“I didn’t remember it then, and I don’t remember it now.” That was the defining statement from the most anticipated testimony yet in the copyright infringement case facing Led Zeppelin in Los Angeles federal court: iconic Zep frontman Robert Plant. At 10:55am in Court 850 of the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and United States Courthouse, Plant took the stand for the defense in “Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al,” making him the last surviving member of Led Zeppelin to testify on whether the band’s signature tune “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarized intellectual property from the song “Taurus” by Sixties-era psychedelic combo Spirit.
Alternately regal and earthy, his voice maintaining its trademark sonorous burr, Plant revealed that he first brought Spirit’s work to the rest of his bandmates, having discovered their song “Fresh-Garbage” on a 1968 Columbia Records compilation and then incorporating a cover of it into Zeppelin’s early live sets.
Under oath, however, Plant claimed he was not familiar with Spirit’s other material and did not recall seeing them live. This contradicted earlier testimony by Spirit’s Mark Andes that Plant had been in attendance at a Spirit show at a club, Mother’s, in his hometown of Birmingham in 1969 – a night famed for Plant ending up in a car accident. (Plant partially attributed his lack of memory to the accident.)
When cross-examined by the plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy, however, Plant admitted that Spirit was – other than songs from Zep guitarist’s former group the Yardbirds – the only rock band Led Zeppelin covered, with other cover material hailing from the canon of R&B, soul and blues. “We also did a great version of Ben E. King’s ‘Groovin’,” Plant said incongruously. (For what it’s worth, as an astute commenter below pointed out, Plant forgot under examination that Led Zeppelin covered Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.”)
Plant proved the most credible, sympathetic and forthright of the Zeppelin members to take the stand. He was particularly animated reminiscing about his experiences going to Mother’s with drummer John Bonham. “It was a good environment for local musicians to hang out in, no matter what adventure you were on,” he said. “There weren’t too many places for people who dressed differently – it was a clubhouse. It had our own energy, unlike the country pubs where older people would talk about ploughing the field with horses and whatnot.”
Plant’s description of his development as a frontman was incredible, with the singer never learning an instrument or reading music. “Conceptually I was into the singer being the singer, having been raised on Elvis, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent,” he said. (Also enjoyable: Led Zeppelin counsel Peter Anderson having Plant clarify to the jury that the “Bonzo” he kept referring to was, in fact, John Bonham.)
But it was Plant’s description of the creative genesis of “Stairway” that provided the most fascinating testimony, with the singer reiterating assertions made by bandmates Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones that the song began at the country estate Headley Grange and not the Welsh cottage Bron-Yr-Aur, contradicting decades of Zeppelin mythology.
“One evening, Jimmy Page and I sat by the fire going over bits and pieces,” Plant testified, explaining how he would leave the musicians and go into his room to build the melody and lyric based on his fascination with Celtic lore, “the mountains of Wales, Snowdonia … and the pastoral areas of Britain I love.” He seemed a bit abashed, however, when requested by counsel to sing the opening verse of “Stairway,” half-speaking, half-singing the song’s first five lines.
Plant’s testimony epitomized a relatively calm day in court for what has been a brutal, contentious and absurd trial (And one that should end soon: Judge Gary Klausner indicated that he expected the case would likely go to the jury on Wednesday). The defense called Page to testify that Zeppelin had not performed on the bill with Spirit at a Northern California music festival as maintained by the plaintiff, instead playing a concert at the Chicago club the Kinetic Playground on the same date.
Other than appearances on the witness stand by Zep members, the most tantalizing moments came from Tim Gardner, a consultant to Zeppelin’s business manager, who claimed Page made $615,000 and Plant $532,000 from “Stairway” in the statutory period May 2011 to March 2014. The song remains the same, but the numbers apparently keep evolving.
Of course, the most interesting moments in Tuesday’s edition of the trial came during the various musical analyses. Malofiy landed one for the plaintiffs while cross-examining the defense’s expert witness, acclaimed music producer, songwriter, arranger, musician and music director Rob Mathes. After Mathes testified that “every part of a song is important,” Malofiy pointed out that, as the musical director for the tribute to Led Zeppelin during the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, Mathes had actually cut out parts of “Stairway” and shortened it for broadcast – but had left intact the intro that plaintiffs claim was borrowed from “Taurus.” Paraphrasing George Orwell’s Animal Farm, apparently some parts of “Stairway to Heaven” are more “equal” than others.
Even more compelling, though, was when Page was called to the stand for a second time, this time as a defense witness. In addition to again denying under oath having composed the “Stairway” intro at Plant’s Welsh cottage hideaway Bron-Yr-Aur – despite having vintage interview audio played for the jury where he claimed the opposite – Page walked the court through the evolution of “Stairway” via four cassette demos made at Headley Grange.
On the embryonic lo-fi recordings, Page can be heard teaching Jones the musical parts; as the ambitious composition starts coming together, Plant begins to appear on the tapes, experimenting with his now-famed lyrics and melody. (One of the funniest moments of the trial occurred when Plant made a sour face and raised his eyebrows during a tentatively pitched vocal moment.)
Intriguingly, when the “Stairway” demos were heard in isolation from the ubiquitous version released on 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV album, the connection to “Taurus” seemed neither particularly emphasized or denied; however, the fanfare section in “Stairway” vividly evoked similar symphonic-rock fusions of the day like Tommy by The Who, while the chord progressions which would provide the foundation underpinning Page’s famous “Stairway” solo suggested the influence of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
As Page’s testimony wrapped up just before 2:00 p.m., the defense rested its case, and Judge Klausner uncharacteristically ended the day’s proceedings two hours early, sending the jury home with the reminder to return for jury instructions and final arguments at 8:30 a.m. the following day. It was an abrupt pause, seeming to signal the approaching and inevitable end of one of popular music’s most colorful, surreal and vehemently argued court cases of the 21st century – if not all of rock history.