PHOTO: Michael Putland | Getty Images
The trial to determine authorship of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” took an ugly turn on Wednesday, June 22, as attorneys from both sides sought to discredit the musicians whose compositions are at the heart of the case.
During his summation, the attorney for the plaintiff accused “Stairway to Heaven” composers Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of “selectively mis-remembering” past details about the song’s creation, Billboard reports.
Francis Malofiy said the two men are “selectively mis-remembering things that happened many years ago,” including their knowledge and appreciation of music created by Spirit, the band they’re accused of plagiarizing. Malofiy asked the jury if Page and Plant’s “memory is better now or in 1969 or 1970,” according to Rolling Stone, referring to the years in which both were quoted as saying they knew Spirit’s music and had seen the band perform.
Those quotes, published in print and recorded on tape, were the plaintiff’s chief evidence that Page and Plant were familiar with “Taurus,” an instrumental track on Spirit’s self-titled 1968 debut, which has a descending arpeggiated passage similar to the one that opens Page and Plant’s 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven.” Malofiy also noted that Page’s own record collection contains five Spirit albums, including their debut, and that Led Zeppelin had often performed the main riff from Spirit’s song “Fresh-Garbage,” the opening track on Spirit’s debut, in their live shows in 1969.
Finally, Malofiy noted that Page and Plant’s testimony about where and when they wrote “Stairway to Heaven” differs from the established historical record. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones told the BBC in 1972 that the two men wrote much of the song while at a cottage in Wales before bringing it to the band’s rehearsal at Headley Grange, a former poorhouse that became a popular rehearsal space for bands in the Seventies. During the trial, Page said under oath that the song was begun at Headley, and Jones testified that he was “guessing” when he made his statement to the BBC 44 years ago.
Plant, for his part, colorfully described for the court the moment he and Page sat down to work on “Stairway to Heaven” at Headley Grange. Together, through their testimony, Page, Plant and Jones turned some 40 years of accepted Led Zeppelin history on its head, a point not lost on Malofiy as he pursued his line that Page and Plant were making a “complete rewriting of history.”
Malofiy is seeking one-third songwriting credit for Randy Wolfe, who wrote “Taurus” and performed in Spirit under the name Randy California. “This case is about one thing: credit,” Malofiy said.
But it is also about money, and to that end Malofiy told the jury it could assess damages as “somewhere in the middle” of $10 million, an amount he determined based on gross profits earned by the song through royalties since 2011. “Stairway to Heaven” has reportedly accrued more than $550 million since it was published in 1971, but pre-2011 royalties are protected by statute of limitations, though future royalties could be shared if the plaintiff succeeds with the case.
Zeppelin attorney Peter Anderson began his closing statement by arguing that Malofiy had failed to demonstrate Wolfe’s song had an influence on the creation of “Stairway to Heaven.” The defense has maintained throughout the trial that the descending passage used in the song is a commonplace technique found in music of the past 300 years, including in many popular songs such as “My Funny Valentine” and the Beatles’ “Michelle.”
“I don’t have to say [Wolfe] copied it from ‘Michelle.’ It’s available to everyone,” Anderson said, Entertainment Weekly reports.
Anderson also noted that the band’s use of the “Fresh-Garbage” riff was a “a complete distraction” from the matter at hand. Plant had testified on the stand that he heard the song not from Spirit’s debut but from a 1968 compilation of contemporary rock songs that did not contain “Taurus,” the real song at issue in the trial. He also said it made no difference whether Page and Plant wrote “Stairway to Heaven” in a Welsh cottage or at Headley Grange, calling the matter a “red herring.”
Anderson’s closing statement offered what may be remembered as one of the ugliest moments in the trial. Speaking of Spirit and Wolfe’s musical contributions, he drew a gasp from Wolfe’s sisters when he said, “‘I Got a Line on You’ may be the only song that we remember [from Spirit]—if we remember any of them.” The 1968 song was, at Number 25, the band’s highest-charting single in the U.S.
The case now goes to the jury.