The surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunited on Friday in a Los Angeles courtroom as bassist John Paul Jones testified in defence of his bandmates in a high-stakes copyright lawsuit that claims the band lifted a riff used in the rock classic ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant are being sued by the estate of late guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, for using a passage from a song by Wolfe’s long-defunct LA psychedelic rock band Spirit. The estate claims Zeppelin’s 1971 song infringes on the 1968 Spirit song ‘Taurus’.
Both bands played the same stage early in Zeppelin’s music career, though Page said he had never heard ‘Taurus’ and was unaware of any similarities until recently. He, however, acknowledged that the band played a riff from Spirit’s ‘Fresh Garbage’ in a medley that was a concert staple when Zeppelin first started out.
Led Zeppelin made its US debut in 1968, incidentally opening for a concert in Denver that Spirit performed at.
The musicians are being sued for infringement and songwriting credits, potentially amounting to millions of dollars in compensation.
According to economist Michael Einhorn, who testified in court, Led Zeppelin works that include ‘Stairway to Heaven’ generated revenues of nearly $60 million over the past five years.
In its defence, the band had a musicologist cast doubt over the credibility of the claims.
Lawrence Ferrera, a music professor at New York University, said the main trait the two songs shared, notably a descending minor chord progression, is a common building block in songs dating back 300 years and is found throughout pop music predating Wolfe’s composition.
“It’s not something anyone can own,” he testified.
Breaking it down, Ferrara picked the songs apart note by note, playing the riffs on piano and comparing them to compositions such as ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Michelle’ by the Beatles.
He said similarity in both songs was like rearranging the letters in ‘treason’ to spell ‘senator’, noting that the succession of letters makes a difference.
With Page and Plant seated at the defence table for the fourth day of trial, their bandmate Jones, no longer a defendant in the case, made a brief supporting appearance.
Jones said he never heard the band Spirit play, never met them and didn’t own any of their albums.
Dressed in a black suit and shirt, the 70-year-old said he joined Led Zeppelin after his wife learned Page was starting a new group and suggested he call him. Page recruited Plant as singer and drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980.
The lawsuit lists disputes over 16 other Led Zeppelin songs, many of which were settled by giving the complainant a songwriting credit and royalties, including classics ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’.
The trial was adjourned until Tuesday.