March 5, 2019
For many Baby Boomers, there is one song from the 1970’s which seems to define and capture their youth. The song, however, was never released as a single and never hit number one on the Billboard charts. In fact it defied all the ‘rules’ of Top 40 Rock and Roll. It was nearly eight minutes long, unheard of when the average length of a commercial song was about three minutes. It started as an ennui inducing ballad but then morphed to a hard rocking electric guitar solo, but finishes back in ballad form. If, by now, you don’t know the song then you probably missed the 1970’s and have not listened to the radio since.
Stairway to Heaven was performed live for the very first time on March 5, 1971 at Ulster Hall in Belfast, Ireland. According to Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones the crowd was “… all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew.” I have my doubts that his evaluation was entirely accurate. I imagine there were many in the audience that day who instantly knew they were hearing history being made.
In the subsequent years, the song has proven a thoroughbred, consistently among the top contenders on many ‘greatest’ song lists. According to the Infallible Wikipedia:
“‘Stairway to Heaven’ continues to top radio lists of the greatest rock songs, including a 2006 Guitar World readers poll of greatest guitar solos. 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. As of 2000, the song had been broadcast on radio over three million times. In 1990 a St. Petersburg, Florida station kicked off its all-Led Zeppelin format by playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for 24 hours straight. It is also the biggest-selling single piece of sheet music in rock history, clocking up an average of 15,000 copies yearly. In total, over one million copies have been sold.”
With great success often comes controversy. Such was true for Stairway To Heaven. Two years before the song was written, Led Zeppelin toured a few times with a group called Spirit. And that group performed an original song titled Taurus. As it happens, Taurus’ opening guitar riff began with a descending A minor chord progression. Which is also true of Stairway To Heaven. The similarity spawned a copyright infringement lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of the deceased creator of the Taurus guitar introduction. When the verdict was announced in 2016, it ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin. Essentially, while Stairway to Heaven uses a nearly identical A minor chord progression, theirs went way beyond what Spirit had done, adding an ascending progression from A to B to C and finishing on F sharp which plays simultaneously with the descending A minor progression.
I found the whole thing quite fascinating and enjoyed watching this musician dissect it:
By 1973, Stairway to Heaven was a staple at every Homecoming, Tolo and Prom. And one you were never quite sure how to dance to. I imagine the guys liked it because they got to slow dance with the girls for a bit… and then break apart for more traditional rock and roll moves.
Personally, I always found it awkward. And then there was the problem of local bands attempting to do justice to the music… and usually butchering it.
No, the best way to enjoy Stairway To Heaven is to simply close one’s eyes, listen to the lyrics sung by Robert Plant, the amazing guitar work of Jimmy Page, and contemplate the concepts. Since it first emerged in our collective consciousness, countless fans have, no doubt, cogitated and considered just exactly what it all means. And that, ultimately, is one of the greatest allures of the song.
As always, a couple links for you:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stairway_to_Heaven (the Infallible Wikipedia article)
https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/led-zeppelin-wins-copyright-infringement-suit-opening-lick/story?id=40026259 (report on the lawsuit)