Robert Plant, one of the most celebrated singers in rock music history, took the stand Tuesday in the copyright trial over his band Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” recounting for the jury how the iconic song was created.
Plant’s story of how the song came about is an important element to the defense he and Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page are mounting against accusations they stole the song’s famous opening guitar chords from a song by Spirit, an L.A. band that gained some notoriety in the late 1960s.
Speaking in a soft, high-pitched voice and dressed in a trim, two-piece navy suit with his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Plant recalled an evening sitting by a fire at a rural rehearsal and recording retreat with Page more than 45 years ago, when Page played for him the opening notes of what would eventually become the eight-minute epic.
Plant testified that at the time he had been toying with a lyrical couplet evocative of “the natural, old, almost unspoken” culture and mystic scenery of the Welsh countryside and thought it might go well with the music Page played.
“Do you remember what that couplet was?” Peter Anderson, a lawyer for Zeppelin asked Plant. The musician sighed, hesitated briefly and then recited one of the most revered opening lines in the rock music canon.
“There’s a lady who knows all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to heaven,” Plant said quietly, continuing, “When she gets there she knows if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for.”
Under cross examination, the lawyer for the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe prodded Plant about whether the group performed other artists’ songs in their early years as a band before it more fully developed its own musical repertory.
Plant readily acknowledged that they had. “I don’t have any problem with that,” Plant said pointedly.
“In the realm of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues,” Plant said, “there has always been crosspollination. Without it you wouldn’t have had Little Richard, Larry Williams, the Beatles … all moving across space.”
Plant addressed previous testimony that he had watched Spirit perform at a club in Birmingham, England, and socialized with the band members after that show. Saying the club was a regular stop for him and his wife, Plant claimed to have a poor memory and said he had no recollection of seeing Spirit.
“I really don’t recall any of the bands I saw there or everyone I ever hung out with.”
After Plant, Page, who was called last week to testify by the lawyer for Wolfe’s estate, returned to the witness stand for his defense team’s presentation.
In brief testimony before the trial broke for lunch, Page said his intent in writing the music for “Stairway” had been to create an extended work that would build continuously from start to finish.
He listened to 46-year-old recordings made of the rehearsals at the Headley Grange recording retreat, describing to the court different stages in the development and birth of “Stairway,” from the gentle acoustic guitar opening through his titanic electric guitar solo leading into Plant’s high-register vocal climax.
Lead defense lawyer Anderson concluded his presentation with a flourish, playing the entire eight-minute original studio recording of “Stairway to Heaven” and then advising the judge, “The defense rests.” U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner adjourned the jury for the day.
Closing arguments are expected to be delivered Wednesday and then the case will be given to the four-woman, four-man jury.
Additionally, the defense had also called Robert Mathes, a producer, arranger and musical director, to give a detailed analysis of the different sections of “Stairway.”
His testimony was aimed at undermining the claim that the song’s opening, which is at issue for its similarity to a short passage in Wolfe’s song “Taurus,” is disproportionately important compared with the rest of the song, which is not in contention.
“I don’t want to resort to hyperbole,” Mathes said, “but in my view all the parts are significant. Every measure is significant.”
He walked the jury through a graphic representation of a musicological breakdown of “Stairway” that had been created by New York University musicology professor Lawrence Ferrara, referencing a color-coded diagram as he spoke, played guitar and occasionally sang different bits of “Stairway.”
Also Tuesday, Anderson tried to rebut earlier testimony from an economist who estimated “Stairway” had brought in millions of dollars in profits for Zeppelin and the various music companies affiliated with the band.
Anderson called to the stand Tim Gardner, a British accountant who helps to keep the band members’ financial books.
Far from the roughly $60 million suggested earlier in the trial, Gardner said the song had earned Page a relatively paltry $615,000 and Plant $532,000 since mid-2011, a cut-off called for under copyright law. Infringement cases can proceed decades after the original release of a protected work, but the period subject to damage awards is limited to three years before release of the latest iteration of the work in question.
The much larger amount offered up by the economist, Gardner said, was misleading because it included payments for all 87 songs in Zeppelin’s music catalog, among other reasons.
Similarly, the chief financial officer for Rhino Records, the record company that has reissued many of the band’s albums, said that after deducting the costs that went into making and distributing “Stairway,” the company made $868,000 on the song during the time period in question.