It’ll be Tuesday before we hear more in the “Stairway to Heaven” legal battle, but the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where the copyright trial is going on is getting its share of rock-legend testimony.
Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones was called to the witness stand Friday to rebut assertions that his bandmates swiped parts of a little-known instrumental by a long-defunct Los Angeles group and used it as the secret basis for one of the most famous rock epics of the last four decades.
Jones, 70, arrived at the downtown Los Angeles courtroom near the end of the fourth day of a federal copyright infringement lawsuit that calls into question the origins of the eight-minute 1971 Zeppelin signature song, “Stairway to Heaven.”
The bass player — a longtime session musician and arranger — told the jury he has no recollection of hearing the band Spirit, whose 1968 album track “Taurus” was supposedly the template for the plucked guitar intro to “Stairway” due to its melodic descending chord pattern and lilting, delicate feel.
Jones said that he remembers first hearing what would become “Stairway” at a rehearsal and recording space the band used at Headley Grange in Hampshire, England, as he and Page worked up an early arrangement.
The case was brought two years ago by lawyers representing the trust of Spirit’s late guitarist-songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, known as Randy California.
At stake in the closely watched lawsuit are potentially million of dollars in “Stairway” royalties collected in the three years prior to the filing of the lawsuit through this month.
Although “Stairway” was issued more than 40 years ago, the lawsuit was lodged in 2014 due to a change in copyright law that now allows for such complaints to be filed when infringement is alleged to have taken place in the three previous years.
“Stairway to Heaven” monies reaped by Page and Plant and three music companies associated with Zeppelin’s 87-song catalog that are party to the lawsuit stem from sales of the physical album — Led Zeppelin’s fourth — containing the song, digital sales of the album, digital sales of the “Stairway” track alone, ringtones and streaming of the song, according to a music business analyst.
But before damages are considered, the eight-member jury will have to decide whether there are any substantial similarities between “Taurus,” as performed from sheet music by musicologists from both sides, and the first two and a half minutes of “Stairway.”
In the day’s longest testimony, the defendants’ expert musicologist Dr. Lawrence Ferrara dissected “Stairway,” based on a transcription he created, and the “Taurus” lead sheet, finding similarities that he referred to as “commonplace.”
Both tunes share a “descending chromatic minor line,” which he said has been in use by composers for more than 300 years.
“It’s a musical building block,” Ferrara testified, adding “not a relevant similarity.”
Playing an electronic keyboard for jurors, the music educator performed “Taurus” and “Stairway” side by side, explaining that the two are “dramatically different.”
In fact, Ferrara said, certain contested passages of the songs “couldn’t be more different.
Page and Plant have attended the trial since it began Tuesday, entering the courthouse each morning through a special entrance surrounded by private security and police.
With only about 62 seats available to the public in the eighth-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner, tempers were becoming short among members of the media, courthouse staff and fans attempting to get inside. However, for the first time Friday, Klausner allowed for an overflow room in which a live video feed of the trial was broadcast.
Page testified over two days, telling the jury he had only recently listened to the Spirit instrumental at the center of the case.
But the Wolfe trust contends that Page first heard key musical elements later used in “Stairway” when Spirit performed “Taurus” when the band shared the bill with Zeppelin on the British band’s first United States date, in Denver in 1968, and at three pop festivals the following year.
Page and Jones both denied ever hearing the band in performance, and although Page said he was familiar with several albums by Spirit, the disc containing “Taurus” was not among them.
The courtroom is dark Monday, with the trial continuing Tuesday.
— City News Service
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: