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Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant recounts the creation of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in copyright trial

Led Zeppelin members at trial
An artist’s sketch shows, from left, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page in court with attorneys Helene Freeman and Peter Anderson, who are defending the band members against charges of copyright infringement.
(Mona Shafer Edwards)

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 with Page by a fire at a rural rehearsal and recording retreat 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.

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“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 band performed other artists’ songs in the early years before they more fully developed their own musical repertory.

Plant readily acknowledged that they had, saying pointedly, “I don’t have any problem with that.” 

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“In the realm of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues,” Plant went on, “there has always been cross-pollination. 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.”

Following 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. As he did with Plant,  Anderson led Page through a detailed account of how he had written the music for the song, in an attempt to undermine the claim that it was pinched from Wolfe.   

Jurors listened to recordings made of the band’s first rehearsals of “Stairway” at the Headley Grange recording retreat, and heard Page describe how he worked to create a song that builds from the gentle acoustic guitar opening through his titanic electric guitar solo leading into Plant’s high-register vocal climax.

Anderson concluded his defense with a flourish, playing the entire eight-minute original studio recording of “Stairway to Heaven” before announcing to the judge that he was resting his case. 

Closing arguments are scheduled Wednesday before the case is handed to the four-woman, four-man jury.

Earlier, the defense called Robert Mathes, a producer, arranger and musical director, to give a detailed analysis of the different parts of “Stairway.”

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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.”

To make his point, Mathes walked the jury through a graphic that showed a musicological breakdown of “Stairway.” Referencing a color-coded diagram of the song as he spoke, Mathes 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.

Tim Gardner, a British accountant who helps to keep the band members’ financial books, testified that the roughly $60 million suggested earlier in the trial had been grossly exaggerated. The song, he said, had earned Page a relatively paltry $615,000 and Plant $532,000 since mid-2011, a cutoff 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 of making and distributing “Stairway,” the company made $868,000 on the song during the period in question.

The debate over profits is significant. If the jury does find that Zeppelin lifted a part of “Taurus,” the amount of money it could award Wolfe’s estate would depend on how much “Stairway” has earned.

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UPDATES:

7:06 p.m.: This article was updated with minor editing.

This article was originally published at 2:46 p.m.


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