As the trial known on the docket as “Michael Skidmore vs. Led Zeppelin et al” kicked off its first day in Los Angeles federal court Tuesday, the proceedings commenced with a unique blend of awe-inspiring superstar charisma and snore-inducing legalese.
The civil case, which hinges on an alleged copyright infringement by Led Zeppelin due to the potential similarity between their classic-rock all-timer “Stairway to Heaven” and the composition “Taurus” by Sixties cult psych-rockers Spirit, features some surprising parallels and paradoxes. Both legal teams feature graying ponytailed Brits of varying celebrity: On the plaintiff side, there’s Michael Skidmore, a former musician and music writer who’s the executor of deceased “Taurus” songwriter and Spirit member Randy “California” Wolfe. Facing Skidmore directly across the table is non other than Zep icons Jimmy Page and a bearded Robert Plant, both decidedly regal in their finely tailored suits and coiffed, pulled-back locks.
Indeed, from a sartorial comparison alone, this legal fight resembles a battle between modern-day Wildings and the Westeros High Court. The plaintiffs’ side is all combovers and buzzcuts; the rough-and-tumble crew of controversial bar-brawling Philly lawyer Francis Malofiy, who exudes a decided resemblance to Sean Penn’s character in Hurlyburly.
Entering the court with a briefcase made to resemble a Fender tweed-covered amp, Malofiy has the cover of Houses of the Holy ostentatiously glowing from his laptop and cracks his knuckles all through the day’s primary concern: jury selection. He’s a stark contrast to the patrician countenance of Zeppelin lawyer Peter Anderson and the seemingly bespoke suiting of his legal team. Indeed, as Malofiy fidgets, Page and Plant exude an almost zen calm, staring straight ahead without chatting or visibly reacting through the process; only towards the end before the lunch break does Page allow a wry smile to crack the facade.
The presiding judge, Gary Klausner, oversees the proceedings with a gruff, military-evoking countenance – giving strict instructions as to how he feels lawyers should behave and having the bailiff toss out three spectators whose ringing iPhones violate his “all cellphones off” dictum. Klausner has allotted a 10-hour limit and estimated the trial would last three to four days.
Klausner’s no-nonsense demeanor and lack of pop-culture savvy, however, doesn’t indicate a particular direction as to where this case may be going. “We’re not going to do anything spontaneous up here,” he icily instructs both parties’ counsel, and amusingly refers to the famed defendants as “the Led Zeppelin.”
The jury selection, meanwhile, seems to break down by age and hair profiling: the dude with the shoulder length Prince Valiant bowl, surfer tan and Hawaiian shirt was a for sure no-go, as was the special effects expert who proclaimed without prompting from the jury box, “I’m very much a fan – my love for these guys [gesturing to Page and Plant] is very strong.”
The novelty of being so close to Led Zeppelin’s iconic members was thrilling. Seeing Plant stroke his beard thoughtfully as he listened to testimony and chit-chat with Page during breaks while drinking a deli cup of tea proved priceless amidst the hours of tedium. The arguments put forth in the opposing sides’ opening statements gave some idea of the paths this trial might take.
Malofiy’s colloquialisms and digressions were entertaining. “‘Tambourine man’ [was] an actual job in the Sixties,” he stated at one point; in another he described the plaintiffs and defendants “having fun doing what young men in rock bands do after hours” amidst a bevy of musical jargon.
Malofiy cited a 2014 change in copyright law as the reason the case was coming forward more than 45 years after the release of “Taurus,” along with repeated events that indicated, in his legal view, that Led Zeppelin were not only aware of Spirit, but indeed fans of the band and the recordings that included “Taurus.” Malofiy attempted to play video of a session musician’s performances of “Taurus” and “Stairway,” but Anderson said that they hadn’t been included in the case’s exhibit list. “If it’s not been received in the evidence, it’s the basis of a mistrial,” Judge Klausner noted.
When Malofiy’s videos were finally played, however, they were compelling. In the first, the guitarist played “Stairway,” then the bass clef part of “Taurus,” then the two songs together – almost matching note for note. A portion of Led Zeppelin’s live cover of the Spirit song “Fresh-Garbage” also proved damning. During Anderson’s argument, the defense played the 2:14 opening minutes of “Stairway” in contention, and it was a dazzling moment.
Anderson followed that with a recording of a seemingly inconclusive performance of “Taurus” by the defense’s expert musicologist Lawrence Ferrara. Anderson also claimed “Taurus” was not owned by Wolfe’s trust but by Lou Adler’s Hollenbeck Music, and may have been introduced into the suit via “unclean hands.” He also noted the descending chromatic scale has been a feature of musical composition since the 1600s, including “Michelle” by the Beatles, which he noted Spirit didn’t credit on “Taurus,” either. “We have evidence, too,” Anderson said.
Malofiy’s secondary counsel was Glen Kulik, who worked on the copyright case involving the use of Jake La Motta and Frank Petrella’s intellectual property for the film Raging Bull that led to the 2014 precedent cited by Malofiy. He questioned Randy California’s sister Janet, which didn’t go anywhere. Anderson’s cross examinations of the plaintiff’s witnesses were brief. If the defense team was breaking a sweat over the potential outcome, his performance behind the lectern didn’t show it.
Next to the presence of authentic rock legends Page and Plant, the most intriguing part about the first day are the high-profile witnesses expected to appear throughout the trial. In his statement to the court, Malofiy indicated that Spirit members Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson (both present in the galley), renowned rock impresario/music biz legend Lou Adler and former Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski, an expert in all things Led Zeppelin and author of the 2013 Page biography Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page would all appear or testify in court. (Curiously, Tolinski denied his involvement in the trial, writing on Facebook, “I have not been approached to testify for either side. Would’ve been interesting, though…”)
The defense, meanwhile, had a far shorter witness list – the one boldfaced name being none other than Zep bassist and co-founder John Paul Jones. In addition to Page and Plant, there may be no more expert eyewitness than Jones — dismissed as a defendant in pre-trial hearings — who might be able to persuade an impartial jury that the songwriting credits (and royalty disbursement) remain the same.
Who were Spirit, the band from Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway’ trial? Watch here.