LOS ANGELES — Did Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page steal the opening riff to their legendary hit “Stairway to Heaven"?
The founding members of the band, accused of “falsification of rock and roll history,” went to trial Tuesday for copyright infringement at a Federal Court in downtown Los Angeles. Musician Michael Skidmore claims the British rockers used 14-crucial seconds of the song “Taurus,” written by Randy Wolfe, to craft their iconic song.
Skidmore’s attorney Francis Malofiy said that in the summer of 1967 Wolfe, then 17, wrote the two-minute and 37-second instrumental song for his then-band Spirit. Skidmore is the trustee of Wolfe’s living trust after the guitar player drowned in Hawaii in 1997. His body was never found.
Both Plant and Page were in court Tuesday for the start of the trial, which is expected to last four days. Zeppelin’s attorney Peter Anderson claimed “Stairway to Heaven” was created solely by Plant and Page independent of the musical composition “Taurus.” In addition, Skidmore, Anderson said in court papers, does not have the right to sue because Wolfe didn’t even own the rights to his own song at the time of his death.
Anderson also argued in court papers there is no actionable similarities between the two songs. The legal case, he said, will hinge on only comparing the sheet music for the "Taurus" song with “Stairway to Heaven.” It will not include things such as guitar finger-picking, instrumentation, tempo, and mood, which are not protected under copyright law, according to Zeppelin's attorney.
The trial began with Skidmore’s attorney Malofiy laying the foundation by showing the jury Plant and Page had ample opportunities to hear Wolfe’s song “Taurus.” Spirit and Led Zeppelin played multiple shows together and at one show in 1968, Zeppelin even opened for Spirit, Malofiy said.
“A year after touring with Spirit, Page allegedly wrote the most famous rock song of all times — 'Stairway to Heaven’ — by fireside at remote cottage in Wales,” Malofiy wrote in his statement to the court.
Wolfe’s sister Janet was the first to testify at trial. She said her brother was discovered by Jimi Hendrix at the age of 15 and wrote “Taurus” for his then-wife Robin based on her astrological sign. She said her brother’s band Spirit played the song at almost every show of his that she attended, from the Whisky A-Go-Go to the Fillmore in San Francisco. She said her brother was deeply upset at what he viewed as Zeppelin ripping off his song.
“It was something that upset him for many, many years,” Janet said. “I wanted him to do something about it.”
A former Spirit band member Jay Ferguson testified next that Wolfe was a “natural prodigy on guitar” and he remembered as well “Taurus” being played at every show. He said he even remembered being introduced to Robert Plant before one of their shows in 1970 at Mother’s club in Birmingham, England. Ferguson said Zeppelin even covered a song he wrote for Spirit titled “Fresh Garbage.” Under cross-examination, Ferguson admitted it was not usual for one band to cover another’s songs and while Spirit and Zeppelin had played several festivals together his memory was hazy about whether they had played on the same days.
The trial will continue Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.
Claudia Rosenbaum is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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