A.Song.A.Day – Stairway To Heaven

We thank our dear friend Anirudh Patil (anirudh.patil@gmail.com) for contributing this one. Anirudh is a second year MBA student at Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.
sthStairway to Heaven has to be one of the most popular and controversial songs in rock history. It has been voted at #3 on the 100 Greatest Rock Songs of the Century by VH1 and for a long time was the most requested song on FM radio. The song released on their album Led Zeppelin IV and is as mystical as the album itself (The album did not have a name but only the four symbols of the band members on its cover). Although arguably the most popular song ever, the song never charted on any billboards as it was not released as a single until 2007. The cover versions of the song have been charted thrice on the UK singles charts with the Far Corporation’s cover reaching #8 on the charts.
The lyrics of the song were composed by Robert Plant who was quoted saying that the lyrics came to him almost impromptu. The lyrics again are probably the most analysed lyrics of any song and everybody has a different interpretation to it. The most popular view is that the song is about a rich woman trying to buy everything she wants without any thought or consideration. Other views include interpretations about Bible, drugs, materialism and Satan (surprise!) and even suggested references to Tolkien. In my personal opinion, I like the view that the song was actually written in a short time to fit the melody that Page was simultaneously composing. Hence, the song is actually pointless but the lyrics are still beautiful.
The music is structurally divided into four parts that progressively become faster and harder. The song begins with a quiet introduction played on a six-string acoustic guitar. There is no bass guitar used in the song, instead, John Paul Jones used keyboards and flutes to give the song a folksy sound. It is believed that the notes of the first part were picked up from the song Taurus by the band Spirit with whom Zeppelin toured in 1968. The second part begins at the 2:16 when electric guitar is used although the chords remain similar to the first section. The third part beginning at 4:18 turns the folksy sounding song into a classic rock song as Bonham’s drums enter. At 5:31 the song gets a lot harder and contains Jimmy Page’s solo, considered to be one of the greatest guitar solos of the century. The final stanza of the song begins at 6:27 characterized by heavy drumming by Bonham.
One of the biggest controversies surrounding the song is the back-masking or recording satanic messages in the fifth stanza of the song. Although Robert Plant has denied any such claims, such allegations only add to the mystique surrounding the song. To me the lyrics don’t mean anything, forward or backwards.
Over the years, the song has been covered by a lot of bands most notable U2, Frank Zappa, Dave Matthews Band and Dolly Parton. 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 would screw it up. In the movie Wayne’s World, when Mike Myers tries to test a guitar by playing there is a sign in the shop that says “No Stairway to Heaven”. In an episode of South Park, when Towelie tries to play Stairway to Heaven he totally screws it up. And so we recommend you listen only to the original song. However do check out a Flamenco cover done by Rodrigo y Gabriela. Enjoy!

Loretta Darley says:

Thanks for the very interesting blog on one of my favorite songs of all time. Stairway to Heaven continues to delight its fans even decades after it was released and that should say something about its musical genius. For many, the song plays out as a kind of a spiritual quest and is almost pagan in its tone and melody. The classical guitar adds to the evolution of the song and as the composition ranges from powerful rock to a muted folksy sound, we are left feeling ambiguous about the meaning of this masterpiece. I honestly think this is what makes people return to Stairway to Heaven again and again – in the hope of cracking the code and deciphering the mystery.