Many classic rock fans regard "Stairway to Heaven" as one of the best songs ever produced. And to this day, it continues to pop up on various best-ever compilations and lists. Yet few people at the time of its release, including the band members themselves, thought it would become the anthem it did. And even fewer realized how entangled with controversy and conspiracies the song would become.
About "Stairway to Heaven"
- Released: 1971
- Album: Led Zeppelin IV
- Genre: Classic Rock
- Highest Chart Position: #37 U.K. Singles Chart
If you have even a passing interest in rock, you've probably heard Stairway to Heaven at some point. But if you haven't and are a fan of epic ballads, now is as good a time as any.
The tune, which comes in at a lengthy 7.55, can be roughly divided into three sections. Each is progressively faster and louder than the last, with the band moving from acoustic guitars and recorders to guitar solos and bombastic drumming.
Writing and recording "Stairway to Heaven"
According to Jimmy Page, he wrote the music for "Stairway to Heaven" over a long period, with much of the initial composition being composed on cassette in a remote welsh cottage known as Bron-Yr-Aur (later the title of a song on Physical Graffiiti). But the song and Robert Plant's lyrics really came together spontaneously one evening next to a log fire.
"Robert was sitting in the corner, or rather leaning against the wall, and as I was routining the rest of the band with this idea and this piece, he was just writing. And all of a sudden he got up and started singing, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there."
Robert himself would describe the lyrics as:
"Some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand … and it softened up after that.
Release, reception, and legacy
The band finished recording "Stairway to Heaven" for inclusion in their 1971 album, Led Zeppelin IV. But despite pressure from Atlantic records, band manager Peter Grant repeatedly refused to allow the song to be released as a single. The thinking was that fans would then buy the album instead.
In any case, "Stairway to Heaven" did not become an overnight success. John Paul Jones even noted that the band's first performance didn't win fans over, claiming "They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew." Page also noted that he didn't initially realize what the band had on their hands:
"I knew it was good, but I didn't know it was going to be almost like an anthem … But I knew it was the gem of the album, sure."
Nonetheless, in time, the song would attain a legendary status among fans, gaining a regular spot as the finale to Led Zeppelin shows for several years (before they got sick of playing it) and regularly appearing in best-of lists for years to come. And by the time the year 2000 rolled around, the song had been broadcast on the radio over three million times.
Like many of the great rock songs, "Stairway to Heaven" hasn't been without controversy. In particular, people have noted that the intro of the song bears some striking similarity to an instrumental track called "Taurus" by the band Spirit. And in 2014, Spirit bassist Mark Andes and a trust acting on behalf of California would file a copyright infringement claim again Led Zeppelin. This copyright battle would continue well into 2020 following several appeals before the jury ruled in Led Zeppelin's favor.
Another more bizarre controversy to befall the song occurred in the 80s when the host of a television program called 'Praise the Lord' claimed that several rock tunes, including "Stairway to Heaven", featured hidden messages promoting satanism. Supposedly, these messages were placed there through a technique known as backmasking. Though no tangible evidence of this has been found.
Robert Plant would take aim at these accusations in a 1983 interview,
"To me it's very sad, because "Stairway to Heaven" was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that's not my idea of making music."
Sources and further reading
- Robert Plant Interview, J.D. Considine, 1983
- The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Dave Lewis, 1994, Omnibus Press
- "Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven copyright battle is finally over", BBC News, October 5, 2020
- "Stairway to Heaven: The story of a song and its legacy," Michael Hann, The Guardian, October 22, 2014
- "The Story Behind 'Stairway to Heaven' by Led Zeppelin," Ultimate Guitar, December 3, 2017
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