Stairway To Heaven trial kicks off

PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES • The trial over whether Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant (above, left) and Jimmy Page (above, right) stole the iconic opening riff to their classic Stairway To Heaven opened with testimony about when the British rockers might have heard the 1968 song they are accused of copying.

Jurors in a Los Angeles federal court on Tuesday heard from the sister of deceased guitarist Randy Wolfe and his former bandmate in the group Spirit about how likely it was that members of Led Zeppelin would have heard live performances of Taurus, the instrumental Wolfe wrote for his girlfriend.

Page, 72, and Plant, 67, sat in dark suits and ties at their lawyers' table in a packed courtroom during the first day of testimony. Eight jurors will be asked to determine if they would have known Taurus before they released Stairway To Heaven in 1971 and whether one of the most recognisable songs in rock's history is substantially similar to Spirit's work.

"Taurus was a special moment" at Spirit shows, former member Jay Ferguson said on the stand. He called it a "palate cleanser" between the band's more rocking songs.

Lawyer Francis Malofiy, who represents Wolfe's trust, contends Led Zeppelin would have heard Spirit play Taurus on the occasions he claims the bands played together, including at Led Zeppelin's first United States show in Denver in 1968 and at later rock festivals.

Another Spirit track, Fresh Garbage, was part of a medley Led Zeppelin performed at live shows, according to Mr Malofiy. "Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are incredible musicians, incredible performers," he said in his opening statement. "They covered other people's music and tried to make it their own."

Under cross-examination by defence lawyer Peter Anderson, Ferguson admitted that Taurus was not one of Spirit's so-called tent- pole songs which they performed at every show without exception.

He said in his opening statement that the descending chromatic scale Led Zeppelin are accused of having stolen from Wolfe's composition was not unique. "No one owns common musical elements," he said.

Wolfe's younger sister Janet told the jury her brother wrote Taurus for the woman who was the love of his life and whom he later married. Spirit played the song every time she saw her brother's band perform in the late 1960s, she testified.

Mr Malofiy played the jurors a video of a session guitarist performing the opening of Stairway To Heaven and a portion of Taurus, and overlapped the two performances to demonstrate the alleged similarity between the songs.

Mr Anderson played the album version of Stairway To Heaven and a musicologist's piano rendition of Taurus, based on the copyrighted sheet music, to highlight the differences between the two.

The trial comes amid an uptick in lawsuits over allegedly stolen songs following last year's surprise verdict by a Los Angeles jury that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke's 2013 mega hit Blurred Lines infringed Marvin Gaye's 1977 single Got To Give It Up.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 16, 2016, with the headline 'Stairway To Heaven trial kicks off'. Print Edition | Subscribe