"Stairway To Heaven: Is This the Greatest Song of All Time?"
If you're between seventeen and fifty and "Stairway" is not your
favorite tune, you're probably too out of it to care that rock's
eight-minute miracle turns twenty this month.
by Karen Karbo
"If your child is born today: [November 8, 1971]... he will be one
of those charming young people who needs complimenting when
something unusual is accomplished. Any work connected with pleasing
the public is fine here... Do not try to give music lessons if
football is desired."
- Carroll Righter, The Carroll Righter Institute
Led Zeppelin's fourth album crept into record stores the week of November 8,
1971. The only reference to "Stairway to Heaven" in the Rolling Stone review
said that "some stuff [on the album] might actually be called shy and poetic
if it didn't carry itself off so well ('Stairway to Heaven' and 'Going to
California')..." The earliest, most serious attention paid to the song
appeared in college newspapers and obscure music rags. A writer for The Gold
Coast Review based in Connecticut said the song "builds gracefully from a
beautiful acoustic backing to a fast-moving electric finish. With each change
you wait for the explosion and it very gratifyingly comes... 'Stairway to
Heaven' is the best musical representation of an orgasm I've ever heard."
Four more years before The New York Times proclaimed: THERE'S ART IN THE LED
ZEP'S HEAVY-METAL HULLABALOO. 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.
And it makes me wonder.
FUN "STAIRWAY" FACTS:
* As of January 7, 1991, Led Zeppelin IV had been certified platinum times
ten (ten million copies sold).
* Stairway to Heaven" remains the biggest-selling sheet music in the history
of rock. An average hit sells 10,000 to 15,000 copies. "Stairway to Heaven"
has sold more than one million copies.
* "Stairway" is still played 4,203 times a year by the country's sixty-seven
largest AOR (album-oriented rock) radio stations, according to trade magazine
Monday Morning Replay. How many times has it been played since it was
released? ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers,
refuses to release exact figures, but here's a rough guess: Figure that on
each AOR station in America, the song was played five times a day during its
first three months of existence; twice a day for the next nine months; once a
day for the next four years; and two to three times a week for the next
fifteen years. There are roughly six hundred AOR and "classic" rock stations
in the U.S., which means that "Stairway" has been broadcast a minimum of
2,874 times. At eight minutes per spin, roughly 23 million minutes -- almost
forty-four solid years -- have been devoted to the song. So far.
* In 1982, a California State Assembly consumer-protection-committee hearing
featured testimony from "experts" who claimed that "Stairway," when played
backward, contained the words: "I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord
turns me off -- there's no escaping it. Here's to my sweet Satan, whose power
is Satan. He will give you 666. I live for Satan." Using a reel-to-reel tape
machine, *we* played the song backward. The greatest shock was that the words
sounded just like "Stairway to Heaven," only in Urdu. In the verse that
begins "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow," there is indeed something
uttered that sounds like "sayntin." Evidence of a demonic message? Or was the
backward-masking controversy started by a failing electronics firm as a ploy
to get teenagers to ruin turntables by spinning them backward?
* On January 23, 1991, John Sebastian, owner and general manager of KLSK FM
in Albuquerque, New Mexico, played the song for twenty-four solid hours to
inaugurate a format change to classic rock. It played more than two hundred
times, eliciting hundreds of angry calls and letters. Police showed up with
guns drawn, once after a listener reported that the deejay had apparently
suffered a heart attack, later because of suspicion that -- this being eight
days into the Gulf War -- the radio station had been taken hostage by
terrorists dispatched by Zeppelin freak Saddam Hussein. Weirdest of all, lots
of listeners didn't move the dial. "Turns out a lot of people listened to see
when we would finally stop playing it."
* "Stairway" went elevator in January 1990, when it was added to the Muzak
playlist in a solo harp version. According to Chuck Walker, manager of
Environmental Channel Programming, the song is delivered directly to
customers via the Direct Broadcast Satellite service (DBS). Unlike the
original, the Muzak version, arranged and recorded to provide an "uplifting,
productive atmosphere" and "counteract the worker-fatigue curve in the office
environment," is not at the top of anyone's list. Walker speculates that the
song has been played only fifteen times, because even in its toned-down harp
version, it calls too much attention to itself.
"THAT BLOODY WEDDING SONG"
It's widely held that Plant now loathes "Stairway," though presumably he
doesn't mind the royalties. According to author Charley Cross in his new Zep
bio, Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell, Plant balked at the thought of playing
the anthem at the Atlantic Records Anniversary Concert in 1988. Corporate
push came to shove, however, and Plant capitulated. It has been suggested
that one of the reasons he shies away from a Zeppelin reunion is the specter
of doing a fifty-city tour in which he'd be forced to sing what was called
"that bloody wedding song" fifty times. Coauthor Jimmy Page continues to
defend the tune, intending to revive it himself (though only as an
instrumental) on future tours.
Fulfilling the human need for absolutes, every year dozens of rock radio
stations perk up otherwise ho-hum holidays -- usually Memorial Day or Labor
Day -- with countdowns of the top five hundred rock songs of all time.
Methods of collecting data vary from station to station; some compile
requests, others solicit votes in newspaper ads, others rely on formal
research and music testing. Only one thing remains the same -- the song.
Station #1 Song, 1991
WNOR Norfolk, Virginia "Stairway"
WEBN Cincinnati "Stairway"
WGRX Baltimore "Hey Jude"*
WFXF Indianapolis "Stairway"
KLSK Albuquerque "Stairway"
WMYG Pittsburgh "Stairway"
KLSX Los Angeles "Stairway"
KGON Portland, Oregon "Stairway"**
*"Stairway" was number three.
**This song has been number one in this market for years. Desperate for
variety, Bob Ancheta, KGON music director, played a prank on the faithful in
1989, dropping the song to number two. Outraged listeners tied up the phones
with complaints for hours.
ALSO BORN THE WEEK OF NOVEMBER 8, 1971
John Nelson, computer technician, Oregon
"The first time I ever heard 'Stairway to Heaven' was in a log cabin in
Ranier, Oregon. My aunt put it on the stereo, and while we listened I read
the lyrics on the sleeve. I was only four -- I started reading pretty early
-- and it was kinda bewildering. In high school I got the reputation as a
Zeppeleptic. I always wore Led Zeppelin T-shirts and had a great pair of
ripped-up jeans with Led Zeppelin stuff written all over them. I went and
still go to Led Zeppelin Laser Fantasy. In my opinion, the song has
everlasting meaning. The words give me an unexplainable feeling, like
thoughts within thoughts, like a story or legend. This is my favorite rock
song of all time and it probably will be forever. Being just as old as this
song I feel like someone's watching over me. I'm kinda honored, to tell the
(Lyrics by Mark Davis and Rob "Iceman" Izenberg (c) 1990 Screwball
Productions and Earthquake Entertainment)
There's a lady who goes to the store that won't close
and she's shopping at 7-Eleven
Down the aisle she sees Ding Dongs, beer, and Friskies
and a Snickers really satisfies her
Oooh oooh oooh
Oooooooh, make my Slurpee
"Elevator to Menswear"
(From The Best of Looney Tunes, produced by K97 FM Classic Hit Radio)
There's a guy who knows that he needs new clothes
and he's taken the elevator to menswear
When he gets there he'll find the new Calvin Kleins
and a sweater from Daniel Hechter
There's a sign by the door saying save five bucks more
on assorted Wrangler and Levi's
In the back on the right there's a pair way too tight
and, like, when he tries them on he goes bug-eyed
JUST SIT RIGHT BACK AND YOU'LL HEAR A TALE...
In 1978, Little Roger and the Goosebumps released a version of "Stairway"
with Roger's falsetto crooning the words to the theme song of the TV series
Gilligan's Island. Led Zeppelin's attorney Louis Nizer sent a letter
charging copyright infringement and intent to "mock" Zeppelin and demanded
that all available copies of the song be recalled.
COMMONLY MISHEARD LYRICS
"If there's a rustle in your hedgerow, don't be a lawman
It's just a sprinkling for the bake queen"
"And there's a wino down the road
I should have stolen Oreos"
WHAT IT REALLY, REALLY MEANS
* Dr. Robert Walser, Professor of Musicology, Dartmouth College, author of
Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music,
forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press:
You might expect a musicologist to try and explain the popularity of
"Stairway" by pointing to its formal complexity, or its interesting chord
progression: A minor, A minor 9th/G sharp, A minor 7th/G, F major 7th, G, A
minor. Such details are important, for the choice of one note rather than
another can make a tremendous difference in how a song makes us feel. On the
other hand, there's no reason to think that unusual harmonies or a complex
form are inherently attractive or effective. Such details function in a
larger context -- lyrics, timbres, visual images; the histories of the band,
the music, the world -- that makes them meaningful in particular ways. That
chord progression, for example, signifies rather differently when George
Benson plays it in "This Masquerade." We need to consider a larger context in
order to make sense of these details. If we wonder, "Why has this song been
so popular?" we should ask, "With what desires, fantasies, and fears does it
The development of heavy metal music in the '60s and its continuing
popularity through the '70s, '80s, and '90s coincides, for one thing, with
the period of the greatest popularity horror films and books have ever known.
Both mark a transitional moment in our history: the end of Pax Americana; new
economic crises; de-industrialization, the decline of unions and the rise of
low-pay service jobs; revelations of corrupt leadership; powerful social
movements challenging dominant policies on race, gender, ecology, and
consumer rights; new challenges to the stability of social institutions such
as the family; and redefinitions of political themes such as freedom. Much of
the culture of the past twenty years has functioned to restore the sense of
security undermined by these disruptions. Heavy metal, like horror films, has
provided ways of producing meaning in an irrational society.
Musically, "Stairway" fuses powerful "authenticities" -- which are really
ideologies. On the other hand, a fold/pastoral/mystical sensibility; on the
other, desire/aggression/physicality. The song begins with the gentle sound
and reassuringly square phrases of an acoustic guitar, complemented by the
archaic hooting of recorders, suggesting a preindustrial refuge of the folk.
Soon, Jimmy Page trades in his acoustic for the twangy punch of an electric
and, eventually, the raucous roar of heavy distortion. After a Hendrix-like
guitar solo (blues-based, mildly psychedelic), Robert Plant's voice rises an
octave, wailing over countless repetitions of a two-measure pattern,
propelled by the band's frantic syncopations. The apotheosis/apolcalypse
breaks off suddenly, and the song ends with Plant's unaccompanied voice, a
return to the solitary poignancy of the beginning. This narrative
juxtaposition of the sensitive (acoustic guitar) and the aggressive
(distorted electric guitar) has continued to show up in heavy metal, from
Ozzy Osbourne to Metallica. It combines contradictory sensibilities without
reconciling them, as to Led Zeppelin's lyrics and cover art.
We might better understand the associative powers of the lyrics by breaking
them up into categories. We are presented with a number of mysterious
figures: a lady, the piper, the May queen. Images of nature abound: a brook,
a songbird, rings of smoke through the trees, a hedgerow, wind. We find a set
of concepts (that pretty much sum up the central concerns of all philosophy):
signs, words, meanings, thoughts, feelings, spirit, reason, wonder, soul, the
idea that "all are one and one is all." We find a set of vaguely but
powerfully evocative symbols: gold, the West, the tune, white light, shadows,
paths, a road, and the stairway to heaven itself. At the very end, we find
some paradoxical self-referentiality: "To be a rock and not to roll."
The words provide a very open text; like those of Don McLean's "American Pie"
(also released in 1971), they invite endless interpretation. Yet they are
resonant, requiring no rigorous study in order to become meaningful. Like the
music, they engage with the fantasies and anxieties of our time; they offer
contact with social and metaphysical depth in a world of commodities and mass
communication. "Stairway to Heaven," no less than canonized artistic
postmodernism, addresses "decentered subjects" who are striving to find
credible experiences of depth and community. It strains at mystery and
promises utopia: "A new day will dawn," and "If you listen very hard/The tune
will come to you at last."
* Chuck Eddy, author of Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in
"Stairway to Heaven" was the most famous rock song in Western civilization in
the '70s because it was the best rock song in Western civilization in the
'70s. No one has equaled Led Zeppelin's accomplishment: the marriage of hard
rock and this sort of corny medievalism. It's tremendous. Also proof that
words don't have to mean anything to be meaningful. I mean, what's this "If
there's a bustle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed now"? If I found anything
bustling in my hedgerow, I'd get out my shotgun.
* Jimmy Gutterman, coauthor of The Worst Rock'n'Roll Records of All-Time:
The lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" are horrible, nothing more than nonsense
words enlivened by cliche. If I ever wrote "There's a lady who's sure all
that glitters is gold," my editor would cancel my contract. Just because
"Stairway to Heaven" still turns up as the number one rock song of all time
doesn't mean it's any good. Bear in mind that Car 54, Where Are You? is
still in syndication and Republicans still keep getting elected to the White
- Esquire, November 1991.
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