As the trial known on the docket as “Michael Skidmore vs. Led Zeppelin et al” kicked off its first day in Los Angeles federal court Tuesday, the proceedings commenced with a unique blend of awe-inspiring superstar charisma and snore-inducing legalese.
The civil case, which hinges on an alleged copyright infringement by Led Zeppelin due to the potential similarity between their classic-rock all-timer “Stairway to Heaven” and the composition “Taurus” by Sixties cult psych-rockers Spirit, features some surprising parallels and paradoxes. Both legal teams feature graying ponytailed Brits of varying celebrity: On the plaintiff side, there’s Michael Skidmore, a former musician and music writer who’s the executor of deceased “Taurus” songwriter and Spirit member Randy “California” Wolfe. Facing Skidmore directly across the table is non other than Zep icons Jimmy Page and a bearded Robert Plant, both decidedly regal in their finely tailored suits and coiffed, pulled-back locks.
Indeed, from a sartorial comparison alone, this legal fight resembles a battle between modern-day Wildings and the Westeros High Court. The plaintiffs’ side is all combovers and buzzcuts; the rough-and-tumble crew of controversial bar-brawling Philly lawyer Francis Malofiy, who exudes a decided resemblance to Sean Penn’s character in Hurlyburly.
Entering the court with a briefcase made to resemble a Fender tweed-covered amp, Malofiy has the cover of Houses of the Holy ostentatiously glowing from his laptop and cracks his knuckles all through the day’s primary concern: jury selection. He’s a stark contrast to the patrician countenance of Zeppelin lawyer Peter Anderson and the seemingly bespoke suiting of his legal team. Indeed, as Malofiy fidgets, Page and Plant exude an almost zen calm, staring straight ahead without chatting or visibly reacting through the process; only towards the end before the lunch break does Page allow a wry smile to crack the facade.
The presiding judge, Gregory Klausner, oversees the proceedings with a gruff, military-evoking countenance – giving strict instructions as to how he feels lawyers should behave and having the bailiff toss out three spectators whose ringing iPhones violate his “all cellphones off” dictum.
Klausner’s no-nonsense demeanor and lack of pop-culture savvy, however, doesn’t indicate a particular direction as to where this case may be going. “We’re not going to do anything spontaneous up here,” he icily instructs both parties’ counsel, and amusingly refers to the famed defendants as “the Led Zeppelin.”
The jury selection, meanwhile, seems to break down by age and hair profiling: the dude with the shoulder length Prince Valiant bowl, surfer tan and Hawaiian shirt was a for sure no-go, as was the special effects expert who proclaimed without prompting from the jury box, “I’m very much a fan – my love for these guys [gesturing to Page and Plant] is very strong.”
Next to the presence of authentic rock legends Page and Plant, the most intriguing part about the first day are the high-profile witnesses expected to appear throughout the trial, which Judge Klausner allotted a 10-hour limit and estimated would last three to four days. In his statement to the court, Malofiy indicated that Spirit members Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson (both present in the galley), Linda Mensch (wife of famed manager Peter Mensch), renowned rock impresario/music biz legend Lou Adler and Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski, the latter a Led Zeppelin expert who wrote 2013’s Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page, would all appear or testify in court.
The defense, meanwhile, had a far shorter witness list – the one boldfaced name being none other than Zep bassist and co-founder John Paul Jones. In addition to Page and Plant, there may be no more expert eyewitness than Jones — dismissed as a defendant in pre-trial hearings — who might be able to persuade an impartial jury that the songwriting credits (and royalty disbursement) remain the same.