Led Zeppelin’s untimely demise in 1980 coincided with the band’s apex as an artistically relevant and successful rock band. Shortly before their final tour, the group released In Through The Out Door, their seventh and final studio album. Although recorded during a period of personal turmoil for lead singer Robert Plant, the album works as a crescendo to the band’s illustrious career. Almost every element of Led Zeppelin’s sound is distilled into this one album: bluesy harmonica, wailing vocals, distorted guitar riffs, finger-tapping bass lines, galloping drums, and mystical lyrics. It all comes together in “Stairway to Heaven” , one of the most recognizable rock songs ever written.
Background of “Stairway to Heaven”
In the summer of 1968, the first version of “Stairway To Heaven” was written by guitarist Jimmy Page while he was on vacation in Morocco. At the time, he was experimenting with the acoustic guitar in a style he called “folk baroque.” He later returned to England with the idea in his head, but the song didn’t come together until a year later in the basement of a rented house in Surrey, just outside London. The band’s drummer, John Bonham, was also renting a house nearby. “Bonzo,” as everyone called him, was a huge fan of the band’s bassist, John Paul Jones. Bonzo loved to break things, so he rented a Hammond organ and started smashing it to pieces. Jones, who was self-taught on all instruments, grabbed the organ’s bass pedal, which has a similar timbre to a bass guitar, and began playing along. While Page was playing the acoustic guitar and singing, Jones and Bonzo were accompanying him with organ and drums. The band had found their song.
Composing and Recording
The band recorded “Stairway To Heaven” in July and August of 1969 at their own recording studio, named Headley Grange, which was located in Headley, Hampshire, England. The song’s length and complexity forced the band to record “Stairway To Heaven” in four parts and piece them together. During this time, the band also recorded “When The Levee Breaks,” a song later released as a B-side.
“Stairway To Heaven” tells the story of a man who has lost his faith in humanity and is contemplating suicide. He is rescued by a “sweet lady,” which many believe to be the Virgin Mary. The song takes us on the protagonist’s journey, starting at the edge of his property, where he is “looking for an answer.” The lyrics suggest that he is not looking for help from a “higher” power, but rather from within. Next, he climbs a “stairway to heaven,” or a “pathway to darkness,” which could be a reference to taking the easy way out, he could just as easily climb a tree and throw himself off its branches. The song’s most famous lyric is what has become the song’s title: “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May queen.”
Impact on Rock Music
In many ways, “Stairway To Heaven” was a perfect storm of songwriting, musical prowess, and cultural relevance. The song’s fusion of acoustic and distorted electric guitars was innovative at the time, though commonplace today. In fact, “Stairway to Heaven” was so influential that a member of the Swedish band Ethos (now named Europe) sued Led Zeppelin for plagiarism, claiming that the band had stolen the song’s opening riff from their hit “Rock The Boat.” The suit was eventually dismissed, but not before it cost the band $50,000 in legal fees.
Other Legal Issues With Stairway to Heaven
The band’s record label, Atlantic Records, was also embroiled in litigation concerning “Stairway To Heaven.” The group Fludgate Music claimed that they owned the rights to an orchestral sample that was part of the song. Fludgate alleged that the group had used their recording without permission, but the case was dismissed when it was discovered that the sample was recorded by a different orchestra.
Since its release, “Stairway To Heaven” has been covered by a number of artists, including Herbie Hancock, the Bee Gees, and even the king of the marching band, John Philip Sousa. This song was the first rock song to be played at a sporting event, when it was played during halftime of a basketball game at Northwestern University in February 1971. It was also the only rock song played to celebrate the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Although this is Led Zeppelin’s most famous song, it is certainly not the only one worth remembering. Take a moment and listen to their music. The legacy of Led Zeppelin is much more than one song; it is a musical legacy that will last for generations.