Stairway to Heaven or Taurus?
In mid-June, the surviving members of the legendary Led Zeppelin appeared in Court in Los Angeles to defend themselves against an accusation by the representatives of the estate of the late Randy Wolfe (a.k.a. Randy California, a nickname bestowed by his good friend Jimi Hendrix), the lead guitarist with a band called Spirit; that Led Zeppelin had lifted the opening riff of their iconic number, Stairway to Heaven, from his composition, Taurus.
Members of the jury were asked to listen to both songs and form their conclusions after the aggressive questioning of Plant and Page by Francis Malofiy, the plaintiff's lawyer, and the band's replies through Robert Anderson, defending. It seems that Malofiy did himself no favours with Judge Gary Klausner, who asserted on numerous occasions that he was wasting time, and even shouted "sustained" at one point before the defence had time to object to a question. Malofiy rudely suggested at one stage that Jimmy Page was "nothing more than a session musician", a crafty and oft used device to back-foot and confuse the defendent in the hope of his making a mistake.
The pivotal issue was whether or not Plant and Page had ever heard (and consequently appropriated) the opening guitar lines to Taurus. A great deal of questioning took place to establish where and when Led Zeppelin and Spirit may have crossed paths and whether or not any gigs were common to both bands.
It was agreed that Led Zeppelin shared the bill with Spirit during their American debut in December 1969, though Page was certain that Zeppelin had left for Seattle before seeing Spirit play. Thus, they had not heard and had no knowledge of Taurus at that point. Randy Wolfe's bandmate replied that Spirit had appeared at a number of concerts with Led Zeppelin over some years and that various members of Spirit had played snooker with Robert Plant after a gig at Mothers in Birmingham in 1970. He did however concede that he could not recall a specific gig during which Spirit played Taurus when Led Zeppelin were also present.
As is often the case after the passing of many years, both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had overall rather hazy memories of specific events; Plant laughingly confessed that he could remember "hardly anybody" from the 70s and that the snooker games at Mothers were a particularly thin recollection as he had crashed his Jaguar immediately after.
The defence argued that the musical sequence in question was a commonplace and often used device which could be heard in many examples dating back hundreds of years. In particular he cited "Chim Chim Cheree" from the film Mary Poppins, "Michelle" by the Beatles and Purcell's "Dido's Lament". Expert Musicologist, Dr Alexander Stewart, disagreed on a technical point and asserted that both Taurus and Stairway to Heaven were unlike the examples given.
A little-known phenomenon may possibly have been at play - known as an "earworm", when a snatch of music is caught in the memory without necessarily knowing its origin. It is also an accepted wisdom that there are a finite number of songs and/or tunes and that nothing is really new. Musicians and composers have long "borrowed" strings of notes, melodies and lyrics. The question is, how much is acceptable?
Given that Led Zeppelin are thought to have earned $562m (£334m) as of 2008, these are silly numbers indeed. Randy Wolfe's estate were claiming compensation of approximately $40m (£28m) and royalties, quite a gamble if unsure of one's ground.
After 6 days in Court, the jury found in Led Zeppelin's favour.
One wonders if Randy Wolfe's estate might have acted sooner, since the track in question dated back to 1967; though legal circuses are rarely brief.
However, at the very least, this trial will re-ignite interest in the music of both Led Zeppelin and Spirit and is very likely to generate further sales.
A disappointing result for Randy Wolfe's estate - though Randy himself is unlikely to mind - but a win for Zeppelin.
Presumably there is no such thing as bad publicity.
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