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Robert Plant takes to the stand in Led Zeppelin song theft case

By | Published on Wednesday 22 June 2016

Led Zeppelin

And so back to the good old Led Zeppelin song-theft trial, where frontman Robert Plant took to the stand yesterday to echo the testimony of his former bandmate Jimmy Page: “‘Taurus’ by Spirit’? Never heard of it, mate. Was it a song?”

As previously reported, the Zeppelin are accused of ripping off ‘Taurus’ – a song written by the late Randy California, aka Randy Craig Wolfe – for their much more famous work ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The trust that benefits from Wolfe’s estate claims that Plant and Page were exposed to the Spirit song at live shows in the late 1960s, which means it was well and truly in their heads when they sat down to compose ‘Stairway’. The former Led Zeppers deny ever knowing the song they are accused of stealing.

When lawyers for the Wolfe Trust presented their arguments last week, it was claimed that Page and Plant would have heard ‘Taurus’ at shows where they supported Spirit. Page, the first of the band members to take to the witness stand, last week conceded that they supported Spirit at least once, though he insisted that the band left shortly after their set was done because they needed to travel to another show. He also added that the support slot was for a co-headline gig involving both Spirit and heavy rockers Vanilla Fudge, and it was actually the latter act he thought he was supporting at the time.

The other gig given much attention last week was a Spirit show at a venue in Birmingham. Led Zep didn’t play that time, but a former member of Spirit and a fan of the band testified that Robert Plant was in the building on the night of the gig. The fan, photographer Michael Ware, said in a video testimony that he recognised Plant at the 1969 show because of his “distinctive long, corkscrew blond hair”, adding, according to The Wrap, that the Led Zep frontman was in the audience that night for at least fifteen minutes, and “he was quite animated and talking to friends, but I saw him really enjoying [Spirit]”.

Not so, said Plant yesterday. He isn’t familiar with Spirit’s music – other than the one song Page admitted Led Zep covered in the early days – and, he said, he doesn’t recall having ever seen the band play live. That specific night in 1969 when Spirit played Mother’s Club in Birmingham does stand out – he went on – because he had a car accident after leaving the venue. And while the head injuries he suffered in that accident, not to mention the intervening 47 years, may have affected his memories of what occurred that day, he’s sure he didn’t stand in the room where Spirit were playing.

Because, see, Mother’s Club was a social space for the local music community, and not just somewhere you went to specifically attend a gig. “It was a good environment for local musicians to hang out in, no matter what adventure you were on”, he reminisced of the venue, according to Rolling Stone. “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 also discussed his and Page’s creative process. Asked by his own lawyer if he could read or write music, he joked “I haven’t learned yet”. His ambition in the early days, he went on, was to be the best possible frontman. “Conceptually I was into the singer being the singer, having been raised on Elvis, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent”.

“One evening, Jimmy Page and I sat by the fire going over bits and pieces”, he said of the inception of ‘Stairway’. He then left his bandmates with the basic idea to build a melody and lyrics inspired by “the mountains of Wales, Snowdonia … and the pastoral areas of Britain I love”.

Led Zeppelin’s bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones backed up his former colleague’s version of events in his testimony last week. But away from the celebrity testimonies, other court time has been given over to musicology and money.

As it always the case in song-theft litigation, one side presented an expert musicologist to stress just how similar the two songs are, while the other presented an expert musicologist to say the opposite. For the defence, Lawrence Ferrara said that the only similarity between ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway’ was a “descending chromatic minor line progression” used by composers for more than 300 years.

On the financial front, one of Led Zep’s accountants yesterday estimated that Page has earned $615,000 in ‘Stairway’ royalties since 2011, the period for which the Wolfe Trust could claim back payments if they were to win this case. Plant, meanwhile, earned $532,000 before taxes. Which are relatively modest sums when compared to millions estimated by the plaintiff’s maths man.

The trial is expected to conclude later today so that the jury can begin their deliberations. Though the defence has already asked that the judge dismiss the case on the basis that the Wolfe Trust’s arguments and evidence last week were so weak. The judge seems still to be planning to let the jury decide on whether this is, indeed, an actual case of song theft.