Published on July 14, 2016
Glenn Hughes’s band Trapeze were playing at Mother’s in Birmingham one night in autumn 1971 when John Bonham came barrelling through the doors, pushing through the crowd, until he reached the stage. He climbed up, and without ceremony starting playing along with the group. After the show, instead of saying his goodbyes, he suggested to Hughes – whom he’d known for several years on the Birmingham club band scene – that they go back to Bonham’s house and continue the party there.
“It’s about three or four in the morning,” Hughes recalls by phone from the US west coast, “and he says: ‘I want to play you something. It hasn’t been released yet – it’s an acetate of the fourth Led Zeppelin album, it hasn’t been mastered yet.’
“He plays me the entire record and it comes to Stairway to Heaven, and of course I’m only 19 years old, and I’m thinking: ‘Bloody hell, this is earth-shattering.’”
In the intervening 43 years, Hughes’s reaction has been shared by generation after generation of teenagers, kids who learn how to play Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar intro, who pore over Robert Plant’s lyrics. It’s been voted on to scores of lists of the greatest songs of all time; it was claimed on its 20th anniversary in 1991 that it had been played 2,874,000 times on the radio, amounting to 44 years’ worth of airtime; it’s been suggested that if you play it backwards you’ll hear Satanic messages, including “Here’s to my sweet Satan,” though the dark lord clearly didn’t anticipate downloads ruining his ploy to brainwash credulous youth. It’s also become mocked for being a monument of pretension, described by rock critic Lester Bangs as “a thicket of misbegotten mush”. In other words, if you were looking for the ur-song of classic rock, for something combining incredible popularity, a huge selection of myths, and a faint sense of preposterousness, then your search can begin and end with Stairway to Heaven.
Page had decided he wanted an epic song for the fourth album more than 18 months before its eventual release in November 1971. “I don’t want to tell you about it in case it doesn’t come off,” he told NME in April 1970, “it’s an idea for a really long track on the next album … we want to try something new with the organ and acoustic guitar building up and building to the electric thing.”
Today, he talks about the song with unbridled enthusiasm, losing himself in his words. “It begins with the concept of trying to have something [that] would unravel in layers as the song progressed. You’ve got the fragile guitar that is going to open the whole thing, you’ve got the vocal over that fragile guitar, and then it moves into the more sensual wave with the twin 12-strings, and the electric piano as well.
Hear the previously unreleased Sunset Sound mix of Stairway to Heaven
“It would keep unfolding and more layers would be introduced into the equation. Keeping John Bonham [on drums] to come in for effect was a trick I’d used before, on things like Ramble On. I knew that would be successful, because whenever he came in he made so much difference. And then it’s two more verses before you get to the solo, with this sort of fanfare approach to it. Then everything’s flying at that point.
“There’s almost a hysterical trill at the end of the solo that leads into the finale … ‘And as we wind on down the road …’” He’s often used sexual imagery to describe the song and it’s no different today: “It’s like an orgasm at the end. It’s whatever you want it to be.”
Page had worked out the sections of the song at his home in Pangbourne, near Reading, before bringing it to Headley Grange in Hampshire, where Zeppelin were recording their fourth album in late 1970 and early 1971.
The band’s first reaction, though, was not to bow down in awe before their leader’s monumental offering. “I think it was more: ‘This is tricky,’” Page says. “It’s not just one of those things where it goes verse-chorus-verse. It was tricky because it had sections, but they didn’t repeat exactly the same each time.” Also, Stairway did things songs weren’t meant to do. “The thing I was very keen to establish was that the whole thing would keep moving in tempo and intensity,” he says. “The tempo changes from the beginning to the end – it’s quite radically different – but that was the intention. You would find that, having been a studio musician, the one thing any trained musicians will tell you you don’t do is speed up or slow down. This, as far as I could see, was in league with the whole concept of classical writing where everything is moving, moving, moving.”
It was sufficiently complicated that there was no point in the four members sitting down together and working it through. Instead, Plant and Bonham were sent away, possibly to the pub, while Page and Jones sat down at Headley and tackled the song together – there are bootlegs of the pair of them, Page on acoustic guitar and Jones on keyboards, deciding what goes where, how to transition between sections.
“So now there’s two of us who know it for when John Bonham comes along,” Page says. “That’s a working structure. When John Bonham comes into it, you need to have the confidence that he knows there’s a whole passage that’s going to go by without him coming in, otherwise he’s going to think, ‘That’s a bit shambolic. I’ll just come in at the beginning.’ It needed proper structure and proper discipline right from the beginning. And then Robert’s writing his lyrics, and it’s almost like he’s channelled the damn thing.”
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Ah, yes, the lyrics. It’s easy to sneer at the words of Stairway to Heaven, and Plant is among those who have.”If you absolutely hated Stairway to Heaven, nobody can blame you for that because it was so … pompous,” he told Q magazine in 1988. Asked about Stairway at a press conference to promote the concert film Celebration Day in 2012, he responded: “I struggle with some of the lyrics from particular periods of time. Maybe I was still trying to work out what I was talking about … Every other fucker is.” And it’s true that all the talk of feelings he gets when he looks to the west, of rings of smoke through the trees, of pipers leading us to reason, vaguely signifies meaning without really having much, but it doesn’t stop it working as a rock song lyric. After all, Tutti Frutti didn’t mean much either, but it’s still a great lyric.
The cod mysticism is why Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers – a dedicated fan – reckons Stairway is the perfect entry point for Zeppelin, and why it tends to be kids rather than adults who obsess over it. “The same reason that kids of a certain age love those Tolkien books,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of mysticism that probably doesn’t age great once you get to a certain point in your life. Or at least if you grew up like I did, and became a punk rocker. It’s probably a little bloated, but it’s also awesome.”
However, Hood – who first heard the song aged nine or 10, a year or two after its release, listening to the local station in Muscle Shoals, Alabama on its Sunday night excursions into FM programming – makes the crucial point that the lyrics are exactly right for the music.
“They’re the only band I love where the lyrics aren’t incredible,” he says. “They’re not bad. They’re underrated in a lot of places. But I’ve always been a lyric guy, and there aren’t lyrics that would hold up on their own without the music in their catalogue. But Stairway is a perfect lyric for that music.”
Heart’s Ann Wilson, who was 19 when she first heard the song on the radio in 1971, goes further. “It’s beautiful, a complete marriage of music to lyrics,” she says. “They go together so well. It’s just one of those situations where you couldn’t have one without the other. I’m a word person, and the lyrics are so poetic and so imaginative. We all know it’s inspired by Tolkien, but at the same time they’re widened out so they’re more universal than that. Those were such optimistic words that fit with the whole hippie mentality. I think people really identified with the lyrics.”
Page recalls Plant writing the lyric – said to have been inspired by Lewis Spence’s The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain – as the song was worked out at Headley. “We’re running through it, and it’s taking a lot of concentration, but we’re getting the movement in and the sections are really starting to gel, and it’s all working and becoming cohesive. I remember vividly Robert was sitting on the floor, back against the wall, writing, while this was going on. We had another couple of run-throughs and then he walks over and he starts singing along. From my recollection he had a good 90% of it then.”
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Wilson makes another key point about the song, and its lyrical and musical appeal – that before Stairway, Zeppelin were perceived almost exclusively as a band for men. “So I’d hear them mostly when I was on a date, or when I was with a boy at a party. But when Zep IV came out, it just really spoke to me, and they opened themselves up to everybody. Prior to Zeppelin IV, I was just barely getting into rock bands. I was still the only woman in the band, and the one chosen to sing the ballads and stand around and bang a tambourine. I didn’t really take on my rock core until around ’71, when we started to do songs off that album, and no one in the band could sing high enough except me.”
It’s a point Page echoes in a way, too, suggesting that there was a very deliberate effort to go beyond wham! bam! with Stairway. “This one plays with you more,” he says. “It plays with your emotions, entices you in. Stairway’s almost seductive.”
That doesn’t mean it was instantly recognised as a classic. In Lenny Kaye’s review of Led Zeppelin IV for Rolling Stone, he barely talks about the song, just giving it a passing mention as representative of “some stuff that I might actually call shy and poetic if it didn’t carry itself off so well”. John Paul Jones has said the song’s first performance, at Ulster Hall in Belfast in March 1971, won no plaudits from the crowd – “They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew” – though bootlegs of the show have it ending to perfectly respectful and sustained applause.
Certainly, playing it live presented problems for Zeppelin. “I’ve employed so many guitars on Stairway – there are two lots of 12-strings going on, there’s an acoustic, there’s a solo – that how am I gonna do this live?” Page says. “The answer to that was a double-necked guitar, so I could do the opening on the six-string, go to the 12-string, do the solo on the six-string, then go back to the 12-string. That seemed to make the most sense.” It also provided him with one of Zeppelin’s most memorable visual props, as well as – to detractors – a signifier of the bloat of 70s rock. He says crowds responded quickly to the song. “I remember noticing that when we played the LA Forum [in August 1971], there was a standing ovation for it – not from everyone, but there were a fair number of people, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness gracious,’ because they hadn’t heard the album.”
At that point, Stairway usually featured in the middle of Zeppelin’s live set (at that Belfast show, it was played sixth, between Dazed and Confused and another new song, Going to California), then, Page says, “it got to the point where, because of the affection for it from the audience, it was gonna be better to put it at the end, so there was anticipation for it. And what were you gonna follow it with? So you’d finish the set with it then come back on and do the encores.” Zeppelin legend holds that to maximise the song’s impact, the band’s manager, Peter Grant, told Plant not to speak after Stairway, to maximise the moment of profundity. Page has an idea for what would happen if he were playing the song in this era: “Now you should just open with it.” He laughs at his own audacity. “That’d be something, wouldn’t it?”
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Every major rock band of the early 70s had their own equivalent of Stairway, their own big, meaningful statement: Deep Purple’s Child in Time, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Genesis’s Supper’s Ready. All still have plenty of admirers, but only Stairway is known to everyone who listens to rock music. Partly that’s because Zeppelin were never tied to genre in the way so many hard rock or prog groups were, which meant they continued to be a presence on radio on both sides of the Atlantic. Partly it’s because its status has become self-perpetuating: greatest-ever lists tend to ossify around a canon, and that’s certainly happened here. However, given that so many critics despise the song, it’s important to note that Stairway’s status in these polls is usually the result of public affection, which means the song continues to touch and move people, and that – as Page points out – “it still has an emotional effect on people who are are coming to it new”.
Stairway, like many other Zeppelin songs, has become mired in controversy amid accusations of plagiarism. In this case, it’s a lawsuit alleging that its famous guitar introduction was plagiarised from Taurus by Spirit, with whom Zeppelin played when they first visited America. Certainly, there are similarities in the parts, but it doesn’t diminish the achievement of Stairway to Heaven: the whole song doesn’t stand or fall on that introduction, and whatever verdict is reached in the case, Stairway will remain a colossal achievement. There’s a reason everyone knows Stairway, and not everyone knows Taurus, and it’s not that the might of Zeppelin quashed Spirit.
These days Ann Wilson – who played the song in front of President Barack Obama with her sister Nancy at a Kennedy Center gala to honour Led Zeppelin in 2012 – envies those getting to hear Stairway for the first time. “It’s like when you get to be older and you see young couples with babies and you see how hard they’re working and how happy they are and how much fun it is and how fresh it is and how deep it goes into your soul,” she says. “That’s what Stairway is like.”