Led Zeppelin, from left, keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page during the Kennedy Center Honors Gala at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
When Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart performed the song in front of the three remaining members of the legendary British rock band at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony on Dec. 2 band members were in tears. Watch the dramatic shift when the choir kicks in….sadness, quiet joy to elation and ecstacy.
“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 referred to as Led Zeppelin IV). It is often referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
The song, running eight minutes and two seconds, is composed of several sections which increase in tempo and volume as the song progresses. The song begins as a slow acoustic-based folk song accompanied by recorders before electric instrumentation is introduced. The final section is a high-tempo hard rock section highlighted by an intricate guitar solo by Page and Plant’s wailing vocals, ending with Plant’s a cappella delivery of the final line: “And she’s buying a Stairway to Heaven”.
It is the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s, despite never having been officially released as a single there.
The recording of “Stairway to Heaven” commenced in December 1970 at Island Records’ new Basing Street Studios in London. The song was completed by the addition of lyrics by Plant during the sessions for Led Zeppelin IV at Headley Grange, Hampshire, in 1971. Page then returned to Island Studios to record his guitar solo.
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”. Page always kept a cassette recorder around, and the idea for “Stairway” came together from bits of taped music:
I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together. I had a whole idea of a piece of music that I really wanted to try and present to everybody and try and come to terms with. Bit difficult really, because it started on acoustic, and as you know it goes through to the electric parts. But we had various run-throughs [at Headley Grange] where I was playing the acoustic guitar and jumping up and picking up the electric guitar. Robert was sitting in the corner, or rather leaning against the wall, and as I was routining the rest of the band with this idea and this piece, he was just writing. And all of a sudden he got up and started singing, along with another run-through, and he must have had 80% of the words there … I had these sections, and I knew what order they were going to go in, but it was just a matter of getting everybody to feel comfortable with each gear shift that was going to be coming.
Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones recalled this presentation of the song to him following its genesis at Bron-Yr-Aur:
Page and Plant would come back from the Welsh mountains with the guitar intro and verse. I literally heard it in front of a roaring fire in a country manor house! I picked up a bass recorder and played a run-down riff which gave us an intro, then I moved into a piano for the next section, dubbing on the guitars.
The first attempts at lyrics, written by Led Zeppelin vocalist 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”. Jimmy Page was strumming the chords and Robert Plant had a pencil and paper. Plant later said that suddenly,
My hand was writing out the words, ‘There’s a lady is sure [sic], all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven’. I just sat there and looked at them and almost leapt out of my seat.” Plant’s own explanation of the lyrics was that it “was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand … and it softened up after that.
The lyrics of the song reflected Plant’s current reading. The singer had been poring over the works of the British antiquarian Lewis Spence, and later cited Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain as one of the sources for the lyrics to the song.
In November 1970, Page dropped a hint of the new song’s existence to a music journalist in London:
It’s an idea for a really long track…. You know how “Dazed and Confused” and songs like that were broken into sections? Well, we want to try something new with the organ and acoustic guitar building up and building up, and then the electric part starts…. It might be a fifteen-minute track.
Page stated that the song “speeds up like an adrenaline flow”. He explained:
Going back to those studio days for me and John Paul Jones, the one thing you didn’t do was speed up, because if you sped up you wouldn’t be seen again. Everything had to be right on the meter all the way through. And I really wanted to write something which did speed up, and took the emotion and the adrenaline with it, and would reach a sort of crescendo. And that was the idea of it. That’s why it was a bit tricky to get together in stages.
The complete studio recording was released on Led Zeppelin IV in November 1971. In the US, Atlantic issued “Stairway to Heaven” as a 7″ promotional single in 1972.
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 (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-E. John Paul Jones contributed overdubbed wooden bass recorders in the opening section….The sections build with more guitar layers, each complementary to the intro, with the drums entering at 4:18.
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 eight notes. This makes the rhythm figure challenging for some musicians, but adds a feeling of anticipation to the approaching guitar solo.
The inaugural public performance of the song took place at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on 5 March 1971. Bassist John Paul Jones recalls that the crowd was unimpressed: “They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew”. However, Page stated about an early performance at the LA Forum, before the record had even come out, that:
I’m not saying the whole audience gave us a standing ovation, but there was this sizable standing ovation there. And I thought: ‘This is incredible, because no one’s heard this number yet. This is the first time they’re hearing it!’ It obviously touched them, you know. And that was at the L.A. Forum, so I knew we were onto something with that one.
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. 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 Dec 2007 at London’s O2 Arena; the version was the longest, lasting almost fifteen minutes, including a seven and a half-minute guitar solo.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows if the stores are all closed,
With a word she can get what she came for
Ooh, a stairway to heaven
There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven
Oh-oh, makes me wonder. I wonder; I really, really wonder
There’s a feelin’ I get when I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leavin’
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who stand lookin’
It’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason,
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
Oh-oh-oh-oh, Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now.
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still some time to change the road you’re on
Oh, it makes me wonder
Your head is hummin’ and it won’t go in case you don’t know,
The piper’s callin’ you to join him
Oh, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know your stairway lies upon the whisperin’ wind
Stairway to heaven, stairway to heaven
You can’t buy it, you can’t borrow
You’ve got to walk it straight and narrow
Stairway to heaven, stairway to heaven, stairway to heaven
And as we walk on down the road
Our shadows longer than our souls,
All that glitters is not gold
Wanna be a rock and not a roll
Oh, the great almighty dollar leaves you lonely, lost and hollow
You can’t fool yourself forever
You gotta work to get to heaven
Stairway to heaven.
If we listen and hold fast
To every question that we asked
The truth will come to us at last
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven