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Led Zeppelin's Page dodges questions and plays air guitar in copyright case

Published 17/06/2016

Led Zeppelin star Jimmy Page played air guitar in court in Los Angeles
Led Zeppelin star Jimmy Page played air guitar in court in Los Angeles

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page has demonstrated a deft touch at deflecting questions during a court hearing into whether he might have lifted some of the music in the rock band's 1971 hit Stairway To Heaven.

Giving evidence in his defence in the copyright infringement case in Los Angeles, Page showed little interest in comparing his composition with the obscure earlier instrumental work in question, Taurus, by the late Randy Wolfe, founder of the band Spirit.

Page was reluctant to compare the harmony, tempo or structure of the two songs, thwarting the lawyer representing Wolfe's estate in the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin, Page and singer Robert Plant, as well as several music companies.

"You want to step through it?" lawyer Francis Malofiy asked as he tried to get Page to discuss the Taurus sheet music, which is the work protected by copyright.

"Not necessarily," Page replied, sending a ripple of comic relief through the gallery during an otherwise dull day of evidence in the case.

Page, 72, had entered the courtroom carrying a guitar, but finished giving evidence without playing a note. The closest he came was during a break when he briefly struck a jamming pose and played air guitar and laughed with Plant in the courtroom.

Jurors and a packed audience in Los Angeles federal court did get to hear the familiar opening chords of Stairway, but they came not from Page, but from an expert who said he found it strikingly similar to Taurus.

Kevin Hanson, a guitar instructor and former member of Huffamoose, played passages from both songs on acoustic guitar and said they are virtually identical. When listening to videos of the two played simultaneously, he said there was nothing discordant about them.

"To my ear, they sound like they are one piece of music," he said.

On cross-examination, however, Mr Hanson, who does not have a college degree and is not a musicologist, said he can easily tell the songs apart.

Another plaintiff expert, Alexander Stewart, a music professor at the University of Vermont, said he found five categories in which both songs had significant similarities, including a descending chord progression, notes lasting the same duration and a series of arpeggios and similar pairs of notes.

He said the descending chord progression and other elements have been found in songs dating back to the 1600s. But he testified that of more than 65 songs the defence has said have a similar construction, including My Funny Valentine, the Beatles' Michelle and Chim Chim Cher-ee from the film Mary Poppins, none contained all five elements shared by Taurus and Stairway.

"Not one of them came close," Mr Stewart said, though he acknowledged on cross-examination that the notes in both songs did not all line up in the same places.

The plaintiffs are expected to wrap up their case on Friday with estate trustee Michael Skidmore concluding his evidence and a financial expert taking to the witness box.

Mr Malofiy tried unsuccessfully to introduce evidence of a 60 million US dollar (£42 million) deal Led Zeppelin signed for the rights to its catalogue, but the judge would not allow it because it was from 2008 and extends beyond the statute of limitations.

Page, wearing a suit and tie and his white hair pulled back in a ponytail, was asked about several contracts. Peering through his reading glases, he was asked to read the title on the document.

"Confidential", he said as the courtroom erupted with laughter.

One of the biggest challenges for the plantiffs is showing that Stairway is substantially similar to the sheet music for Taurus because that is what is filed at the US Copyright Office.

The recording of Taurus, which contains a riff very similar to the opening of Stairway, is significantly different from videos of experts playing the sheet music.

Because the recording is not protected by the copyright, jurors cannot consider it and it cannot be played in court.

Mr Malofiy tried several times to get Page, who said he never heard Taurus until comparisons began popping up online a few years ago, to compare the two songs. Page's lawyer successfully objected and the question was never answered.

However, when Page was asked to compare Stairway with the Taurus sheet music, he said he preferred to hear it.

"I'm asking if I can hear what was played," he said, knowing he could not.

To demonstrate the shortcomings of sheet music, though, Mr Malofiy showed Page the copyright version of Stairway To Heaven.

Page, who said he composed the music and Plant wrote the lyrics, said he had not written the sheet music he was shown.

They begin with the opening lyrics, "There's a lady who's sure/All that glitters is gold", eliminating the famous two-minutes, 14-second introduction.

"It's not there," Page said.

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