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"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 (often called Led Zeppelin IV). It is often referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.[1][2]

"Stairway to Heaven"
Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin US promotional single.png
US promotional single sleeve
Song by Led Zeppelin
from the album Led Zeppelin IV
Released 8 November 1971 (1971-11-08)
Recorded 1971
Studio Island, London
Genre
Length 8:02
Label Atlantic
Songwriter(s)
Producer(s) Jimmy Page

The song has three sections, each one progressively increasing in tempo and volume. The song begins in a slow tempo with acoustic instruments (guitar and recorders) before introducing electric instruments. The final section is an uptempo hard rock arrangement highlighted by Page's intricate guitar solo accompanying Plant's vocals that end with the plaintive a cappella line: "And she's buying a stairway to heaven."

"Stairway to Heaven" was voted number three in 2000 by VH1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs,[3] and was placed at number 31 on "Rolling Stone's 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 commercially released as a single there.[4] In November 2007, through download sales promoting Led Zeppelin's Mothership release, "Stairway to Heaven" hit number 37 on the UK Singles Chart.[5]

Contents

Writing and recordingEdit

The recording of "Stairway to Heaven" commenced in December 1970 at Island Records' new Basing Street Studios in London.[6] The song was completed by the addition of lyrics by Plant during the sessions for Led Zeppelin IV at Headley Grange, Hampshire, in 1971.[7] Page then returned to Island Studios to record his guitar solo.[4]

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".[8] Page always kept a cassette recorder around, and the idea for "Stairway" came together from bits of taped music:[9]

The first attempts at lyrics, written by 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".[9] Jimmy Page was strumming the chords and Robert Plant had a pencil and paper. 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. This led many people to buy the fourth album as if it were the single.[4] In the US, Atlantic issued "Stairway to Heaven" as a 7" promotional single in 1972.

CompositionEdit

"Stairway to Heaven" is described as progressive rock,[10][11] folk rock[12] and hard rock.[12] 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[13] (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 vocals-only epilogue. Plant sings the opening, middle and epilogue sections in his mid vocal range, but sings the hard rock section in his higher range which borders on falsetto.

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. 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 synthesise this arrangement in live performances)[14] 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 given to him by Jeff Beck (an instrument he used extensively with the Yardbirds)[14] plugged into a Supro amplifier,[15] although in an interview he gave to Guitar World magazine, Page also claimed, "It could have been a Marshall, but I can't remember".[9] Three different improvised solos were recorded, with Page agonising about 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 beforehand before the tape ran." The other guitar parts were played using a Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic guitar and a Fender Electric XII 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 eighth notes. This makes the rhythm figure challenging for some musicians, but adds a feeling of anticipation to the approaching guitar solo.

Jimmy Page has likened the song to a sonic orgasm.[16][17]

Spirit copyright infringement lawsuitEdit

Over the years, some people have considered that the song's opening guitar arpeggios bear a close resemblance to the 1968 instrumental "Taurus" by the Los Angeles-based rock band Spirit, written by Spirit guitarist Randy California.[8][18] In the liner notes to the 1996 reissue of Spirit's self-titled debut album, California wrote: "People always ask me why "Stairway to Heaven" sounds exactly like "Taurus", which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played "Fresh Garbage" in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour."[19][20]

In May 2014, Spirit bassist Mark Andes and a trust acting on behalf of California filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin and injunction against the "release of the album containing the song" in an attempt to obtain a writing credit for California, who died in 1997.[21] A lack of resources was cited as one of the reasons that Spirit did not file the suit earlier; according to a friend of California's mother, "Nobody had any money, and they thought the statute of limitations was done ... It will be nice if Randy got the credit." If the Spirit lawsuit had been successful, past earnings due to the song—estimated at more than US$550 million—would not have been part of the settlement, but the publisher and composers may have been entitled to a share of future profits.[22][23]

On 11 April 2016, Los Angeles district judge Gary Klausner ruled that there were enough similarities between the song and the instrumental for a jury to decide the claim, and a trial was scheduled for 10 May. The copyright infringement action was brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late guitarist, whose legal name was Randy Wolfe.[24] On 23 June, the jury ruled that the similarities between the songs did not amount to copyright infringement.[25] In July, Skidmore's attorney filed a notice of appeal against the court's decision.[26][27][28] In March 2017, the verdict was appealed, with a main argument being that the jury should have been able to hear a recorded version of "Taurus".[29][30]

Live performancesEdit

The inaugural public performance of the song took place at Belfast's Ulster Hall on 5 March 1971.[14] Bassist John Paul Jones recalls that the crowd was unimpressed: "They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew."[31]

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.[32] 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 until 10 December 2007 at London's O2 Arena; the version was the longest, lasting almost fifteen minutes, including a seven minute guitar solo.

 
Jimmy Page used a double-necked guitar to perform "Stairway to Heaven" live.

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?", "And I think you can see that" (as seen in the film The Song Remains the Same), "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."[33]

The song was played again by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin at the Live Aid concert in 1985;[14] at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert in 1988, with Jason Bonham on drums;[34] and by Jimmy Page as an instrumental version on his solo tours.

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 Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert 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 (Phil Collins and Tony Thompson) while Duran Duran cried at the side of the stage – there was something quite surreal about that."[14]

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.

Success and legacyEdit

"Stairway to Heaven" is often rated among the greatest rock songs of all time.[1][2] 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.[35] 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."[36]

"Stairway to Heaven" continues to top radio lists of the greatest rock songs, including a 2006 Guitar World readers poll of greatest guitar solos.[37] 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.[4] As of 2000, the song had been broadcast on radio over three million times.[38] In 1990 a St. Petersburg, Florida station kicked off its all-Led Zeppelin format by playing "Stairway to Heaven" for 24 hours straight.[39] It is also the biggest-selling single piece of sheet music in rock history, clocking up an average of 15,000 copies yearly.[14] In total, over one million copies have been sold.[38]

Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone in 1975, "We were careful to never release it as a single."[40] So, Led Zeppelin refused to release the song as a single, which forced buyers to buy the entire album.[41] Despite pressure from Atlantic Records, the band would not authorise 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-inch 33​13 record produced for jukebox operators with "Stairway to Heaven" 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 two-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.

In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine put it at number 31 on their list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". An article from 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.[42] Since 2001, the New York City-based classic rock radio station Q104.3 has ranked "Stairway to Heaven" no. 1 on their annual "Top 1,043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time".[43]

Plant once gave $1,000 to listener-supported radio station KBOO in Portland, Oregon during a pledge drive after the disc jockey solicited donations by promising the station would never play "Stairway to Heaven". Plant was station-surfing in a rental car he was driving to the Oregon Coast after a solo performance in Portland and was impressed with the non-mainstream music the station presented. Asked later "why?" Plant replied that it wasn't that he didn't like the song, but he'd heard it before.[44]

Claims of backmaskingEdit

In a January 1982 television program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network hosted by Paul Crouch, it was claimed that hidden messages were contained in many popular rock songs through a technique called backmasking. One example of such hidden messages that was prominently cited was in "Stairway to Heaven".[45] 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 backward, was purported to contain the Satanic references "Here's to my sweet Satan" and "There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan."[46]

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 backward. During the hearing, William Yarroll, a self-described "neuroscientific researcher", claimed that backward messages could be deciphered by the human brain.[47]

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?"[48] 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."[49]

AccoladesEdit

Publication Country Accolade Year Rank
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame US "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll"[50] 1994 *
Classic Rock UK "Ten of the Best Songs Ever!"[51] 1999 1
VH1 US "The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time"[52] 2000 3
RIAA US "Songs of the Century"[53] 2001 53
Grammy Awards US "Grammy Hall of Fame Award"[54] 2003 *
Rolling Stone US "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time"[55] 2003 31
Q UK "100 Songs That Changed the World"[56] 2003 47
Toby Creswell Australia "1001 Songs: the Great Songs of All Time"[57] 2005 *
Q UK "100 Greatest Songs of All Time"[58] 2006 8
Guitar World US "100 Greatest Guitar Solos"[59] 2006 1
Rolling Stone US "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time"[60] 2008 8
Triple J Australia "Hottest 100 of All Time" 2009 10

(*) designates unordered lists.

ChartsEdit

Digital downloadEdit

Chart (2007) Peak position
New Zealand RIANZ Singles Chart[61] 13
Norwegian Singles Chart[62] 5
Irish Singles Chart[63] 24
UK Singles Chart 37
US Billboard Hot Digital Songs Chart[64] 30
US Billboard Hot Singles Recurrents Chart[65] 16
Canadian Billboard Hot Digital Singles Chart[66] 17
EU Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart[67] 79
Swiss Singles Chart[68] 17
Portuguese Singles Chart[69] 8
Chart (2008) Peak position
Swedish Singles Chart[70] 57
German Singles Chart[71] 71
Chart (2010) Peak position
German Singles Chart[72] 15

Note: The official UK Singles Chart incorporated legal downloads as of 17 April 2005.

CertificationsEdit

Region Certification Certified units/Sales
Italy (FIMI)[73] Gold 15,000*
United Kingdom (BPI)[74] Gold 400,000 

*sales figures based on certification alone
^shipments figures based on certification alone

Other versionsEdit

A different version of this song by Led Zeppelin is featured on the remastered deluxe 2CD version of Led Zeppelin IV. Titled "Stairway to Heaven (Sunset Sound Mix)", it was recorded on 5 December 1970, at Island Studio, No.1, in London with engineer Andy Johns and assistant engineer Diggs. This version runs 8:04, while the original version runs 8:02.[75]

Cover versionsEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b September 2002 Issue. SPIN. SPIN Media LLC.
  2. ^ a b "Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' Voted the Greatest Rock Song before the year of 2000". Gigwise.com. Retrieved 24 November 2010. 
  3. ^ "VH1 100 Greatest Rock Songs 1–50". rockonnet.com. Retrieved 1 June 2008. 
  4. ^ a b c d Dave Lewis (1994), The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, Omnibus Press, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9.
  5. ^ "Yahoo Celebrity UK". Yahoo. 
  6. ^ Dave Schulps, Interview with Jimmy Page, Trouser Press, October 1977.
  7. ^ Davis, Stephen (4 July 1985). "Power, Mystery and the Hammer of the Gods: The Rise and Fall of Led Zeppelin". Rolling Stone (451). Retrieved 15 January 2008. 
  8. ^ a b Sutcliffe, Phil (April 2000). "Bustle in the Hedgerow". MOJO, p. 62
  9. ^ a b c Tolinski, Brad and di Benedetto, Greg (January 1998). "Light and Shade: A Historic Look at the Entire Led Zeppelin Catalogue Through the Eyes of Guitarist/Producer/Mastermind Jimmy Page". Guitar World, p. 100–104.
  10. ^ Edward Macan (1997). Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Oxford University Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-0-19-509887-7. 
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  12. ^ a b Alfred William Cramer (2009). Musicians and Composers of the 20th Century. 4. Salem Press. p. 1116. ISBN 978-1-58765-517-3. 
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  15. ^ Steven Rosen, 1977 Jimmy Page Interview, Modern Guitars, 25 May 2007 (originally published in the July 1977, issue of Guitar Player magazine).
  16. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWaiQkMO7VI&t=324 Interview with Classic Rock Magazine, posted 2 November 2014
    Quote:"The whole object of the exercise [was] to have this thing that would almost be like an orgasm, really."
  17. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/oct/22/stairway-to-heaven-unreleased-mix-led-zeppelin-iv-remastered Stairway to Heaven: the story of a song and its legacy, by Michael Hann, The Guardian (22 October 2014)
    Quote:
    "He's often used sexual imagery to describe the song and it's no different today: "It's like an orgasm at the end. ..."
  18. ^ "Whammy Bar" Guitar World April 1997: 19 "But California's most enduring legacy may well be the fingerpicked acoustic theme of the song "Taurus", which Jimmy Page lifted virtually note for note for the introduction to "Stairway to Heaven".
  19. ^ Sleeve notes, booklet included with CD EPC 485175
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  38. ^ a b Australian Broadcasting Corporation – Triple J Music Specials – Led Zeppelin (first broadcast 12 July 2000)
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  40. ^ "Led Zeppelin Win in 'Stairway to Heaven' Trial". RollingStone.com. Retrieved 15 January 2018. 
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  44. ^ "World Cafe Looks Back: Robert Plant". World Cafe. Season 20. 14 October 2011. 43:34 minutes in. NPR. WXPN. Retrieved 30 September 2016. Finally, we'll revisit a 2002 interview, in which Plant tells one of his funniest stories — it involves pledging to a Portland public radio station so it would never again play "Stairway to Heaven." 
  45. ^ Denisoff, R. Serge. Inside MTV (1988): 289–290
  46. ^ Arar, Yardena. (AP) "Does Satan Lurk in the Backward Playing of Records?" St. Petersburg Independent 24 May 1982: 3A
  47. ^ Billiter, Bill. "Satanic Messages Played Back for Assembly Panel" Los Angeles Times 28 April 1982: B3
  48. ^ Davis, Stephen. The Hammer of the Gods (1985) p. 335
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  57. ^ Creswell, Toby (2005). "Stairway to Heaven". 1001 Songs: the Great Songs of All Time (1st ed.). Prahran: Hardie Grant Books. p. 516. ISBN 978-1-74066-458-5. 
  58. ^ "100 Greatest Songs of All Time – October 2006". Q. Retrieved 10 February 2009. 
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  60. ^ "100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time – June 2008". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 10 February 2009. 
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  73. ^ "Italian single certifications – Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven" (in Italian). Federazione Industria Musicale Italiana. 
  74. ^ "British single certifications – Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven". British Phonographic Industry. Retrieved 17 November 2017.  Select singles in the Format field. Select Gold in the Certification field. Enter Stairway to Heaven in the search field and then press Enter.
  75. ^ Grow, Kory (22 October 2014). "Hear Led Zeppelin's Hedgerow-Bustling 'Stairway to Heaven' Alternate Mix". Rolling Stone.  "It's always interesting to hear stuff that you know really well and hear it differently, but the same," John Paul Jones tells Rolling Stone.

Further readingEdit

  • Led Zeppelin: Dazed and Confused: The Stories Behind Every Song, by Chris Welch, ISBN 1-56025-818-7
  • The Complete Guide to the Music of Led Zeppelin, by Dave Lewis, ISBN 0-7119-3528-9

External linksEdit