Stairway - The Definitive Led Zeppelin Song
Stairway To Heaven is clearly the best known and most popular Led Zeppelin song. In fact, it's the
best selling piece of sheet music of all time, having sold over one million copies. Most people
consider it the quintessential classic rock song, and the song that typifies Led Zeppelin. The band
Page and Plant both consider "Kashmir" to be the band's landmark song. Plant goes a step further, in fact, by claiming that he loathes Stairway. He used his creative control powers to veto Atlantic's planned release of a 20th anniversary Stairway single. He also references the song in one of his solo
efforts, "Liar's Dance", in which he proclaims, "...leave it to the
lady there who's sure, she won't back again, I know she won't be
back again, I'm sure she won't be back again."
So What's The Song About?
That's a difficult question to answer. The band members gives cryptic responses when asked about it.
"We were all high on the Moroccan dope at the time, so who knows?" joked Plant when asked the true
meaning of the song. Page has said that it's about a woman that both he and Plant knew at the time.
Another theory is that the inspiration for the song came from a mixture of Celtic myth and a book called
"The Faerie Queen" by Edmund Spencer. Not too hard to believe, given that the song prior to it on the album, "The Battle Of Evermore", is based solely on the works on J.R.R. Tolkien.
Another theory, one that doesn't require much thought, is that the song is about a woman who thinks that
material possessions are the only thing of value in this world. Depending on how you interpret the song, you discover that she's either right or wrong when 'the truth will come to you at last'.
A Guitar Magazine contest for the true meaning came up with the gem in the above writeup, namely that the 'bustle in the hedgerow' part is a reference to a woman's first period. When
Plant was asked about it on Australian TV, he looked at Page, who gave him 'a strange look', and then replied with a smile, "What it is, it's the beginning
of Spring, it's when the birds make their nests, when hope and the
new year begins. And it's nothing to do with any of that weird
stuff you read about in America!"
It's fruitless to think one explanation fits the song, as the band's not helping one way or the other. Given that the song was written in "about an hour", maybe the meaning isn't as deep as some people might think. I do doubt highly, however, that they were "trying to emulate Jethro Tull". For the record, Led Zeppelin HATED Jethro Tull, referring to them as Jethro Dull, and John Bonham suggesting that they release an album called "Bore 'Em At The Forum". It's hard to believe that the #1 rock band in the world (at the time) would try to emulate a band that they, by all accounts, hated.
Hey, This Song Sounds Like...
Given that Led Zeppelin borrowed heavily from older blues and folk artists (an act not uncommon among
blues and folk artists themselves), one might wonder if Led Zeppelin was "influenced" while writing the music for Stairway To Heaven. The above write-up mentions that song "Taurus" by Spirit. Others have speculated that the opening riff is swiped from Johnny Rivers' "Summer Rain", Cartoone's "Ice Cream
Dreams", or "And She's Lonely" by the Chocolate Watchband.
Personally, I think the "Summer Rain" and "Taurus" sound more like each other than they do Stairway, but the similarity is there nonetheless. This is hardly a difficult tune to think up and play, however,
and given a large enough catalog, one could probably find twenty or thirty songs with a similar opening.
The solo in Stairway To Heaven contains similar chord progression to Jimi Hendrix' version of "All Along The Watchtower". Again, such chords are hardly uncommon. For the solo, Page recorded three different versions and selected the one he liked best.
Stairway was first played live for a BBC audience on April 1, 1971 (this recording is available on the two-disc BBC Sessions). The song was NOT the centerpiece of the Led Zeppelin show ("Whole Lotta Love" or "Dazed And Confused" usually got that honor), but it did provide drummer John Bonham some occasional down time. In live shows, Plant nearly always followed up the line "And the forests will echo in laughter" by questioning the audience "Does anyone remember laughter?" The crowds soon anticipated his question,
asking it in unison with him. This prompted him, on one memorable evening in 1977, to ask the crowd if anyone remembered... forests?
Backwards Messages In "Stairway"
After Judas Priest was put on trial for allegedly backmasking messages on their records, thousands of
people with free time on their hands starting playing all sorts of records backwards. The alleged connection between Jimmy Page and Satanism put the thought in many heads that Led Zeppelin lyrics were
riddled with Satanic messages. They weren't disappointed when, upon listening to "Stairway To Heaven", heard what they thought was Plant saying, "Here's to my sweet Satan."
Backmasking is extremely difficult to accomplish without radically altering the speech pattern of the
forward-spoken words. Add to that the fact that it has yet to be proven that the brain can interpret backmasked speech, and that Page has said, "I do not worship the devil," and it's doubtful that Led Zeppelin did this intentionally. Robert Plant had perhaps the most lighthearted attitude to the whole phenomenon. "If it worked," he said, "every record would have the backward message 'BUY THIS RECORD' in it!"
"Stairway To Heaven" has been covered countless times. Dread Zeppelin has made a habit of it, putting cover versions on more than one of their albums. An album entirely of Stairway covers was released in the late 90's, consisting of Australian artists like Rolf Harris and The Australian Doors Show.