LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Rock ‘n’ roll history played out Tuesday in a Los Angeles courtroom as vintage recordings of Led Zeppelin working on the song that became the epic “Stairway to Heaven” were played and the songwriters discussed its craft.
Jimmy Page testified about his ambitions to write a song that would accelerate to a crescendo and how he shared the introduction with keyboardist and bassist John Paul Jones to get an ally in his scheme.
Singer Robert Plant discussed matching a couplet to Page’s opening on acoustic guitar as a fire crackled in the hearth at Headley Grange south of London in the spring of 1970.
The rough cuts to one of rock’s most enduring anthems included Page playing the instantly recognizable intro and breaking into a strumming pattern that would not make the final cut and Plant singing off key in his first effort to blend his lyrics to the melody.
The genesis of the song is at question in a high-stakes federal trial that accuses Page and Plant of lifting a riff from the obscure 1968 instrumental “Taurus” by the band Spirit. The estate of the late Spirit founder Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, is suing Page, Plant and their record label for copyright infringement.
The defence rested its case after the musicians testified. Jurors in U.S. District Court will hear closing arguments Wednesday.
Page and Plant tried to put further distance between themselves and the California band that blended a psychedelic mix of jazz and rock.
Plant, whose memory of creating “Stairway” was clear, claimed to recall very few encounters dating back to the band’s early days.
Plant told a packed courtroom that he did not remember hanging out with members of the band Spirit after the American band played a Birmingham, England, show in 1970, though he said he and his wife were in a bad car wreck and he has no memory of the evening.
“I don’t have a recollection of mostly anyone I’ve hung out with,” Plant said as the courtroom roared with laughter. “In the chaos and hubbub, how are you going to remember one guy when you haven’t seen him for 40 years.”
Spirit’s former bass player had testified to drinking beers with Plant and playing the billiards-like game snooker after a show at Mother’s Club in 1970.
Plant had a much sharper memory of Headley Grange, where he said his goal was to evoke an image of pastoral Britain.
As Page played the opening, Plant said the lyrics he had been working on fit with the song: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
From there it started “rolling pretty fast,” he said.
The other band members would make contributions and Plant would occasionally retreat to a bedroom with a notepad to work on more lyrics for what became an eight-minute song.
Musical experts for the Wolfe estate have said there were many similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway,” but defence experts played many other songs that they said had a common descending chord sequence used in songs for three centuries.
If the jury finds that the “Taurus” copyright was violated, jurors would have a wide range of damages to consider.
An expert for estate trustee Michael Skidmore, said Led Zeppelin work that included “Stairway” earned gross revenues of nearly $60 million in the past five years. Some of that work, however, included other songs and could be part of a 2008 deal that’s outside the statute of limitations.
Defence experts offered much smaller figures focused solely on revenues from the song in its many forms — as a digital download, ringtones, streaming and as a fraction of multiple albums.
A British accountant testified Tuesday that the gross revenues Page and Plant received from “Stairway” during that time period amounted to just over $1 million.
An executive for Led Zeppelin’s label, Rhino Entertainment Co., said the song earned $3 million in revenue and a net profit of $868,000 since 2011.