LOS ANGELES (CN) – To many rock fans “Stairway to Heaven” is the seminal song of the 1970s – a magical epic that eschewed the chorus-verse-chorus familiarity of three-minute rock and pop radio to create a hard rock blueprint that still influences bands today.
But for Randy California, frontman and guitarist of the less well-known California progressive rock band Spirit, Led Zeppelin’s classic evoked bad feelings.
California signaled his disdain to Listener magazine in 1996, a year before he died, calling “Stairway to Heaven” a “rip-off” of his song “Taurus.”
“Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad!” California, whose real name was Randy Wolfe, told the magazine.
Now a jury will put California’s claims to the test in a high-profile copyright trial that began Tuesday and is being billed as this year’s “Blurred Lines,” the 2015 copyright case that ended with a $7.6 million jury verdict (later reduced to $5.3 million) against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke.
Led Zeppelin’s surviving members Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones are all expected to take the witness stand this week to defend against Michael Skidmore, a trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust.
Skidmore sued Led Zeppelin in 2014, claiming that “Stairway to Heaven” infringes on “Taurus.” Wolfe wrote the song when he was 17.
The track appeared on Spirit’s debut 1967 album. “Stairway to Heaven” was the fourth track on Led Zeppelin’s 1971 untitled album, known as “Led Zeppelin IV.”
Though Skidmore’s lawsuit relates to claims that date back 45 years, he managed to survive a motion to dismiss when U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner ruled that the clock started ticking on his lawsuit when Led Zeppelin released a remastered version of “Stairway to Heaven” in 2014.
Klausner dashed the band’s hopes of avoiding trial when he ruled that the songs’ introductions are similar enough to go to a jury.
“The similarity consists of repeated A-minor descending chromatic bass lines lasting 13 seconds and separated by a bridge of either seven or eight measures,” Klausner wrote in an April 4 ruling. “Moreover, the similarity appears in the first two minutes of each song, arguably the most recognizable and important segments of the respective works.”
Page, Plant and Jones (who has been dismissed as a defendant) will testify about the origins of “Stairway,” and hope to persuade jurors that “Taurus” was never on their minds when they created it.
They will also talk about their lack of familiarity with Spirit’s song.
On that point, Skidmore contends that Led Zeppelin played with Spirit three times, at concerts in Seattle, Denver and Atlanta in the late 1960s and came to watch Spirit perform even when the bands were not sharing the same stage.
Led Zeppelin’s admiration for Spirit was such that Page asked California to show him how to play the introduction to “Taurus,” according to Skidmore. The pair’s relationship became less cozy when California heard “Stairway to Heaven,” the trustee says.
According to court filings, the Spirit frontman confronted Page about the songs’ perceived similarities in 1973, about 1½ years after “Stairway to Heaven” was released.
“Page became defensive and, although he acknowledged copying ‘Taurus,’ told Randy that for every lawyer Randy hired he would hire 20, inferring Randy [sic] that he would be buried if he dared to file a suit,” Skidmore says in an April 4 memorandum of fact and law.
Never released as a single, “Stairway to Heaven” nevertheless cemented Led Zeppelin’s legacy as one of the most influential rock bands of the modern era.
This is not the first time the band has faced infringement claims. In 1970, the band was forced to give blues musician Willie Dixon credit and royalties in a settlement involving their 1969 song “Bring It On Home.”
In the following decade, the band settled copyright claims involving “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Whole Lotta Love,” giving credit to folk singer Anne Bredon and Dixon, respectively, according to Skidmore’s lawsuit.
Four years ago, in an undisclosed settlement, the band settled with singer-songwriter Jake Holmes in a dispute over “Dazed and Confused.”
The jury verdict in “Blurred Lines” in favor of Marvin Gaye’s family members led to much hand-wringing, sending jitters through the music industry and fueling concerns that musicians who draw inspiration from their idols could be forced to pay for it.
It remains to be seen what impact – if any – a ruling against Led Zeppelin might have.
The trial was to begin at Edward Roybal courthouse at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
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