Stairway to Heaven
One of the most requested songs on U.S. FM radio stations, "Stairway to Heaven", from Led Zeppelin's fourth album, was never released officially as a single. It did however appear as a promo disc in the United States, on an Australian acoustic EP and in the 1990s as a 20th anniversary promo issue. The song had its beginnings during the sessions for Led Zeppelin III at Bron-Yr-Aur, Wales, but was completed at Headley Grange, Hampshire, and finally recorded at Island Studios, London, in December 1970. It is not entirely clear whether a movie title (see below) was an inspiration for the song or the source of the song title.
The song was first played live at Belfast's Ulster Hall on March 5, 1971; it was performed at every Led Zeppelin concert thereafter, usually as part of a final encore from 1975 to 1980. "Stairway" was also played at Live Aid in 1985 and the fortieth anniversary celebration of Atlantic Records in 1988, and by Jimmy Page as an instrumental version on his solo tours.
"Stairway to Heaven" is one of the biggest-selling sheet music publications in rock history. Since 1971, "Stairway to Heaven" has sold more than 1.2 million copies.
Although the song is a popular set choice for cover bands throughout the world, the iconic status and unique structure of the song have precluded the recording of many cover versions by established artists. A few attempts at a straightforward cover have been made over the years, notably by hair metal band Great White. German dance group Far Corporation produced a widely-panned version, and singer Dolly Parton recorded a country-bluegrass version. Many other covers tend to be ironic or humorous in intent, notably Dread Zeppelin's reggae/Elvis-inspired version and Pat Boone's lounge take.
Table of contents
The lyrics, written by Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant next to an evening log fire, were inspired by his search for spiritual perfection. A seminal influence was the book Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence, which Plant had recently read and contained references to May Queens, pipers, and bustling hedgerows. The mystical lady is still a mystery but when asked about it Plant simply responded, "Julie Conlon".
Musically, the song takes the form of a multi-movement suite, with a quiet introduction featuring acoustic guitar and recorder gradually giving way to a slow electric middle section and finally a crashing hard rock final section. This form would influence many other rock artists, notably Queen, who would use a similar structure for their opus "Bohemian Rhapsody". The guitar part opens with an Am-Fmaj7 chord progression with a chromatic descending bassline A-G#-G-F#-F. John Paul Jones contributed wooden bass recorders in the opening section and Hohner electric piano in the middle section. The extended Jimmy Page guitar solo in the song's final section was played for the recording on a 1958 Fender Telecaster plugged into a Supro amplifier. Three different solos were recorded with Page deciding to keep the one which he felt best suited the theme of the song. The other guitar parts were played using a Harmony acoustic guitar and Fender Electric XII (12-string), both can be heard on the left and right recording channels respectively. For later live versions Page switched to using a double-necked 6/12 1968 Gibson EDS-1275 which was custom built by Roger Griffin of Gibson's West Coast Custom Shop.
- An instrumental riff in "Stairway to Heaven" is similar to that of the 1968 instrumental "Taurus" by the group Spirit who Led Zeppelin backed up on a tour that year.
- Critics of rock and roll songs (and of Led Zeppelin in particular) have occasionally alleged that a backward message is recorded into "Stairway to Heaven." If a portion of the song is played backwards, then supposedly words beginning with "Oh here's to my sweet Satan" can be heard. Various Christian fundamentalists have interpreted different lyrics from the allegedly-backmasked portion, which most agree to be the lines beginning with "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow...". The theory was advanced by Michael Myers, Jacob Aranza, and Jeff Godwin among others. Led Zeppelin have always ignored such claims, the only comment coming from Swan Song Records which issued the statement: "Our turntables only play in one direction – forwards".
- The tendency for many aspiring guitar players to learn to play the introduction to the song was spoofed in the 1992 Mike Myers movie Wayne's World when a "No Stairway to Heaven" regulation is enforced at a music store visited by the title character.
- In the early 1990s, each episode of the Australian chat show The Money or the Gun ended with a different group performing an idiosyncratic cover version of "Stairway to Heaven". From a diverse range that included an Elvis impersonator, Kate Ceberano, and the Doug Anthony Allstars, the best remembered is Rolf Harris's version (complete with didgeridoo and wobble board), which reached the Top 10 on the UK singles charts. Harris is said to have received death threats from fans of the song for his version of this iconic rock anthem. A compilation album, Stairways to Heaven, was put out on the Atlantic label, featuring versions of the song by The Australian Doors Show, The Beatnix, John Paul Young, Kate Ceberano, Leonard Teale, Michael Turkic, The Ministry Of Fun, Neil Pepper, Pardon Me Boys, Robyne Dunn, The Rock Lobsters, Rolf Harris, Sandra Hahn, Vegimite Reggae and others.
- A novelty song featuring the music and arrangement of the song combined with the lyrics to the Theme from Gilligan's Island (which has a similar chord progression) was recorded by the San Francisco band Little Roger and the Goosebumps and often featured on the Dr. Demento radio program. Singer Plant has described this as his favorite cover version of the song.
- A heavy metal band Down named their second album A Bustle in Your Hedgerow, which is a quotation from this song.
- The Butthole Surfers, in an act of parody and/or tribute, released an album in 1988 called Hairway to Steven.
- Frank Zappa covered the song during his 1988 world tour and appeared on the 1991 live album The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life.
False Jimi Hendrix version
One version of the song circulating on the Internet is a supposed "reggae remix" by Jimi Hendrix. In fact, he died a year before the song was released. Even if he were alive, it is unlikely that he would have made such a track. The actual song that is generally circulated around is a cover of "Stairway to Heaven" by Frank Zappa at one of his last live shows.
|John Bonham – John Paul Jones – Jimmy Page – Robert Plant|
|Original albums: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin III – Untitled – Houses of the Holy – Physical Graffiti – Presence – The Song Remains the Same – In Through the Out Door – Coda|
|Other albums: Boxed Set – Profiled – Remasters – Boxed Set 2 – The Complete Studio Recordings – BBC Sessions – Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin Volume One – Latter Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin Volume Two – How the West Was Won|
|Films: The Song Remains the Same – Led Zeppelin DVD|
|Songs: "The Battle of Evermore" – "Dazed and Confused" – "Stairway to Heaven" – "When the Levee Breaks"|
|Other: Peter Grant – Swan Song Records|