Released on November 8, 1971, Led Zeppelin’s song Stairway To Heaven, the spearhead of the Led Zeppelin IV album, has been a star in the music firmament for 50 years.
Not only one of the group’s most iconic songs, but also one of the most iconic … and controversial songs ever.
A song about which so much has been said: mystical, Satanist, esoteric, subliminal, pretentious, plagiarized … “Stairway to Heaven”, or the perfect concentration of all the musical sources that rock music has always been drunk on.
We at Zoa Studio will also give our contribution by talking to you about this song, its birth, its meaning and the accusations of plagiarism.
Genesis of Stairway to Heaven
The story begins in the deep Welsh countryside, in an 18th century cottage called Bron-Yr-Aur.
It was in this former Plant family vacation home, a hovel with no water or electricity, that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page met in the spring of 1970, to recharge their batteries after a grueling American trip. In this rustic setting, the two men sketch the beginnings of their next album. Page has some music in his wallet, which he plays on acoustic guitar.
Among them, an arpeggio intro makes Plant prick up his ears. But it was only later, in front of the group gathered at Headley Grange, that the puzzle began to take shape. This Hampshire building, a former Victorian-era shelter for orphans and the needy, serves as a rehearsal room for Led Zeppelin.
One evening, in front of a crackling fire, Plant starts scribbling the words: “My hand started writing by itself, almost in spite of myself, and in a few minutes I had almost 80% of the text …”
Composition and meaning
Stairway to Heaven has three parts with increasing tempo and volume, a quintessential rise to power that Page himself likened to having an orgasm. In eight minutes, you gradually go from a slow acoustic introduction to a hard rock finish with Jimmy Page’s sumptuous guitar solo, considered by many to be the greatest solo of all time. The piece is savored until the last drop, up to the a cappella conclusion of Robert Plant: “And she’s buying a staiway to Heaven”.
Because it is above all the music that attracts attention. After an opening in folk arpeggios with flutes, the intro of the song and a rhythm played on 12 strings, the melody changes abruptly with the eruption of the drums (just 4 minutes 18!) That precedes an electric guitar solo, then a hard rock part with John Bonham’s drums, before the final bars where only Plant’s voice resounds.
Page affirmed: “We wanted something with more sections, in line with ‘Dazed and Confused’, but different, without bass, more organ and acoustic guitar, then electric. It could have been 15 minutes … “
Stairway to Heaven is the only track on “Led Zeppelin IV” featuring all of Page’s main guitars. Jimmy opens the piece by playing that immortal intro with Harmony. The rhythm part, on the other hand, was done with a 12-string electric Fender, while many of the final riffs were recorded with Page’s workhorse, the Les Paul given to him by Joe Walsh.
What is arguably the most famous solo in rock history, however, improvised with an old Telecaster that the guitarist had already used often on the first album. “I composed the first phrasing (Stairway) and then I had a few more connecting ones here and there. But, overall, the solo was improvised. I think I used a Marshall.”
Meaning of Stairway to Heaven
A minstrel’s ballad composed after a walk in the Welsh mountains. Robert Plant explained that the song was about “a woman who had everything she wanted all the time without giving up any thought or consideration”.
Plant will later say that he was inspired by reading a book by Scottish folklorist Lewis Spence, called The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. And he will refuse to give further explanations on the meaning of the text, stating that everyone can find what he wants, depending on the period of his life.
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were afraid to dissect their words or analyze them. It looks like it was some sort of wall they had built to protect themselves from criticism.
However, the success of the song shows more closely that it was a phenomenal tune. He resonated with the young, opening a door to another area of spirituality, bringing with it an esoteric meaning that transported the listener into a more mystical view of life, incorporating perspectives from the cultures that influenced Plant. Ultimately, the magic of this song is that it speaks personally to the heart and soul of every listener.
For the Christian it speaks of the hope of the Second Advent. For people of other faiths, it allows them to see their vision for the future open the same doors, where everything will be explained, where tears will be overcome, where hope will be restored and all will be new, where brotherhood will prevail, where all they will be one and one for all. In the hearts, imaginations and ears of all listeners, there is an archetypal spiritual narrative that allows them to visualize a magnificent journey.
Good exegetes will also find there some allusions to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but also anything else.
Success and controversies
Though it made an instant hit, growing the album’s sales, the song continued to live an eventful existence.
In 1982, American television preacher Paul Crouch claimed that the track contained subliminal messages to the glory of Satan, evident only when heard in reverse. A statement all the more credible, for some, as Jimmy Page, a lover of the occult sciences, had never hidden his admiration for the controversial writer Aleister Crowley, even going so far as to acquire his ancient home on the shores of Loch Ness. There was nothing left for the average man to do but try to listen to the song upside down, a dangerous undertaking in the era of turntables!
Faced with various comments, Robert Plant will only reply that “Stairway to Heaven” was written with the best of intentions and that pasting hidden messages was not his conception of music. Another accusation is to have plagiarized the intro on an instrumental of the Spirit band called “Taurus”, which we will deepen in the next paragraph.
If Jimmy Page continues to affirm that the song represents for him “the quintessence of Led Zeppelin”, Robert Plant remains reluctant to interpret it since the separation of the group. Rare exceptions are 1985 Live Aid and the Atlantic label’s 45th anniversary, three years later.
A San Francisco appeals court confirmed in 2020 that British rock group Led Zeppelin did not plagiarize a piece by a Californian group to compose their worldwide hit “Stairway to Heaven,” released in 1971.
The court upheld a 2016 first-instance ruling in Los Angeles according to which the legendary ballad did not copy “Taurus”, a song composed by the 1960s psychedelic group Spirit.
At the time, the judges ruled that Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page had access to the Spirit song. But the plaintiffs, who claimed between three and thirteen million dollars in royalties, had failed to prove that the elements of “Taurus” were “inherently similar” to the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven”, according to them. more than two minutes long.
In 2016, Jimmy Page said that the series of agreements at the center of the plagiarism trial “had always been around”. In 2018, however, this ruling was overturned during a first appeal procedure on legal grounds.
The members of Led Zeppelin had therefore requested and obtained a review of this ruling by the San Francisco Court of Appeals. The magistrates finally decided in 2020 to uphold the first instance ruling, based on a copyright law dating back to 1909.
Legacy of Stairway to Heaven
Stairway to Heaven is often considered to be among the greatest rock songs of all time. Even today, 50 years (today) after its release, it continues to be at the top of the radio lists.
In 1990, a station in St. Petersburg, Florida paid homage to Led Zeppelin by playing “Stairway to Heaven” for 24 hours straight!
Stairway to Heaven is also the best-selling sheet music in rock history, averaging 15,000 copies per year.
A curiosity about this song: despite pressure from Atlantic Records, the band never released the song as a single. Which forced buyers to buy the entire album. Luckily they bought a masterpiece!
Another curiosity: Robert Plant once gave $ 10,000 to an Oregon radio station during a fundraiser after the DJ promised the station would never play “Stairway to Heaven”. The story goes that Plant was driving to the Oregon coast after a solo performance in Portland and that he was impressed by the station’s non-mainstream music. When asked “why did you donate $ 10,000 to not play your song?” Plant replied that it wasn’t that he didn’t like the song, but that he had heard it before!
This proves that, asking Robert Plant what is his former band’s song coming out of his nose he will say “Stairway to Heaven”.
However, asking any rock fanatic what the first Led Zeppelin song that comes to mind is (aside from the inevitable “Whole Lotta Love”) they will invariably quote it. Or they will cover it, there are a thousand!
To confirm the popularity of the song, typing the word Stairway on the Internet, we will inevitably come across this song and this stairway. Let’s not forget that this song and its forbidden riff are banned in guitar stores because people played them too much, like the intro of Smoke on the Water for instance.
If we think about another reference, we will find ourselves in front of a staircase in Hawaii, a breathtaking view.
A stairway to heaven, whether real or imaginary which, after 50 years today, we still dream of climbing.