The opening to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven transfixed the venue but Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not sing or jam guitar.
It was a courtroom, not a concert, and they sat in silence, accused of stealing arguably the most famous riff of the most famous anthem in rock.
The British duo, sporting dark suits and ponytails, sat side by side on Tuesday as a Los Angeles jury listened to the melancholic notes of the 1971 mega-hit in the start of a plagiarism trial.
It was the opening of a week-long legal drama which will reach back into centuries of music history to determine if the band nicked the 1971 song’s opening passage, which evokes Renaissance folk music, from an LA-based psychedelic band called Spirit.
The jury and a packed public gallery, which left fans queuing outside, strained to catch every note of Stairway to Heaven, and then Taurus, the song it allegedly ripped off.
The estate of Spirit’s guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, who died in 1997, is suing for recognition and a share of the proceeds from a lucrative hit estimated to have generated more than $500m.
The estate’s trustee, Michael Skidmore, claims Led Zeppelin ripped off a musical theme which recurs in Taurus, an instrumental on Spirit’s 1968 debut album, three years before Stairway to Heaven featured on the British band’s untitled fourth album, known as Led Zeppelin IV. The two bands shared concert billings in the late 1960s.
“This was a song that Randy California had written for the love of his life, Robin. That was her sign, Taurus,” said Francis Malofiy, representing the late musician’s estate. “Little did anyone know it would fall into the hands of Jimmy Page and become the intro to ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
Wolfe, speaking shortly before his death, said in magazine interview, quoted in the lawsuit, that it was a rip-off. “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.
Page, 72, the guitarist who wrote Stairway to Heaven, and Plant, 67, the singer, did not speak to reporters as they arrived on an overcast morning at the Edward Roybal federal building in downtown LA.
Addressing the jury their attorney, Peter Anderson, rejected any infringement. “Do re mi appears in both songs,” he said. He played a piano interpretation of “Taurus” that had only a vague similarity.
Malofiy responded with videos of guitar interpretations of both songs which sounded more similar, prompting complaints from Anderson that it was not an agreed exhibit and could trigger a mistrial.
The eighth-floor courtroom, a sombre blend of marble and wood, was an incongruous arena to revisit a bacchanalian era of rock’n’roll. US district court judge Gary Klausner, with a black robe, silver hair and glasses, said formalities will be preserved in the case, which is expected to last five days. “Never use a first name,” he told lawyers. “Everybody should have the dignity to be addressed by their last name.”
Judge Klausner, 75, signalled he may not have been a hardcore Zeppelnite by referring to the band as “the Led Zeppelin”. He kept a brisk pace and dispatched more than a dozen motions within minutes. He warned lawyers from both sides to stick to protocol and “not do anything spontaneous”.
Reporters were threatened with expulsion if they used phones and pens, apparently lest they contain recording devices. A court official handed out pencils.
Jury selection produced a panel of four men and four women who appeared to range in age from 20s to 60s. Two potential jurors were excused after saying they were Led Zeppelin fans. One recalled learning to play guitar by plucking Stairway to Heaven.
Plant and Page, seated beside their lawyers, took notes and remained largely impassive, relaxing and smiling only during breaks.
After two years of legal argument Judge Klausner ruled in April that the case should go to a jury but he stopped short of agreeing that the song was copied.
Led Zeppelin’s lawyers are expected to argue that the opening of Stairway to Heaven, a descending sequence mostly in A-minor, has been a common musical device for centuries and that the lawsuit ignores the rest of the song, which lasts eight minutes.
Page and Plant, who have given filmed depositions, have said they never had substantive interaction with Spirit or listened to the band’s music.
Larry Iser, a lawyer and copyright specialist who is not involved in the case, said the defense should put Plant and Page on the stand. “The jury needs to hear them tell the story of their independent creation of Stairway to Heaven and in particular their lack of reliance on Taurus. If they don’t testify, the jury will likely conclude that Plant and Page have something to hide.”
The lawsuit alleges Led Zeppelin have “a deep-rooted history of lifting composition from blues artists and other songwriters who they have repeatedly failed to credit”. It cites disputes over 16 other Led Zeppelin songs, including Whole Lotta Love and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.
Several Zeppelin fans turned up at court, including Byron Taylor, 57, a retired teacher who brought LPs in hope of autographs. He worried that the jury might decide against the band.
The Led Zeppelin dispute is the latest in a string of high-profile music plagiarism cases in LA.
Last week Ed Sheeran was hit with an infringement suit claiming his 2015 hit Photograph ripped off the song Amazon, by Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard. Last year Marvin Gaye’s family won a $7.4m award against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for infringing on Gaye’s Got to Give It Up in their song Blurred Lines.
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