Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus ‘Stairway To Heaven’ has been in the news this year over a claim the band plagiarised the intro from Spirit. This week the Zep’s efforts to have the case dismissed have been rejected by a judge. If you thought you had some part in creating the greatest rock ‘n’ roll song of all time, you’d probably give it a go, wouldn’t you? Here’s the story of ‘Stairway’.
Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Bonham and John Paul Jones had already been in a band for three years, transitioning from The Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin in October 1968. They were growing in popularity but it wasn’t till the early 70s that they’d go stratospheric and start travelling around in a private jet airliner called The Starship.
The band had already whizzed through ‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969), ‘Led Zeppelin II’ (1969) and ‘Led Zeppelin III’ (1970). Nestled in their October release, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, the final track on the first side, would be their signature epic, ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The album is the third-best-selling album in the United States.
The track had a long incubation period and was worked on in three locations. Page started work on it in his boat-house studio beside the Thames before an intense writing period in Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales. It was completed at legendary recording venue Headley Grange, Hampshire.
Although John Paul Jones remembered the song’s first outing in Belfast as a bit of a damp squib, saying the crowd “were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew”, it soon became a regular in every live set, often as the close for most of the 70s. Of course, it wore thin for the band. “I’d break out in hives if I had to sing it in every show,” said Page in the 80s.
‘Stairway To Heaven’ lurches all over the place with a myriad of mysterious characters. There’s the lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, a tree by the brook, a songbird who sings, the ‘I’ figure looking west, the May queen, the piper, the whispering wind and the bustle in the hedgerow. A shrew, perhaps?
Jimmy Page’s guitar solo bursts through just over halfway into the song and is still 43 years later cited as one of the greatest axe moments of all time. For any guitar nuts out there, he often played it live on a Heritage Cherry Gibson EDS-1275 6/12 Doubleneck guitar.
Amazingly, the track was never released as a single but promo copies were sent round to radio DJs. It became the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s.
By 2000 the song had been played on the radio over three million times. Let’s say, as a rough estimate, it’s probably been played about 3.5/4 millions times by 2014. That’s over 50 years of ‘Stairway’ if it was played back-to back non-stop.
“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,” said Page of the track. Bonham’s drums, even though they don’t come in until just after the four-minute mark, are iconic, and John Paul Jones plays recorders, keyboards and, of course, the flute.
You’d expect ‘Stairway To Heaven’ to have been astonishingly lucrative. But just how much as it rolled in for the Zep? Conde Nast did some number-crunching recently and found that it’s worth at least £360 million pounds. Not too shabby.
Robert Plant was not keen on people saying there were Satanic messages in the song. Apparently the ‘bustle in the hedgerow’ bit played backwards says: ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan’. It wasn’t helped by Page having bought Aleister Crowley’s Scottish home in 1970.
Living in Bron-Yr-Aur “was the first time I really came to know Robert,” said Page. “Actually living together at Bron-Yr-Aur, as opposed to occupying nearby hotel rooms. The songs took us into areas that changed the band, and it established a standard of travelling for inspiration… which is the best thing a musician can do.”
Plant was reading books like the Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence and The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien during the writing of the song. Despite being so immersed in it, he’s said that it’s not his favourite Led Zep track. That honour goes to ‘Kashimir’.
Even though it’s a difficult track to cover – particularly Page’s guitar solo – Dolly Parton, of all people, made a strong fist of it. Her 2002 acoustic cover received praise from Page.
Page has often spoken very highly of the track, mentioning the fact people actually get married to it. “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,” he said.
Lester Bangs was not so keen. He described it as “a thicket of misbegotten mush.” Later, historian Erik Davis wrote the it isn’t just the greatest rock song of the 1970s but 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,” he said.
In May 2014 Mark Andes, bassist of the group Spirit filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin, who had opened for the Californians on tour. He claimed the intro was lifted from their instrumental ‘Taurus’. Jimmy Page has called the claims “ridiculous”.
The sheet music for ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the highest selling of all time, selling over a million copies.
Speaking a couple of weeks ago (October 2014), Jimmy Page said he was trying to emulate a Bach Bourrée – a traditional French dance – with the acoustic intro. He said he wanted “it to keep unfolding into more layers and moods” and “accelerate on every level” and “keep opening up.”