Explaining his reason for leaving, Coverdale who in 2017 had both knees replaced with titanium after suffering from degenerative arthritis said:

“After having 10 years of degenerative arthritis, and 12 years of having a really big house — four floors and absolutely impractical for elevators, at 7,000 feet — instead of fighting for it, as I did in my last divorce, I couldn’t do it anymore; I couldn’t deal with it. It was sad because it’s just so beautiful. It’s one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the world.”

He later explained he was in so much pain with his knees that it hampered his ability to perform live.

In 2014, Coverdale built a his own studio, Hook City Studios, in Reno, Nevada.

Three years later, in 2020, Whitesnake was forced to cancel its U.S. tour with Sammy Hagar and Night Ranger so Coverdale could undergo surgery for a bilateral inguinal hernia. Eventually, the tour was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2021, Coverdale finally sold his four-bedroom home on the north shore of Lake Tahoe for $6.8 million after originally putting the property on the market in 2019 for $9.85 million. He still made a healthy profit, having purchased the property in 1988 for $923,000.

Coverdale has been married three times and has two children.

He dated his first wife, Julia Borkowski for four years after getting together in 1973. They married on 17 August 1978, but divorced just seven months later. Their daughter Jessica was born in 1978.

His second marriage to actress Julie ‘Tawny ‘ Kitaen lasted from 1989 to 1991.

Coverdale then married Cindy Barker in 1997. They have a son, Jasper.

In 2016, as a former member of Deep Purple, Coverdale was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

2019 saw the release of the latest Whitesnake album, Flesh & Blood.

Most recently, Coverdale who turned 70 in September 2021, announced that 2022 will see Whitesnake embark on its final tour celebrating what he described as “five decadent decades of reptilian fun.”

“Last year, we were supposed to do what was gonna be my farewell tour, and it was sold out; it was amazing. Of course, everything was cancelled due to COVID. So, God willing, I’ll be able to do it gratitude, because you can’t do it without an audience supporting you.”

Coverdale insists his farewell tour won’t be a long, prolonged trek:

“Are you kidding? I’m knocking on 70. It’s hard enough now to get into my jeans!”

But he won’t be retiring from music,

“We have a poopload of projects to do under the Whitesnake banner… I play guitar every day. The moment I start playing, I come up with ideas for songs. It’s impossible for me not to play music. It’s my hobby. It’s something that I’m supposed to do.”

John Sykes: Born July 1959 in Reading, Berkshire, Sykes joined Whitesnake in 1984 when he was recruited from the remnants of Thin Lizzy.

After being fired from Whitesnake, just before the release of the 1987 album, he got a record deal with Geffen, a label that at the start of 1987 wasn’t a major player in hard rock. However, that changed following three significant releases during the year. With Whitesnake’s 1987 album, Permanent Vacation from Aerosmith and Appetite For Destruction from Guns N Roses, Geffen was the label to be on.

Sykes went on to form his own band, Blue Murder. Here’s some rare footage of them playing Still of the Night in Tokyo in 1989.

After two albums and no commercial success, the band broke up and he fronted a reformed Thin Lizzy until 2009 when he left to focus on a solo career, although the dearth of any new material would suggest he was largely inactive.

He married his wife Jennifer in 1989 with whom he has three sons, James, John Jr and Sean.

Apparently, he hasn’t spoken to Coverdale since he was dismissed from Whitesnake in 1986.

Sykes currently lives in Los Angeles where for the last several years he’s been writing material and preparing for the release of a new album entitled Sy-Ops.

Mike Stone: Born in 1951, Stone began his career as an assistant recording engineer at Abbey Road in London. While still a teenager, he worked on some sessions for The Beatles’ Beatles For Sale (1964). Later, at Trident Studios, he worked his way up to tape op and assistant engineer and in 1974, he began a long relationship with Queen when he worked with producer, Roy Thomas Baker, to engineer the vocal layering for Bohemian Rhapsody. Following Baker’s departure, Queen hired Stone as their engineer for his expertise in over-dubbing vocals.

After working on the first six Queen albums, Stone went onto to work with numerous other artists including Journey and Asia, as either producer or co-producer. The 1987 album was his 22nd project and the first time he’d worked with Whitesnake.

He died in 2002 at the age of 51. Although no cause of death was listed, it was said he had battled alcoholism for many years.

Keith Olsen: Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Olsen cut his teeth in the Minneapolis music scene. He collaborated with a variety of acts from the area, eventually becoming the bass player for the Music Machine, a group best-known for their 1966 hit Talk Talk.

By the late ’60s, Olsen relocated to Los Angeles, eventually becoming an engineer at the iconic Sound City Studios.

As well as Whitesnake, the Grammy-winning producer worked with many other artists including Pat Benatar, Fleetwood Mac, Ozzy Osbourne and Scorpions.

He died of a heart attack on 9 March 2020 aged 74, at his home in Genoa, Nevada.

Little Mountain Sound: Ever since Bon Jovi recorded Slippery When Wet there, this anonymous looking recording studio on the corner of Columbia and West 7th Avenue in Vancouver became the mecca for any 80s rock band worth their salt to come to.

The album that started it all off was Loverboy by Loverboy, produced by Bruce Fairbairn and Bob Rock. So many of the artists who recorded there, recorded the biggest albums of their career, artists like AC/DC (Thunderstruck), Aerosmith (Permanent Vacation), Bon Jovi (New Jersey) Metallica (The Black Album), Motley Crue (Dr Feelgood), Poison (Flesh & Blood) and of course Whitesnake with 1987.

Little Mountain is no more. The nondescript building is still there, but the studio it housed closed its doors in 1993.

Julie “Tawny” Kitaen: The actress who starred as Tom Hanks’ fiancée in Bachelor Party, also appeared in Ratt’s Back for More video before featuring in Whitesnake’s videos for Here I Go Again, Still of the Night, Is This Love and The Deeper The Love.

Kitaen previously dated Ratt guitarist Robbin Crosby and appeared on the cover of two of their albums. She went on the road with Van Halen for three years as the girlfriend of one of theit crew members. But she was most famous for her relationship and marriage to David Coverdale.

Her personality is revealed in this rare TV interview with Dick Wilson in 1989…

After her divorce from Coverdale, she got a job hosting a TV show, America’s Funniest People, and had a small role in Seinfeld. In 1997 he met and married baseball pitcher Chuck Finley, with whom she had two daughters, Wynter, 28, and Raine, 22.

The couple split up in 2002 when he accused her of physically abusing him and kicking him in the face with her high heels. Kitaen was arrested and charged with domestic violence but the charges were later dismissed. Three days later, Finley filed for divorce.

On 7 May 2021 Julie Kitaen unexpectedly passed away at her home in Newport Beach, California. She was 59. Only a couple of weeks earlier she appeared to be in good spirits when she recorded a lengthy interview with Manic radio, telling story after story of her rock n roll life. In fact, she’d been working with author Colin Heaton on a ‘tell-all’ book.

In October 2021, the coroner’s report revealed that she died from ‘dilated cardio myopathy’ — a common type of heart disease.

All of the covers I’ve found are by female vocalists and all stick very closely to the sound and arrangement of the original. Curiously, for an old song, three of them came out in July and August 2021. I think that goes to show what a rock classic Still Of The Night has become.

This theatrical, almost operatic, live version by Finnish soprano Tarja Turunen is the most different and was recorded in Rosario, Argentina back in March 2012. No surprise that her style is dubbed “opera metal”.

I can’t say I’m much of a fan of this Halestorm live cover from 2016

Another live version by another Finnish female. This time it’s Netta Laurenne from 2017.

This is a pretty good version from The Iron Cross.

This brand new cover from Gabriela Gunčíková, Rudy Sarzo, Alex Skolnick, Ken Mary and Gary Schutt is also good. Bassist Rudy Sarzo by the way is a former member of Whitesnake, back in the early 90s.

But the latest, and arguably the best version of the original is by Sershen & Zaritskaya, which came out in August 2021.

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Behind the shot: As I’ve never photographed David Coverdale (or, for that matter, John Sykes), rather than just include some stock photos to illustrate this story, I decided to create some art remixes of portraits of both artists.

About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and interviews with musicians.

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people