When Jimmy Page takes the witness stand, he does it in the most Jimmy Page way possible.
For the star-struck spectators gathered in a Los Angeles courtroom, it was exciting enough when the former Led Zeppelin axman walked in Wednesday, looking every bit like the aging rock legend he is – clad in a dark suit and tie, his long white hair drawn back into a ponytail, his guitar case in hand, according to reports from the trial. But then he was unexpectedly called to the stand, to defend himself against the claim that Led Zeppelin lifted the opening riff of its mega-hit song “Stairway to Heaven” from another band.
The copyright infringement claim was brought by Mark Andes, the founding bass player of the relatively obscure American rock band Spirit, which toured with Led Zeppelin during the band’s early days. Andes claims that Page heard Spirit perform the song “Taurus” and stole the notes that would later be indelibly linked to “Stairway to Heaven.”
In the music world, the case is a Very Big Deal – like last year’s ruling in the copyright infringement case against Robin Thicke, wherein a judge ruled that Thicke had in fact duplicated elements of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up,” the “Stairway to Heaven” case could potentially set a precedent that would carry powerful implications for musicians. The financial fallout could also be substantial – “Stairway to Heaven” has earned hundreds of millions since it was released in 1971.
To the disappointment of the crowd and music aficionados on Twitter, the presence of Page’s guitar did not actually produce an impromptu courtroom performance. But they were treated to his trademark charm and blunt Britishisms after he settled into the witness chair.
Over hours of tediously detailed testimony, Page defended himself and his band in particularly Page-like fashion, explaining that he hadn’t heard Spirit’s song “Taurus” at all until a few years ago, when his son-in-law noted that there was growing Internet buzz about the potential similarity between the two tunes.
“I don’t do the Internet, so he played it for me,” Page said, referring to his son-in-law, according to Rolling Stone. “I was confused by the comparison … (I thought) ‘What’s this got to do with “Stairway”?'”
Page acknowledged that several Spirit records were included in his sizable music collection – over 10,000 LPs, he said – but maintained that he wasn’t familiar with the tune he allegedly stole from until long after “Stairway to Heaven” was written.
When the plaintiff’s attorney asked about Led Zeppelin’s cover of Spirit’s “Fresh-Garbage” – exactly how long did the band play those borrowed riffs during a live performance – Page replied with dry sarcasm: “I don’t know – I don’t have a stopwatch.”
Even in the midst of a decidedly serious proceeding, Page rocked out on air drums and broke out a few dance moves, Rolling Stone reported:
“Page seemed relieved whenever music became the trial’s focus: He nodded to the groove to both ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Taurus’ alike when acoustic renditions of each song were played for the jury. Wearing a wry smile, he played air drums on the stand during the playing of a live take of Zeppelin’s “Fresh-Garbage” cover, at one point winking at (Robert) Plant; as Klausner called for a break mid-trial, Page even busted out a spontaneous boogie move.”
So was Page’s claim that he’d never heard Spirit’s first album wholly credible? Music copyright lawyer Steven Weinberg told the Associated Press that he found Page to be “charming, confident and well prepared.” But he questioned Page’s claim that he hadn’t heard the song until recently – given the association between the two bands and that Zeppelin had covered “Fresh-Garbage.” “If they used one riff from Spirit, they might have used another riff from Spirit,” he said.
It’s not the first time that Led Zeppelin has been hit with a copyright infringement claim – the band has previously settled disputes over other songs, including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Dazed And Confused.”
The outcome of the current lawsuit will be decided by an eight-member jury – and they will probably be hearing from Page again. According to reports, Page’s former bandmates, Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones, are also expected to take the stand during the proceedings, as well as Spirit band members Andes and Jay Ferguson.