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Trial to Heaven

Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page in Germany, 1973
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A rock anthem of the 1970s finds itself at the centre of a courtroom drama

LAST WEEK, two ageing rockstars, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant came together. Not to reunite for a concert, but at a sombre Los Angeles courtroom. The members of what Rolling Stone magazine once described as the ‘heaviest’ band of all time sat quietly along with their lawyers as a jury in a courtroom filled with reporters, fans and onlookers listened to their famed composition Stairway to Heaven.

It was the start of what will most certainly become one of the most talked about courtroom trials in music history. The band is alleged to have nicked the famous guitar riff at the song’s opening from another song of the time, Taurus, by a US band called Spirit. The copyright infringement action has been brought by the estate of the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe. The similarities between the two songs and allegations of plagiarism have been made in the past, but it has only come up for judicial reckoning now.

If there was anyone who has ever replicated the pop hysteria of The Beatles in the 1960s, then it was the thunderous, almost mythological compositions of Led Zeppelin. And the gold in their glittering canon came to be the song Stairway to Heaven. The composition, although not as popular when it first came out, is now rated as one of the greatest songs in rock history. There have been TV programmes about the alleged backmasking in the song. That, if you play the song backwards, one will apparently hear messages such as ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan.’ For generations now, teenagers and musicians have tried to emulate Page’s acoustic guitar introduction. It is said that Plant, perhaps because of the number of times it keeps playing on radio, now loathes the song. He once pledged $1,000 to a Portland radio station when its DJ solicited donations for promising never to play Stairway to Heaven again.

Led Zeppelin is alleged to have nicked the famous guitar riff at the opening of the song Stairway to Heaven from another song of the time, Taurus, by a US band called Spirit

According to his testimony, Plant claims he wrote the lyrics of the song while sitting by a fire at a recording and rehearsal studio in Britain. “I was really trying to bring the remote, pastoral Britain… the old, almost unspoken Celtic references into the piece,” he testified. Spirit and Led Zeppelin played on the same bill on a few occasions in the 1960s and early 1970s. Spirit’s former bass player Mark Andes, during the trial, testified to drinking beer and playing snooker with Plant after a show in 1970. But Plant claimed he has no such recollection. The lawyers of Wolfe’s estate argue that Led Zeppelin has a long history of lifting compositions while failing to credit the original composers. Led Zeppelin’s defence is likely to argue that the opening riff in question has been a common musical device for a long time and that the lawsuit ignores the rest of the song. The track had earned $562 million as of 2008, according to Bloomberg Businessweek and the plaintiff is reportedly seeking compensation of around $40 million.

During the hearing, Page was carrying a guitar case, according to a BBC report, raising the prospect —especially when the two songs were being played—that he might be asked to play the song too. That, however, didn’t happen.