(Image credit: Jim Summaria)
Written by Robert Plant (lyrics) and Jimmy Page (melody), "Stairway to Heaven" is not only Led Zeppelin's signature song, it may well be the most beloved rock song of all time. If not, it is definitely on almost every rock critic's, expert's, and fan's list of greatest and/or favorite songs. It was voted in 2000 by VHS as the #3 song on its list of "Greatest Rock Songs" and landed the #31 spot on Rolling Stone magazine's "Greatest Songs of All Time" list.
"Stairway to Heaven" was the most requested song on FM radio in the 1970s. Interestingly, "Stairway to Heaven," for all its popularity, was never released as a single. Radio stations did, however, receive promotional singles, which are now collector's items.
It was released on November 8, 1971, as a song on the untitled fourth Led Zeppelin album (usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV). The song was recorded from December 1970 to March of 1971.
One of the most discussed and dissected facets of "Stairway to Heaven" is its actual meaning. Robert Plant has touched on the subject on more than one occasion. Supposedly, the composition of the song took on an almost eerie, other-determined process. According to Plant: "My hand was writing out the words 'there's a lady is sure (sic) all that glitters is gold and she's buying a stairway to heaven.' I just sat there and looked at them and almost leapt out of my head."
But what do those strange lyrics mean?
Plant continues and explains: "It was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving any thought or consideration. That first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand …and it softened up after that." Okay, fair enough, but in a later interview, Plant is less nebulous and fairly clear that "Stairway to Heaven" has no actual meaning. Plant said, "Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way -and I wrote it."
As to the song's haunting music and beautiful guitar solos and licks, Jimmy Page elaborates: "I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together." Page always carried a tape recorder around with him and says he wrote the song "over a long period."
Led Zeppelin first played the song in public on March 5, 1971, at Belfast's Ulster Hall. At the song's original public rendition, the reception wasn't very encouraging. Led Zeppelin bass player John paul Jones recalls the fans at the concert: "They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew." It is reputed that the song was actually booed at its public debut.
Over time, the song caught on, and by 1975, because of public demand, it was always Zeppelin's concert finale. However, because of boredom and monotony, Plant would often indulge himself and change the lyrics, singing such nonsense lines as "Does anybody remember laughter?" "Does anybody remember forests?" "Wait a minute" and "I hope so."
By the 1980s, Plant had severely tired of the song. In 1988, he was quoted as saying, "I'd break into hives if I had to sing 'Stairway to Heaven' in every show. I wrote the lyrics and found the song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971, but 17 years later I don't know. It's just not for me. I sang it at the Atlantic Records show because I'm an old softie and it was my way of saying thank you to Atlantic Records because I've been with them for twenty years, but no more 'Stairway to Heaven' for me."
Although Plant was obviously very tired of his most beloved accomplishment, guitarist Page seems to have less of an "I'm sick of it" attitude. Page says: "I knew it was good, but I didn't know it was going to be almost like an anthem." He continues: "The wonderful thing about 'Stairway' is the fact that just about everybody has got their own individual interpretation to it, and actually what it meant to them at their point of life. Over the passage of years people come to me with all manner of stories about what it meant to them at certain points of their lives."
Plant cited the most unusual performance of his signature song when it was performed at Live Aid in 1985 "with two drummers while Duran Duran cried at the side of the stage -there was something quite surreal about that."
In 1991, on the 20th anniversary of the release of the song, it was announced that radio stations had played "Stairway to Heaven" an estimated 2,874,000 times. If this playing time was back-to-back, it would amount to 44 years!
(Image credit: Paul Hudson)
Robert Plant once made a monetary pledge to a public radio station that promised they would never play "Stairway to Heaven." To be fair to Plant, I guess it could get annoying to hear ceaseless talk and adoration of one of your own songs, particularly as he is undeniably one of the greatest singers and composers in rock music history and had a slew of amazing songs that are much less talked about. Kind of like Tina Louise hating her “Ginger” role on Gilligan’s Island or Fred Gwynne refusing to talk about playing Herman Munster or Elvis looking down on his early days as a hip-swiveling rebel belting out “Hound Dog”. I imagine if Leonardo Da Vinci were alive today, he would be sick and tired of everyone’s incessant chatter about the Mona Lisa.
The artists themselves have a perfect right to their own opinions and views regarding their works. But don't forget, so do we, their fans. And "Stairway to Heaven" never fails to send a chill up my spine whenever I hear those incredibly haunting first guitar notes of Jimmy Page come on over the radio or when I listen to Robert Plant's unbelievably brilliant voice speaking out the song's vague but unforgettable lyrics.