Week One of the Led Zeppelin Plagiarism Trial is Over. Where Do Things Stand?

Led Zep Courtroom Sketch
A Led Zeppelin reunion! Not the kind we want, of course.

The Led Zeppelin “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarism trial started Tuesday and has wrapped up for the week. Where do we stand with the question “Did Zep appropriate Spirit’s ‘Taurus’ for the guitar bits in ‘Stairway?'” Luckily, I have LA correspondent Pamela Chelin in the courtroom watching every second. Here’s what they filed for The Wrap on Friday.

Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones took the stand on Friday at a trial to determine whether the band’s signature anthem “Stairway to Heaven” was lifted from another group, shedding light on Zeppelin’s early days and the development of the massive ’70s hit.

Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant are being sued by Michael Skidmore, the trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust (Randy Craig Wolfe being the real name of late Spirit frontman Randy California). Skidmore contends that the 1971 Zeppelin classic infringes on the 1968 Spirit song “Taurus,” noting that Led Zeppelin shared a handful of concert bills with Spirit early in their career, and that Zeppelin covered Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage,” from the same album that contains “Taurus,” in concert.

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A music expert also appeared on the stand, testifying that the chord progression used in “Stairway” is more than 300 years old, which means that it’s in the public domain. From The Guardian:

Led Zeppelin’s attorneys on Friday brought in music expert Lawrence Ferrara, who testified that the only similarity between Taurus and Stairway to Heaven was a “descending chromatic minor line progression”.

Ferrara said that musical element was used 300 years ago, as well as in many pop songs since then.

Read on.

Finally, The Daily Beast has this story called “If Led Zeppelin Goes Down, We All Burn.”

Rock and roll legends Led Zeppelin have been accused of a lot of wrongdoing over the years, from sexual misconduct with marine animals to hiding Satanic messages in their songs. This week, the band is back in the public eye, defending itself in court against a new and even more potentially damaging (if equally unsurprising) allegation: namely, that “Stairway to Heaven,” the band’s signature tune and 31st on Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” was stolen from a now-forgotten psychedelic rock band called Spirit.The trial, which began on Tuesday, may seem to many onlookers like a classic David-and-Goliath scenario, in which the scrappy underdogs finally have a chance to settle the score with the big, bad superstars who took all the credit for their unsung work of musical genius. While this would make a great straight-to-VH1 movie (and I’m certain it will, if Spirit ultimately prevails), the reality is of course more complex, and the stakes are actually far higher than mere writing credit and a couple million dollars. The outcome of this case could reverberate in ways that alter our understanding of copyright, change the sound of popular music, and shift the balance of power within the global music industry, rigging the game even further in favor of the major labels and to the detriment of independent musicians and their fans.

It’s an odd case, starting with the plaintiff. It isn’t a member of Spirit. It’s Michael “Mick” Skidmore, a journalist who’s written liner notes for bands like Jefferson Airplane and New Riders of the Purple Sage, and the current administrator of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust. Randy Craig Wolfe was the legal name of Randy California, Spirit’s original lead singer, guitarist and songwriter, who died in 1997, according to the complaint, “saving his son from being swept out to sea.” The defendants in this copyright infringement case are the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, their publishing company, and their record label.

Keep going.

The trial continues Monday.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “Week One of the Led Zeppelin Plagiarism Trial is Over. Where Do Things Stand?

  • June 18, 2016 at 1:18 pm
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    This trial is ridiculous. The songs have only a vague similarity. It reeks of this guy just trying to get money. If Randy was alive, he would have wanted no part of this. He was an awesome musician and songwriter, and his music still stands out today on its own merits. The fact that he died saving his son’s life shows you the kind of man he was.

    The drawing is kind of funny. I see Plant and Page, with Plant looking very old!! Is that JPJ on the end? It’s definitely not Jason Bonham in the middle!

    Reply

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