For today’s song, we are going to do a real classic. Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. Almost everyone has heard the song and the intro is one of the most widely learned intros on guitar ever. I find the lyrics and the music very mystical. I would definately say that it has to be one of the Top 10 all time best songs. I think this live version from Madison Square Garden in New York is just fantastic. I also found the very first performance done live in Ireland on 5/5/1971. I just love this song. I hope you enjoy!
“Stairway to Heaven” is a song by the English rock band Led Zeppelin, released in late 1971. It was composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant for the band’s untitled fourth studio album (usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV). The song, running eight minutes and two seconds, is composed of several sections, which increase in tempo and volume as the song progresses. The song begins as a slow acoustic-based folk song accompanied by recorders before electric instrumentation is introduced. The final section is a high-tempo hard rock section highlighted by an intricate guitar solo by Page.
The song, often considered one of the greatest rock songs of all-time, was voted #3 in 2000 by VH1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs, and was placed at number 31 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. It was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s, despite never having been officially released as a single there. In November 2007, through download sales promoting Led Zeppelin’s Mothership release, “Stairway to Heaven” hit #37 on the UK Singles Chart.
The recording of “Stairway to Heaven” commenced in December 1970 at Island Records‘ new Basing Street Studios in London. The song was completed by the addition of lyrics by Plant during the sessions for Led Zeppelin IV at Headley Grange, Hampshire, in 1971. Page then returned to Island Studios to record his guitar solo.
The song originated in 1970 when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, following Led Zeppelin’s fifth American concert tour. According to Page, he wrote the music “over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Yr-Aur one night”. Page always kept a cassette recorder around, and the idea for “Stairway” came together from bits of taped music:
I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together. I had a whole idea of a piece of music that I really wanted to try and present to everybody and try and come to terms with. Bit difficult really, because it started on acoustic, and as you know it goes through to the electric parts. But we had various run-throughs [at Headley Grange] where I was playing the acoustic guitar and jumping up and picking up the electric guitar. Robert was sitting in the corner, or rather leaning against the wall, and as I was routining the rest of the band with this idea and this piece, he was just writing. And all of a sudden he got up and started singing, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there … I had these sections, and I knew what order they were going to go in, but it was just a matter of getting everybody to feel comfortable with each gear shift that was going to be coming.
Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones recalled this presentation of the song to him following its genesis at Bron-Yr-Aur:
Page and Plant would come back from the Welsh mountains with the guitar intro and verse. I literally heard it in front of a roaring fire in a country manor house! I picked up a bass recorder and played a run-down riff which gave us an intro, then I moved into a piano for the next section, dubbing on the guitars.
In an interview he gave in 1977, Page elaborated:
I do have the original tape that was running at the time we ran down “Stairway To Heaven” completely with the band. I’d worked it all out already the night before with John Paul Jones, written down the changes and things. All this time we were all living in a house and keeping pretty regular hours together, so the next day we started running it down. There was only one place where there was a slight rerun. For some unknown reason Bonzo couldn’t get the timing right on the twelve-string part before the solo. Other than that it flowed very quickly.
The first attempts at lyrics, written by Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant next to an evening log fire at Headley Grange, were partly spontaneously improvised and Page claimed, “a huge percentage of the lyrics were written there and then”. Jimmy Page was strumming the chords and Robert Plant had a pencil and paper. Plant later said that suddenly,
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 seat.” Plant’s own explanation of the lyrics was that it “was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand … and it softened up after that.
The lyrics of the song reflected Plant’s current reading. The singer had been poring over the works of the British antiquarian Lewis Spence, and later cited Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain as one of the sources for the lyrics to the song.
In November 1970, Page dropped a hint of the new song’s existence to a music journalist in London:
It’s an idea for a really long track…. You know how “Dazed and Confused” and songs like that were broken into sections? Well, we want to try something new with the organ and acoustic guitar building up and building up, and then the electric part starts…. It might be a fifteen-minute track.
Page stated that the song “speeds up like an adrenaline flow”. He explained:
Going back to those studio days for me and John Paul Jones, the one thing you didn’t do was speed up, because if you sped up you wouldn’t be seen again. Everything had to be right on the meter all the way through. And I really wanted to write something which did speed up, and took the emotion and the adrenaline with it, and would reach a sort of crescendo. And that was the idea of it. That’s why it was a bit tricky to get together in stages.
The complete studio recording was released on Led Zeppelin IV in November 1971. The band’s record label, Atlantic Records was keen to issue this track as a single, but the band’s manager Peter Grant refused requests to do so in both 1972 and 1973. The upshot of that decision was that record buyers began to invest in the fourth album as if it were a single. In the US, Atlantic issued “Stairway to Heaven” as a 7″ promotional single in 1972.
The song consists of several distinct sections, beginning with a quiet introduction on a finger picked six string guitar and four recorders in a Renaissance music style (ending at 2:15) and gradually moving into a slow electric middle section (2:16–5:33), then a long guitar solo (5:34–6:44), before the faster hard rock final section (6:45 to 7:45), ending with a short epilogue in the same style as the introduction.
Written in the key of A minor, the song opens with an arpeggiated, finger-picked guitar chord progression with a chromatic descending bassline A-G#-G-F#-F-E. John Paul Jones contributed overdubbed wooden bass recorders in the opening section (he used a Mellotron and, later, a Yamaha CP70B Grand Piano and Yamaha GX1 to synthesize this arrangement in live performances) and a Hohner Electra-Piano electric piano in the middle section.
The sections build with more guitar layers, each complementary to the intro, with the drums entering at 4:18. The extended Jimmy Page guitar solo in the song’s final section was played for the recording on a 1959 Fender Telecaster (an instrument he used extensively with the Yardbirds) plugged into a Supro amplifier, although in an interview he gave to Guitar World magazine, Page also claimed, “It could have been a Marshall, but I can’t remember”. Three different improvised solos were recorded, with Page agonizing about deciding which to keep. Page later revealed, “I did have the first phrase worked out, and then there was the link phrase. I did check them out before hand before the tape ran.” The other guitar parts were played using a Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic guitar and a Rickenbacker guitar (a 12-string guitar that was plugged directly to the soundboard); these can be heard on the left and right recording channels respectively. For live versions, Page switched to a Heritage Cherry Gibson EDS-1275 6/12 Doubleneck guitar. The final progression is a i-VII-VI (natural minor) progression (Am-G-F), a mainstay of rock music.
Another interesting aspect of the song is the timing of the lead-up to the famous guitar solo. While staying in 4/4 throughout this section, most of the accents shift to the eight notes. This makes the rhythm figure challenging for some musicians, but adds a feeling of anticipation to the approaching guitar solo.
The inaugural public performance of the song took place at Belfast‘s Ulster Hall on 5 March 1971. Bassist John Paul Jones recalls that the crowd was unimpressed: “They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew”. However, Page stated about an early performance at the LA Forum, before the record had even come out, that:
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.
The world radio premiere of “Stairway to Heaven” was recorded at the Paris Cinema on 1 April 1971, in front of a live studio audience, and broadcast three days later on the BBC. The song was performed at almost every subsequent Led Zeppelin concert, only being omitted on rare occasions when shows were cut short for curfews or technical issues. The band’s final performance of the song was in Berlin on 7 July 1980, which was also their last concert for 27 years; the version was also one of the longest, lasting almost fifteen minutes.
When playing the song live, the band would often extend it to over ten minutes, with Page playing an extended guitar solo and Plant adding a number of lyrical ad-libs, such as “Does anybody remember laughter?”, “Does anybody remember forests?” (As seen on the live performance in Seattle 1977), “wait a minute!” and “I hope so”. For performing this song live, Page used a Gibson EDS-1275 double neck guitar so he would not have to pause when switching from a six to a twelve string guitar.
By 1975, the song had a regular place as the finale of every Led Zeppelin concert. However, after their concert tour of the United States in 1977, Plant began to tire of “Stairway to Heaven”: “There’s only so many times you can sing it and mean it … It just became sanctimonious.”
The song was played again by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin at the Live Aid concert in 1985; at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert in 1988, with Jason Bonham on drums; and by Jimmy Page as an instrumental version on his solo tours.
By the late 1980s, Plant made his negative impression of the song clear in interviews. In 1988, he stated:
I’d break out in hives if I had to sing (“Stairway to Heaven”) in every show. I wrote those lyrics and found that 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 because I’ve been with them for 20 years. But no more of “Stairway to Heaven” for me.
However, by the mid-1990s Plant’s views had apparently softened. The first few bars were played alone during Page and Plant tours in lieu of the final notes of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You“, and in November 1994 Page and Plant performed an acoustic version of the song at a Tokyo news station for Japanese television. “Stairway to Heaven” was also performed at Led Zeppelin’s reunion show at the O2 Arena, London on 10 December 2007.
Plant cites the most unusual performance of the song ever as being that performed at Live Aid: “…with two drummers while Duran Duran cried at the side of the stage – there was something quite surreal about that.”
Footage of the song being played live is preserved on the band’s concert film The Song Remains the Same, featuring a performance from Madison Square Garden in 1973, and on the Led Zeppelin DVD, featuring a performance from Earls Court Arena in 1975. Official audio versions are also available on The Song Remains the Same’s accompanying soundtrack, on Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions (a performance from London’s Paris Theatre in 1971) and on How the West Was Won (a performance from the Long Beach Arena in 1972). There are also hundreds of audio versions which can be found on unofficial Led Zeppelin bootleg recordings.
“Stairway to Heaven” is often rated among the greatest rock songs of all time. According to music journalist Stephen Davis, although the song was released in 1971, it took until 1973 before the song’s popularity ascended to truly “anthemic” status. As Page himself recalled, “I knew it was good, but I didn’t know it was going to be almost like an anthem … But I knew it was the gem of the album, sure.”
“Stairway to Heaven” continues to top radio lists of the greatest rock songs, as well as topping a 2006 Guitar World readers poll of greatest guitar solos. On the 20th anniversary of the original release of the song, it was announced via U.S. radio sources that the song had logged up an estimated 2,874,000 radio plays – back to back, that would run for 44 years solid. As of 2000, the song had been broadcast on radio over three million times. In 1990 a St Petersburg, Florida station kicked off its all-Led Zeppelin format by playing “Stairway to Heaven” for 24 hours straight. It is also the biggest-selling single piece of sheet music in rock history, clocking up an average of 15,000 copies yearly. In total, over one million copies have been sold.
The song’s length precluded its release in full form as a single. Despite pressure from Atlantic Records the band would not authorize the editing of the song for single release, making “Stairway to Heaven” one of the most well-known and popular rock songs never to have been released as a single. It did, however, appear on two promotional discs in the United States, one of them featuring the 7:55 track on each side, and the other as a 7″ 331⁄3 record produced for jukebox operators with “Stairway…” on one side and both “Black Dog” and “Rock And Roll” on the other. Other “single” appearances were on an Australian EP, and in 1991 as an added bonus with a 20th anniversary promo book.
The group’s recording of this song also appeared as the sole Led Zeppelin track in the 1977 Atlantic Records 2-LP promotional sampler album, We’ve Got Your Music, marking the first time that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” made its official debut appearance in an American-released various artists compilation collection.
It’s doubtful that anyone knew it would become the most popular rock song of all time. After all, it’s eight minutes long and was never released as a single. Even “Hey Jude” was shorter, was a 45, and enjoyed the benefits of comprehensible words and a sing-along chorus. But “Hey Jude” isn’t the most requested song of all time on FM rock stations. Nobody ever had a “Hey Jude” theme prom or played the song at weddings and funerals like “Stairway.” “Stairway” couldn’t succeed today. Back in 1971, FM deejays prided themselves on digging deep into albums to come up with oddball, cultish favorites. With its near-oppressive length, erratic changes, and woo-woo lyrics, the quasi-medieval anthem was a perfect choice. It continues to be a favorite among music listeners who are younger than the song itself, listeners who, in some cases, were no doubt conceived while the tune blasted from car speakers.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine put it at number 31 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. An article from the 29 January 2009 Guitar World magazine rated Jimmy Page’s guitar solo at number one in the publication’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos in Rock and Roll History. In 2010, New York City based classic rock radio station Q104.3 ranked “Stairway to Heaven” no. 1 on their 10th Anniversary list of “Top 1,043 Songs of All Time”.
“Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it… Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne’s World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant’s public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. “Stairway to Heaven” is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR will ever get you to the absolute.
Page has himself commented on the song’s legacy:
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. And that’s what’s so great about it. 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. About how it’s got them through some really tragic circumstances … Because it’s an extremely positive song, it’s such a positive energy, and, you know, people have got married to [the song].
Sound engineer Andy Johns recalls the circumstances surrounding the recording of Page’s famous solo:
I remember Jimmy had a little bit of trouble with the solo on “Stairway to Heaven”… [H]e hadn’t completely figured it out. Nowadays you sometimes spend a whole day doing one thing. Back then, we never did that. We never spent a very long time recording anything. I remember sitting in the control room with Jimmy, he’s standing there next to me and he’d done quite a few passes and it wasn’t going anywhere. I could see he was getting a bit paranoid and so I was getting paranoid. I turned around and said “You’re making me paranoid!” And he said, “No, you’re making me paranoid!” It was a silly circle of paranoia. Then bang! On the next take or two he ripped it out.
According to Page, “Stairway to Heaven”
…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”. [Pete] 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.
The song has been covered a number of times. Rolf Harris‘s didgeridoo-and-wobble board interpretation reached number seven in the UK charts in 1993. Rolf Harris‘s version was one of 26 different versions of the song that were performed live by guest stars on the early 1990s Australian chat show The Money or the Gun – each being a unique version of the song in the usually idiosyncratic style of performance of each guest star. A video and CD album were released featuring 25 and 22 of the performances, respectively.
Dolly Parton released a stripped down acoustic cover of the song in 2002; Plant spoke highly of Parton’s version, noting that he was pleasantly surprised with how her version turned out.
In 1977, Little Roger and the Goosebumps recorded a parody of the song in which the words to the theme song of the television show Gilligan’s Island were sung in place of the original lyrics. Within five weeks, Led Zeppelin’s lawyers threatened to sue them and demanded that any remaining copies of the recording be destroyed. However, during a 2005 interview on National Public Radio, Plant referred to the tune as his favourite cover of “Stairway to Heaven.”
The sketch comedy series SCTV had an elaborate spoof of the song with its spoof album Stairways to Heaven. In the mock album, advertised in the style of K-tel, various snippets of cover versions are featured, supposedly from artists ranging from Slim Whitman to the faux-50s group “The Five Neat Guys,” as well as the original version (albeit advertised to be a sound-alike sung by Rich Little). This sketch, due to rights issues, was not released on the DVDs for the show.
The London Symphony Orchestra recorded a version of “Stairway to Heaven” as part of their Classic Rock series in 1980, the venue being EMI Studio One, Abbey Road, London. It has also been arranged and recorded by the Hampton String Quartet on their early album, What if Mozart Wrote “Born to be Wild.”
A version by Far Corporation was released in 1985 and reached number 8 in the UK singles chart.
Frank Zappa created an arrangement of the song as one of the centrepieces of his 1988 tour. The arrangement, as heard on the album The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, features the horn section of Zappa’s band playing Jimmy Page’s guitar solo.
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, with producer-arranger Mike Batt, released Classic Blue, an album of pop standards written by other composers, set to orchestration arranged by Batt, in 1989. Classic Blue included a cover version of “Stairway to Heaven.”
Australian physicist and composer Joe Wolfe composed a set of variations on “Stairway to Heaven.” This work, The Stairway Suite, is composed for orchestra, big band, chorus, and SATB. Each variation is in the style of a famous composer: Franz Schubert, Gustav Holst, Glenn Miller, Gustav Mahler, Georges Bizet, and Ludwig van Beethoven. For example, the Schubert inspired variation is based on the Unfinished Symphony, and the Beethoven inspired variation includes vocal soloists and chorus and resembles Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Wolfe posted the full score of this piece on the Internet.
In the movie Wayne’s World, Wayne (played by Mike Myers) takes a guitar and plays several notes of the song in the original theatrical release. In the scene, Wayne is almost immediately stopped by a store employee who points to a “No Stairway” sign, referencing the fact that so many people have attempted the song on guitar while at music stores in the UK, employees became sick of hearing it and banned patrons from playing “Stairway,” threatening them with fines or removal. In the video releases and television airings of the movie, however, the notes are changed to a generic guitar riff due to licensing restrictions.
In 2010, Mary J. Blige released a version on her album Stronger with Each Tear featuring Travis Barker on drums, Steve Vai and Orianthi on guitar, Randy Jackson on bass and Geffen Records chair Ron Fair on piano. Blige performed the song on American Idol with Barker, Vai, Orianthi, and Jackson; the recording was released via download for charity.
In a January 1982 television program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network hosted by Paul Crouch, it was alleged that hidden messages were contained in many popular rock songs through a technique called backward masking. One example of such hidden messages that was prominently cited was in “Stairway to Heaven.” The alleged message, which occurs during the middle section of the song (“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now…”) when played backwards, was purported to contain the Satanic references “Here’s to my sweet Satan” and “I sing because I live with Satan.”
Following the claims made in the television program, California assemblyman Phil Wyman proposed a state law that would require warning labels on records containing backward masking. In April 1982, the Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee of the California State Assembly held a hearing on backward masking in popular music, during which “Stairway to Heaven” was played backwards. During the hearing, William Yarroll, a self-described “neuroscientific researcher,” claimed that backward messages could be deciphered by the human brain.
Various versions of the alleged message exist. One such interpretation reads:
Oh here’s to my sweet Satan.
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan.
He will give those with him 666.
There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.
The band itself has for the most part ignored such claims; in response to the allegations, Swan Song Records issued the statement: “Our turntables only play in one direction—forwards.” Led Zeppelin audio engineer Eddie Kramer called the allegations “totally and utterly ridiculous. Why would they want to spend so much studio time doing something so dumb?” Robert Plant expressed frustration with the accusations in a 1983 interview in Musician magazine: “To me it’s very sad, because ‘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.”
Stairway to Heaven
by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page
There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying the stairway to heaven.
There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.
And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.
Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
And she’s buying the stairway to heaven.