Led Zeppelin happy ‘Stairway’ origin question settled
Led Zeppelin did not steal a riff from an obscure 1960s instrumental for the introduction of its classic rock anthem "Stairway to Heaven," a federal jury decided Thursday, legally settling a debate that has divided music fans for decades.
The trust of the late Randy Craig Wolfe claimed that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page lifted a passage that Wolfe, better known as Randy California, wrote for "Taurus," a short work he recorded with his band Spirit in 1968.
The "Taurus" recording contains a section that sounds like the instantly recognizable start of "Stairway," but it was never played for jurors. In trying to show the works were substantially similar, the trust had the tricky task of relying on expert renditions from the sheet music filed with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Jurors, who deliberated about five hours, reached their verdict shortly after having videos of a guitarist performing both passages in question replayed in court. Those renditions seemed more like distant cousins than twin siblings.
Page, 72, and singer Robert Plant, 67, both wearing suits and with their long hair pulled back in ponytails, hugged their lawyers after prevailing.
"We are grateful for the jury's conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of `Stairway to Heaven' and confirming what we have known for 45 years," the two said in a statement issued by a publicist."
Jurors found the trust had proven Page and Plant had "access" to "Taurus," meaning they would have been familiar with it -- something they denied on the witness stand.
"The reality is that we proved access, but (the jury) could never hear what (Page and Plant) had access to," said trust attorney Francis Malofiy, who called the verdict sad and disappointing. "It's bizarre."
Page and Plant, who wrote the "Stairway" lyrics, said their creation was an original. In several hours of often-animated and amusing testimony, they described the craft behind one of rock's best-known songs, all the while denying knowledge of one of the genre's least-known tunes.
Plant cracked up the courtroom when said he didn't remember most people he had hung out with over the years.
In closing arguments, Malofiy criticized Page and Plant's "selective" memories and "convenient" truths.
Experts dissected both compositions, agreeing mainly that they shared a descending chord progression that dates back three centuries.
Trust experts, however, noted several other similarities that made the two works unlike the many other tunes they were compared to, including "My Funny Valentine."
Led Zeppelin's lawyer said the trust failed to prove a case that should have been brought more than 40 years ago when Wolfe was alive and Page and singer Robert Plant would have had better memories.
"How can you wait a half century and criticize people ... 45 years later for the delay you caused?" Peter Anderson said.
Wolfe, who drowned in 1997 saving his son at a beach in Hawaii, had talked about suing, but lawyers didn't want to take an old case, said Glen Kulik another lawyer for the trust. A 2014 Supreme Court ruling over "Raging Bull" allowed a copyright suit to be filed anytime with damages dating back three years from the court filing and extending to the future.
Malofiy asked jurors to give Wolfe a songwriting credit and unspecified millions of dollars in damages.
The trial took jurors and observers lucky to pack into the courtroom on a musical journey through the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Spirit, a California psychedelic group that blended jazz and rock was achieving some stardom as the hard-rocking British band was founded.
Stops on the tour of testimony included Spirit shows at "love-ins" during the "Summer of Love," Led Zeppelin's 1968 U.S. debut as opener for Spirit and Vanilla Fudge and, finally, to a country house in the south of England where Page, Plant and keyboardist and bassist John Paul Jones described how "Stairway" was born.
Page said his ambition was to write a song that would accelerate to a crescendo and he first shared the opening at Headley Grange in the spring of 1970 with Jones to get an ally in his scheme.
Plant recalled sitting by the fire when Page played the intro on acoustic guitar and he offered the start of a couplet he had been working on: "There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold/and she's buying a stairway to heaven."
Jurors never heard a note from Page or Plant live, but they were treated to vintage recordings of the band creating the song. Plant could be heard singing off key and humming sections without lyrics and Page played chords that didn't make the final cut.
When the full recording was played, Page bobbed his head and moved to the music.
The rock stars didn't chat with fans in the gallery and they were accompanied everywhere by bodyguards. One afternoon, a group of women clapped and Page flashed a smile as they crossed the courthouse corridor.
The band has settled at least six other cases accusing them of copyright violations, including the songs, "Whole Lotta Love," `'The Lemon Song," and "Dazed and Confused."
This was the first case they took all the way to trial, said Steven L. Weinberg, a copyright lawyer who watched the case.
"This jury verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin is monumental," Weinberg said. "But In terms of the internet pundits and armchair quarterbacks who are comparing the two audio recordings, I think that debate will go on for a long time to come."
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