Led Zeppelin trial: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant on how Stairway to Heaven was created
Robert Plant made his first appearance on the stand — and Jimmy Page his second — in defense of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on Tuesday.
The band is accused of plagiarizing a song called “Taurus” by American rock group Spirit. The estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, led by trustee Michael Skidmore, is trying to prove to an eight-person jury that Led Zeppelin infringed on the copyright of “Taurus” with the 2:14 segment that begins Zeppelin’s signature track.
As the defense continued its case, Page and Plant recounted how the their track was written, music experts offered testimony about what sets the song apart, and Led Zeppelin’s earnings from “Stairway” were put under a new microscope.
Tuesday’s proceedings in Hon. R Gary Klausner’s Los Angeles courtroom began with continued testimony from music expert Rob Mathes, who went through a detailed color-coded structural chart of “Stairway to Heaven” and offered analysis of what made each section of the song noteworthy, playing some parts on guitar. The defense also tried to show the riff in question was commonplace by playing a section of “Taurus” over a rendition of folk song “To Catch a Shad.” While the plaintiff insisted the introduction — where the alleged infringement occurred — is the most iconic part, the defense and Mathes held that the entire song is iconic.
Tim Gardner, a financial consultant for Joan Hudson & Co., spoke as witness for the defense to rebut testimony last week from economist Dr. Michael Einhorn; Gardner provided tax documents that contended Zeppelin’s profits from “Stairway to Heaven” were significantly less than what Einhorn calculated.
Rhino Entertainment CFO David Woirhaye testified regarding a profits-and-losses sheet illustrating profits “Stairway” earned from 2011 to present; the Wolfe estate can only ask for a portion of royalties dating back to then, and no earlier, due to statute of limitations. The sheet indicated Rhino and Atlantic Records net less than $1 million from “Stairway” itself.
The courtroom’s collective attention was piqued when former frontman Plant, 67, was called up to be questioned.
Most of Plant’s testimony detailed his time at music venue and bar Mothers Club in Birmingham, U.K. The plaintiff previously tried to prove Plant saw Spirit there in the front row and had chatted with bassist Mark Andes in 1970 before “Stairway’s” publishing. Plant said he usually hung in the back by the bar where sound was poor: “You can’t really enjoy repartee by the noise,” he explained.
The night Spirit played in Birmingham, Plant and his wife were in a serious car accident. He said he didn’t remember that night in question, nor seeing other performers at Mothers Club, where he went upward of 50 times in the early ’70s.
“I don’t have a recollection of almost anybody I’ve hung out with,” he said.
Plant also recounted the first time he heard Page play a version of “Stairway”; he recalled telling Page he had a couplet in his pocket that fit with the music. He then sheepishly recited the first two lines of “Stairway”: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven/When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for.” The musical process “galloped” from there, Plant said.
Plant got a little defensive during cross-examination by Skidmore’s attorney Francis Malofiy. During a line of questioning on whether Led Zeppelin’s early sets consisted of cover songs, Plant took exception to the implication of song theft. (A direct question about “lifting” work from other artists was previously stricken from the record.) “I don’t find that a problem; I hear you going on about it a lot,” Plant replied.
Tuesday ended with Page retaking the stand and talking the jury and court through the 1970 recordings of early versions of “Stairway,” produced at the famed recording venue Headley Grange in Hampshire, England, ahead of the 1971 release of the band’s album, Led Zeppelin IV. Page detailed his thought process in trying to create “Stairway to Heaven,” fulfilling a desire to create “a piece of music that would go through many moods and changes.”
Defense attorney Peter Anderson played audio from four tapes of Page playing parts of “Stairway” with bassist John Paul Jones. Page went to Jones to help figure out the “ambitious” song before presenting it to the band, he said.
The first three recordings showed off different portions of “Stairway,” including the rising pre-solo piece referred to as “fanfare.” The fourth cassette sounded similar to the final version of “Stairway,” although neither Plant’s vocals nor the guitar solo had been finalized. The defense wrapped up by playing the studio release of “Stairway to Heaven” and asking Page if it was his and Plant’s composition.
Malofiy argued that Page and Jones had given different accounts of the “Stairway to Heaven” creation story through the years, pointing to a prior interview in that said the introduction had been composed in a cabin in the Welsh countryside of Bron-Yr-Aur. Malofiy cited an April 1970 interview with NME that quoted Page as saying he was working on something with an acoustic guitar and organ, similar to “Taurus.” However, Page said Tuesday it might not have necessarily been “Stairway,” as he usually juggled working on a handful of different pieces.
The trial is expected to wrap up Wednesday.
Check out EW’s explainer here.