The most famous rock song of all time, “Stairway To Heaven” wasn’t a chart hit because it was never released as a single to the general public. Radio stations received promotional singles which quickly became collector’s items.
On Tuesday November 13, 2007, Led Zeppelin’s entire back catalogue was made available as legal digital downloads, making all of their tracks eligible for the UK singles chart. As a result, at the end of that week the original version of “Stairway To Heaven” arrived in the UK singles charts for the first time. Previously, three covers had charted: the multinational studio band Far Corporation reached #8 with their version in 1985, then reggae tribute act Dread Zeppelin crawled to #62 in 1991 and finally Rolf Harris’ reworking outdid the other two, peaking at #7 in 1993.
Robert Plant spent much of the ’70s answering questions about the lyrics he wrote for “Stairway.” When asked why the song was so popular, he said it could be its “abstraction,” adding, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics.”
The lyrics take some pretty wild turns, but the beginning of the song is about a woman who accumulates money, only to find out the hard way her life had no meaning and will not get her into heaven. This is the only part Plant would really explain, as he said it was “a woman getting everything she wanted without giving anything back.”
Led Zeppelin started planning “Stairway” in early 1970 when they decided to create a new, epic song to replace “Dazed And Confused” as the centerpiece of their concerts. Jimmy Page would work on the song in an 8-track studio he had installed in his boathouse, trying out different sections on guitar. By April, he was telling journalists that their new song might be 15-minutes long, and described it as something that would “build towards a climax” with John Bonham’s drums not coming in for some time. In October 1970, after about 18 months of near constant touring, the song took shape. Page and Plant explained that they started working on it at a 250-year-old Welsh cottage called Bron-yr-Aur, where they wrote the songs for Led Zeppelin III. Page sometimes told a story of the pair sitting by a fire at the cabin as they composed it, a tale that gives the song a mystical origin story, as there could have been spirits at play within those walls.
Page told a different story under oath: When he was called to the stand in 2016 as part of a plagiarism trial over this song, he said that he wrote the music on his own and first played it for his bandmates at Headley Grange in Liphook Road, Headley, Hampshire, where they recorded it using a mobile studio owned by The Rolling Stones. Plant corroborated the story in his testimony.
Headley Grange may not be as enchanting as Bron-yr-Aur, but the place had some character: It was a huge, old, dusty mansion with no electricity but great acoustics. Bands would go there to get some privacy and focus on songwriting, as the biggest distractions were the sheep and other wildlife.
Robert Plant recalled writing the lyrics in a flash of inspiration. Said Plant: “I was holding a pencil and paper, and for some reason I was in a very bad mood. Then all of a sudden my hand was writing out the words, ‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.’ I just sat there and looked at the words and then I almost leapt out of my seat.”
Plant’s implication that something else was moving his pencil for him led to speculation that it was Satan who was dictating the words, and along with the backward messages and Page’s Aleister Crowley connection, there was enough evidence for many listeners that the devil had some role in creating this song.
This is rumored to contain backward satanic messages, as if Led Zeppelin sold their souls to the devil in exchange for “Stairway To Heaven.” Supporting this theory is the fact that Jimmy Page bought Aleister Crowley’s house in Scotland, known as Boleskine House. In his books, Crowley advocated that his followers learn to read and speak backwards.
Robert Plant addressed the issue in an interview with Musician magazine: “‘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. It’s really sad. The first time I heard it was early in the morning when I was living at home, and I heard it on a news program. I was absolutely drained all day. I walked around, and I couldn’t actually believe, I couldn’t take people seriously who could come up with sketches like that. There are a lot of people who are making money there, and if that’s the way they need to do it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.”
This runs 8:03, but still became one of the most-played songs on American radio, proving that people wouldn’t tune out just because a song was long. It was a perfect fit for FM radio, which was a newer format challenging the established AM with better sound quality and more variety. “Stairway” fit nicely into what was called the “Album Oriented Rock” (AOR) format, and later became a staple of Classic Rock. By most measures, it is the most-played song in the history of American FM radio. It has also sold more sheet music than any other rock song – about 10,000 to 15,000 copies a year, and more than one million total.
Jimmy Page has a strong affinity for this song, and felt Robert Plant’s lyrics were his best yet. He had him write all of Zeppelin’s lyrics from then on.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine (March 13, 1975) Cameron Crowe asked Jimmy Page how important “Stairway To Heaven” was to him. Page replied: “To me, I thought ‘Stairway’ crystallized the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed the band at its best… as a band, as a unit. Not talking about solos or anything, it had everything there. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with ‘Stairway.’ Townshend probably thought that he got it with Tommy. I don’t know whether I have the ability to come up with more. I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance.”
This was the only song whose lyrics were printed on the album’s inner sleeve.
Many novice guitarists try to learn this song, and most end up messing it up. In the movie Wayne’s World, it is banned in the guitar shop where Wayne (Mike Myers) starts playing it. If you saw the movie in theaters, you heard Wayne play the first few notes of the song before being scolded and pointed to a sign that says “NO Stairway To Heaven” (Wayne: “No Stairway. Denied.”). Because of legal issues – apparently even a few notes of “Stairway To Heaven” have to be cleared, and good luck with that – the video and TV releases of the movie were changed so Wayne plays something incomprehensible. This novice guitar Stairway cliché later showed up on an episode of South Park when the character Towelie tries to play the song in a talent show and screws it up.
Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones decided not to use a bass on this because it sounded like a folk song. Instead, he added a string section, keyboards and flutes. He also played wooden recorders that were used on the intro. Bonham’s drums do not come in until 4:18.
Robert Plant is a great admirer of all things mystic, the old English legends and lore and the writings of the Celts. He was immersed in the books Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence and The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The Tolkien inspiration can be heard in the phrase, “In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,” which could be a reference to the smoke rings blown by the wizard Gandalf. There is also a correlation between the lady in the song and the character from the book, Lady Galadriel, the Queen of Elves who lives in the golden forest of Lothlorien. In the book, all that glittered around her was in fact gold, as the leaves of the trees in the forest of Lothlorien were golden. >>
Of the many cover versions of “Stairway,” two in particular have earned praise from the members of Led Zeppelin: Dolly Parton’s version on her 2002 album Halos and Horns, and a 2012 performance at the Kennedy Center by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart as part of a concert honoring Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Backed on drums by Jason Bonham (John’s son) and accompanied by a gospel choir, the Wilson sisters transfixed the crowd. Plant, Page and Jones, watching from the balcony, all got emotional as the song progressed. They personally thanked the Wilson sisters later that night. This version was released as a single and exploded on YouTube, racking up over 100 million views.
Ann and Nancy were well equipped to cover the song: Nancy’s intricate fingerpicking style suited the delicate intro perfectly, and Ann could belt out Robert Plant vocals with singular conviction. She covered “Immigrant Song” on her 2007 debut solo album.
Some other covers of note are by U2, Jimmy Castor, Frank Zappa, The Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews Band, Sisters of Mercy, Zakk Wylde, Elkie Brooks, Pardon Me Boys, White Flag, Jana, Great White, Stanley Jordan, Far Corporation, Dixie Power Trio, Justin Hayward, Leningrad Cowboys, Dread Zeppelin, Tiny Tim, piano virtuoso Richard Abel, and Monte Montgomery.
Many critics trashed this song when it came out: Lester Bangs described it as “a thicket of misbegotten mush,” and the British music magazine Sounds said it induced “first boredom and then catatonia.”
So, while many fans consider it one of the greatest rock songs ever made, “Stairway To Heaven” and Zeppelin as a whole also got a lot of vehement criticism. They were viewed as shallow, pretentious, and representative of the kind of excess that offended the anti-materialistic consciousness so much of the era’s music and music press stood against (ostensibly, at least). In 1988, Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant told Q that he understood the criticisms: “If you absolutely hated ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ no one can blame you for that because it was so pompous.”
Led Zeppelin played this for the first time in Belfast on March 5, 1971 – Northern Ireland was a war zone at the time and there was rioting in nearby streets. John Paul Jones said in an audio documentary that when they played it, the audience was not that impressed. They wanted to hear something they knew – like “Whole Lotta Love.”
The song got a better reception when the band started the US leg of their tour. In an excerpt from Led Zeppelin; The Definitive Biography by Ritchie Yorke, Jimmy Page said of playing the song at an August 1971 show at the Los Angeles Forum: “I’m not saying the whole audience gave us a standing ovation – but there was this sizable standing ovation there. And I thought, ‘This is incredible because no one’s heard this number yet. This is the first time hearing it!’ It obviously touched them, so I knew there was something with that one.” >>
Jimmy Page considers this a masterpiece, but Robert Plant does not share his fondness for the song. Plant has referred to it as a “wedding song” and insists that his favorite Led Zeppelin song is “Kashmir.” After the band broke up, Plant refused to sing it except on rare occasions, including Live Aid.
Clarifying his position in a 2018 interview with Dan Rather, Plant said: “It belongs to a particular time. If I had been involved in the instrumentation I would feel that it’s a magnificent piece of music that has its own character and personality. It even speeds up in a similar way to some pieces of more highbrow music. But my contribution was to write lyrics and to sing a song about fate and something very British, almost abstract, but coming out of the mind of a 23-year-old guy. It landed in the years of the era of 23-year-old guys.”
This was the last song the remaining members of Led Zeppelin performed when they reunited for Live Aid in 1985. Bob Geldof organized the event, and did his best to get many famous bands to play even if they had broken up. Unlike The Who, Geldof had an easy time convincing Plant, Page, and Jones to play the show. They played the Philadelphia stage with Tony Thompson and Phil Collins sitting in on drums.
The acoustic, fingerpicking intro is very similar to the song “Taurus” from the band Spirit, who toured with Led Zeppelin when they first played the US. “Taurus” is a guitar instrumental written by the group’s guitarist, Randy California, and included on their debut album in 1968. It was part of the band’s set and Jimmy Page admitted that he owned the album.
Randy California never took any legal action against Led Zeppelin or sought compensation from them. A mercurial man who drowned in 1997 at age 45, he was described by his bandmate Mark Andes as “kind of a pathetic, tortured genius.”
The “Stairway” connection is just a small piece of the Spirit story. California was a guitar prodigy who at age 15 joined Jimi Hendrix in the group Jimmy James And The Blue Flames. Three months later, Hendrix went to England. He wanted to take California with him, but Randy’s age made it impossible.
Randy played with future Steely Dan founder Walter Becker in the Long Island band Tangerine Puppets, then moved to Los Angeles, where he formed Spirit with three friends and his stepfather, Ed Cassidy, who played drums. They got some gigs at the Whisky a Go Go, and Lou Adler signed them to his label, Ode Records. Their first album was a modest success that mustered one minor hit: “Mechanical World.” Written by band members Mark Andes and Jay Ferguson, it stalled at #123 US. California set out to write a hit for their second album, The Family That Plays Together (1969), and came up with “I Got A Line On You,” which made #25.
It would be their biggest hit. The band declined an invitation to Woodstock and fractured in 1972, with California’s already volatile mental health ravaged by drug use. The band reunited from time to time, but never got their due. By the time of California’s death, few remembered “Taurus” and its connection to “Stairway To Heaven,” but in 1999, Songfacts went online and the discussion was revived.
In 2002, a former music journalist named Michael Skidmore came into control of California’s estate, and 2014 he began proceedings against Led Zeppelin. In 2016, Jimmy Page testified in the case and said that the first time he heard of the controversy when a few years earlier when his son-in-law told him that a debate had been brewing online. Page insisted he had never heard “Taurus” before, and that it was “totally alien” to him.
The jury didn’t buy the argument that Page never heard “Taurus,” but still ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin, deciding that the chord progression in “Taurus” was common to many other songs dating back decades, and therefore, in the public domain. In 2018, the case was sent back to trial on appeal, but the ruling was upheld two years later. Here’s a timeline of the case.
Pat Boone released an unlikely cover on his album In a In a Metal Mood. Boone wanted to see how it would turn out as a jazz waltz, and opened and closed the song with soft flute playing. In a subtle reference to his Christian faith, Boone changed the line “All in one is all and all” to “Three in one is all and all” – a reference to the Christian Trinity (the Father, Son, Holy Spirit).
Before recording the song, he scanned it for devilish references. “I kept looking for allusions to witchcraft or drugs,” he said in a Songfacts interview. “And even though there were strange images, like ‘in the hedgerows’ and all these things, there were no specific mentions of Jimmy Page’s involvement in witchcraft or anything like that.”
Another notable cover was by an Australian performer called Rolf Harris, who used a wobbleboard (piece of quite floppy wood, held at both sides, arched slightly and wobbled so the arch would continually invert) and changed the line “And it makes me wonder” to “Does it make you wonder.” >>
In the ’90s, Australian TV host Andrew Denton had a show on which various artists were asked to perform their version of this song. Their versions were released on an album called The Money or the Gun: Stairways to Heaven. Artists performing it included Australian Doors Show, The Beatnix, Kate Ceberano and the Ministry of Fun, Robyne Dunn, Etcetera Theatre Company, The Fargone Beauties, Sandra Hahn and Michael Turkic, Rolf Harris, Pardon Me Boys, Neil Pepper, The Rock Lobsters, Leonard Teale, Toys Went Berserk, Vegimite Reggae, The Whipper Snappers, and John Paul Young. In reply to Rolf Harris’ version, Page and Plant performed his song “Sun Arise” at the end of another Denton TV show. >>
In January 1990, this song was added to the Muzak playlist in a solo harp version. Unlike the original, the Muzak version, arranged and recorded to provide an “uplifting, productive atmosphere” and “counteract the worker-fatigue curve in the office environment,” did not do so well, as even this sanitized version drew a lot of attention to the song, thus undermining the intention of the Muzak programming. >>
The band performed this at the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary concert in 1988 with Jason Bonham sitting in on drums for his late father. Plant did not want to play it, but was convinced at the last minute. It was sloppy and Plant forgot some of the words. This was not the case when Jason joined them again in 2007 for a benefit show to raise money for the Ahmet Ertegun education fund. They performed this song and 15 others, earning rave reviews from fans and critics.
Zeppelin’s longest ever performance of this song was their last gig in Berlin in 1980. It clocked in around 15 minutes long. >>
Gordon Roy of Wishaw, Scotland, had all of the lyrics to this song tattooed on his back. He did it as a tribute to a friend who died in a car accident.
In the late ’90s, the radio trade magazine Monday Morning Replay reported that “Stairway” was still played 4,203 times a year by the 67 largest AOR (album-oriented rock) radio stations in the US. ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, refuses to release exact figures on how many times it has been played since its release, but figure that on each AOR station in America, the song was played five times a day during its first three months of existence; twice a day for the next nine months; once a day for the next four years; and two to three times a week for the next 15 years. There are roughly 600 AOR and Classic Rock stations in the US, which means that “Stairway” has been broadcast a minimum of 2,874 times. At 8 minutes per spin, roughly 23 million minutes – almost 44 years – have been devoted to the song. So far.
On January 23, 1991, under the direction of owner and general manager John Sebastian, the radio station KLSK (104.1 FM) in Albuquerque, New Mexico played this song over and over for 24 hours, confounding listeners who weren’t used to hearing Led Zeppelin on the station. The song played over 200 times, with many listeners tuning in to find out when it would end. It turned out to be publicity stunt, as the station was switching to a Classic Rock format.
Explaining his guitar setup for the solo, Jimmy Page told Guitar Player magazine in 1977: “I was using the Supro amp for the first album, and I still use it. The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ solo was done when I pulled out the Telecaster, which I hadn’t used for a long time, plugged it into the Supro, and away it went again. That’s a different sound entirely from the rest of the first album. It was a good, versatile setup.”
The Foo Fighters did a mock cover of this song, and their version was to say that nobody should try to cover the song because they will screw it up. Dave Grohl intentionally carried the intro on way too long, asked his drummer and audience for lyrics, and when it came time for the guitar solo, he sang Jimmy Page’s part. This was done purely as a joke, and to tell people not to cover the song, as Grohl is a huge Zeppelin fan, and lists Zeppelin’s John Bonham as a major influence. >>
Rolling Stone magazine asked Jimmy Page how much of the guitar solo was composed before he recorded it. He replied: “It wasn’t structured at all [laughs]. I had a start. I knew where and how I was going to begin. And I just did it. There was an amplifier [in the studio] that I was trying out. It sounded good, so I thought, “OK, take a deep breath, and play.” I did three takes and chose one of them. They were all different. The solo sounds constructed – and it is, sort of, but purely of the moment. For me, a solo is something where you just fly, but within the context of the song.”
Mary J. Blige recorded this in 2010 backed by Travis Barker, Randy Jackson, Steve Vai and Orianthi. Blige told MTV: “Once you get lost in the rock-and-roll moment of it, all you can do is scream to the top of your lungs or go as low as you need to go. It’s not a head thing – it’s a spirit thing.” She added: “I am a Led Zeppelin fan. I’ve listened to their music since I was a child, and it’s always moved me, especially ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ I make songs my own by going deep inside myself and translating them to ‘what would Mary do.'” The song is included as a bonus track on the UK re-issue of her album Stronger With Each Tear and made available for download. Blige performed the song on the April 21, 2010 episode of American Idol. >>
In solo work or with other groups, Jimmy Page would not let anyone but Robert Plant sing this, but he did play it as an instrumental on occasion.
The ending of this song is distinctive in that is closes out with just Robert Plant’s voice. According to Jimmy Page, he wrote a guitar part to end the song, but decided to leave it off since the vocal at the end had such an impact.
Jimmy Page often called “In The Light” from Physical Graffiti a follow-up to this song.
Regarding the composition of the track, Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone: “I was trying things at home, shunting this piece up with that piece. I had the idea of the verses, the link into the solo and the last part. It was this idea of something that would keep building and building.”
Andy Johns, sound engineer on Led Zeppelin IV, told Guitare & Claviers magazine (January 1994) about the recording session for “Stairway To Heaven”: “This song arrived completed. The arrangements had been done before the band entered the studio. We recorded the main tracks upstairs, in Island, with Jimmy on acoustic guitar, John Paul on a Hohner electric upright piano, and Bonham behind his kit. I tried to have a left hand sound coming out of the Hohner piano, in order to have something to re-record afterwards. As soon as we added the bass parts and Page started recording the overdubs, we could already tell it would be awesome. I knew it was a really special track and I was proud to take part in it. I didn’t have the least idea, however, that it would become a f–king hymn for three generations of kids!” >>
During an interview with Rolling Stone in 1975, Page told journalist Cameron Crowe that the one artist who might be capable of achieving the artistic excellence of “Stairway To Heaven” was Joni Mitchell. He specifically mentioned Mitchell’s song “Both Sides Now.”
There have been two other completely different songs called “Stairway To Heaven” to chart in America. First in 1960 by Neil Sedaka (#9), and then in 1996 by Pure Soul with The O’Jays (#79).