The Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven” may have been pop music’s first symphony. However, a recent lawsuit filed against Zeppelin – over claims that “Stairway” stole its signature intro from “Taurus,” an instrumental by Sixties psychedelic rockers Spirit – proved to be a cacophony of accusations, evasion, bad behavior, brash lawyering, Mary Poppins and one of rock’s most legendary guitarists playing air guitar in the courtroom.
A public reunion by the surviving members of Zeppelin – as co-defendants, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant attended every day of the trial, while Zep bassist John Paul Jones took the witness stand – quickly turned the civil proceedings into a rock & roll circus. Now that the group have prevailed in the lawsuit, here are the most bizarre moments from one of the most contentious, oddball trials in music history.
1. Debunking Decades-Old Mythology
The trial of “Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al” represented a rare public reunion for the three surviving Led Zeppelin members. Their coming together, however, seemed largely intended to quash the beloved five-decade legend of how “Stairway to Heaven” began with an intro Page composed at the Welsh mountain cottage Bron-Yr-Aur. When confronted with personal interviews from the Seventies intimately describing Bron-Yr-Aur as the birthplace of “Stairway,” John Paul Jones stated, “It sounded like I was guessing,” while Jimmy Page chalked it up to a “glitch.” In the plaintiff’s closing arguments, counsel claimed the Zep members’ testimony was a “complete rewriting of history.”
2. My Cousin Vinny Goes Rock & Roll, Part 1
The plaintiff’s, um, colorful attorney, Francis Malofiy (described by one commenter as “if Cersei Lannister were to have a child with Saul Goodman, Malofiy would be the toxic result”) played up his rock & roll persona, carrying a briefcase resembling a Fender tweed amp, using the Houses of the Holy cover art as his screensaver and charging Led Zeppelin in the filing with “falsification of rock and roll history.”
During questioning of Spirit frontman Jay Ferguson, Malofiy exclaimed, “‘Tambourine man’ [was] an actual job in the ‘Sixties!” And at one point during Page’s testimony, he testily referred to Page as the “alleged songwriter” of “Stairway to Heaven” before calling the band “session musicians playing other people’s music” in his closing statement.
3. The Jimi Hendrix Defense
Malofiy frequently employed what can only be called “the Jimi Hendrix defense.” Much of his allotted 10 hours to argue his case was devoted to anecdotes about how late Spirit guitarist/”Taurus” songwriter Randy California was friends with Hendrix, how he moved to New York to play with Hendrix as a teenager, how he was asked to go to London to be in the Jimi Hendrix Experience (Mom wouldn’t let him!) and that he even wrote an album in tribute to Hendrix. What any of that had to do with copyright law remains unclear.
4. The Memento Defense
Led Zeppelin’s memories of events pertaining to the trial veered from crystal clear to … nonexistent. On the stand, Jones claimed he’d “never gone to a rock concert other than those where I performed with Led Zeppelin.” Asked if he’d played snooker with the members of Spirit at a 1970 concert in his hometown of Birmingham, Plant claimed, “I don’t have a recollection of almost anyone I’ve ever hung out with.” Page, meanwhile, wasn’t sure how five Spirit albums – including the psych-rockers eponymous 1968 debut featuring “Taurus” – made it into his personal record collection.
5. Trial or Soap Opera?
At times, the proceedings resembled a trial from Game of Thrones or dialogue from an old soap opera. This was most evident during Led Zeppelin lawyer Peter Anderson’s cross-examination of the trial’s plaintiff, Michael Skidmore – the trustee of “Taurus” songwriter Randy “California” Wolfe’s estate. During Skidmore’s testimony, Anderson asked if “it made a difference to [Wolfe’s mother] Berenice Pearl if [Wolfe’s only surviving heir] Quinn Wolfe [was cut out of receiving royalties] because he was the illegitimate son of Randy Wolfe?” Gasps of horror were audible – as they were when he repeated the ugly allegation during closing arguments.
6. Led Zeppelin Superfans Descend on the Courthouse
Led Zeppelin superfans proved a constant distraction during the trial – even during jury selection, where a potential juror exclaimed, “I’m very much a fan: my love for these guys [gesturing to Page and Plant] is very strong.” (Needless to say, he wasn’t chosen.) At another point, a man ran into the courtroom holding an unsheathed Fender Stratocaster – presumably in hopes of an autograph from Page – before he was summarily booted by the bailiff.
7. Mary Poppins: Rock Goddess
Much of day three’s testimony and examination surrounded an alleged crucial inspiration for Page during the composition of “Stairway to Heaven”: “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – a classic show tune from the beloved Disney musical Mary Poppins. Page couldn’t stop smiling as the sprightly song was played to the courtroom.
8. Jimmy Page Cannot Stop Rocking
Throughout the trial, Page could not keep himself from rocking out whenever music was played. On the witness stand, Page played enthusiastic air drums to John Bonham’s fills during playback of Led Zeppelin’s live cover of Spirit’s “Fresh-Garbage”; the legendary axeman also played air guitar when the original version of “Stairway” was played. Even during performances of “Taurus” – the song the suit claimed Page had cribbed from – he could not help nodding enthusiastically to the groove. Plant, however, made a sour face and raised his eyebrows when an especially pitchy vocal on an early “Stairway” demo was played to the jury.
9. Page vs. Malofiy: The Gloves Came Off
Page gave no quarter to the plaintiff’s counsel. When Malofiy asked how long the duration was of Led Zeppelin playing Spirit’s “Fresh-Garbage” riff during their live show, Page responded, “I don’t know – I don’t have a stopwatch.” During a protracted discussion of Page’s musical beginnings, Malofiy ludicrously stated that, in his youth, Page discovered he “had a gift in his ability to play guitar,” causing the Zeppelin axeman to snap, “Well, yeah…” Laughter subsequently rocked the gallery.
10. My Cousin Vinny Goes Rock & Roll, Part 2
Malofiy seemed to approach the case on a pass/fail basis: in his rebuttal to the defense’s closing arguments, he reminded the jury members that he only needed to prove his case by “51 percent” – sticking his arms out and tilting his body as if he’d become the personification of the scales of justice himself.
Led Zeppelin have won a lawsuit that alleged that they had plagiarized the music to “Stairway to Heaven” from Spirit’s instrumental “Taurus.”