Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page took the witness stand in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday and said he only recently heard an obscure 1968 instrumental by the long-defunct group Spirit, which Page is alleged to have poached as the basis for Zeppelin’s rock anthem “Stairway to Heaven.”
Lawyers representing the trust of Spirit’s late guitarist-songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, known as Randy California, contend that Page and Zeppelin’s singer-lyricist Robert Plant swiped the descending guitar arpeggio opening of “Stairway” from Spirit’s album track “Taurus.”
White hair tied back and sporting a tailored black suit, the well- preserved 72-year-old was an affable presence in the austere courtroom as he testified in the lawsuit that questions the origins of the classic rock song released 45 years ago, which remains a mainstay of FM radio.
Page spent about 90 minutes on the stand telling the eight-member civil jury that although he enjoyed and owned several of Spirit’s later albums, he first knowingly heard the track “Taurus” a few years ago when his son-in-law told him about an Internet-based fuss concerning the two songs, with hundreds of fans weighing in.
His daughter’s husband then played an Internet posting in which the tracks were compared side by side.
“I knew I’d never heard it before,” Page said of Wolfe’s classically inspired guitar instrumental. The concept of comparing the two songs, Page testified, “was just totally alien to me.”
The guitarist said that after hearing the comparison, he looked through his 4,329 vinyl albums to see if he actually owned Spirit’s debut album.
Page told the panel that although he did find a copy of the Los Angeles band’s eponymous first album in his collection, he has no recollection of actually listening to it or buying it.
Responding to repeated plaintiff questioning about the exact number of times he listened to Spirit’s other albums four decades ago, an exasperated Page drew laughs when he said, “Let’s say eight times.”
As for plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy’s allegations that Page heard Wolfe perform “Taurus” during the handful of dates Led Zeppelin shared with Spirit in 1968 and 1969, Page said he could not recall ever having seen a Spirit performance or having met any of its members backstage.
At stake in the closely watched lawsuit for alleged copyright infringement are millions of dollars in past and future “Stairway” royalties. Some reports estimate the song has earned more than $500 million.
The lawsuit was lodged in 2014, more than 40 years after “Stairway” was released, due to a change in copyright law that allows for such complaints to be filed when infringement is alleged to have taken place in the three previous years.
The jury will have to decide whether there are any substantial similarities between the “Taurus” deposit copy — or sheet music — and the first two and a half minutes of the copyrighted recording of “Stairway.”
To establish any potential similarity, plaintiffs are using a video recording of a musicologist-guitarist playing “Taurus” note-for-note from the copyrighted lead sheet. In the 1960s, musical notation was deposited with the Library of Congress to establish copyright — not recordings.
When Malofiy attempted to question Page about elements of the “Taurus” album track, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner stopped him, saying that any conversation about the Spirit recording was “irrelevant.”
The musical notation of “Taurus,” the judge said, “is the only thing we’re concerned about.”
Much of the afternoon was spent quizzing Page on whether he remembered telling interviewers in the late 1960s that he “liked” Spirit.
Page said he never denied liking the band, telling the jury that, in its infancy, Led Zeppelin used to jam on stage over the riff from the Spirit track, “Fresh Garbage,” as part of a time-filling medley.
“We didn’t have a lot of material in those days — only one album,” Page said.
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.
However, in his opening statement Tuesday, defense attorney Peter Anderson told jurors that “Stairway to Heaven,” had been composed by Page and Plant, “and them alone, period.”
The attorney said that although Page owned the 1968 album that contained the instrumental at the center of the case, “There’s no evidence that because he has an album now, it doesn’t mean he had it 45 years ago.”
The defense attorney on Tuesday also played for jurors a recording of a pianist playing “Taurus,” which sounded like a Baroque composition and appeared to have little in common with Zeppelin’s rock-radio classic.
In an unusual argument, Anderson said that whatever similarities might be perceived in the two pieces were actually “basic commonplace musical devices” — or cliches.
The attorney suggested that the descending chromatic scale used for the plucked guitar intro to “Stairway” is actually an unremarkable musical device used in countless songs, including the Beatles’ “Michelle” and the classic “Summertime.”
In the liner notes to a 1996 reissue of Spirit’s first album, Wolfe stated that “people always ask me why ‘Stairway to Heaven” sounds exactly like ‘Taurus,’ which was released two years earlier. … They opened up for us on their first American tour.”
In a six-page declaration filed with the court, Page said he didn’t hear, or had even heard of the 2-minute, 37-second “Taurus” until two years ago.
Klausner ruled in April that the jury trial would last less than a week and attorneys would have no more than 10 hours per side to present evidence.
Page is due back on the stand Thursday.
—City News Service