“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 called Led Zeppelin IV). It is often referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
The song has three sections, each one progressively increasing in tempo and volume. The song begins in a slow tempo with acoustic instruments (guitar and recorders) before introducing electric instruments. The final section is an uptempo hard rock arrangement highlighted by Page’s intricate guitar solo accompanying Plant’s vocals that end with the plaintive a cappella line: “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
“Stairway to Heaven” was voted number three in 2000 by VH1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs, and was placed at number 31 on “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. It was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s, despite never having been commercially released as a single there. In November 2007, through download sales promoting Led Zeppelin’s Mothership release, “Stairway to Heaven” hit number 37 on the UK Singles Chart.
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.
In an interview he gave in 1977, Page elaborated:
I do have the original tape that was running at the time we ran down “Stairway To Heaven” completely with the band. I’d worked it all out already the night before with John Paul Jones, written down the changes and things. All this time we were all living in a house and keeping pretty regular hours together, so the next day we started running it down. There was only one place where there was a slight rerun. For some unknown reason Bonzo couldn’t get the timing right on the twelve-string part before the solo. Other than that it flowed very quickly.
The first attempts at lyrics, written by 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, 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. The band’s record label, Atlantic Records was keen to issue this track as a single, but the band’s manager Peter Grant refused requests to do so in both 1972 and 1973. This led many people to buy the fourth album as if it were the single. In the US, Atlantic issued “Stairway to Heaven” as a 7″ promotional single in 1972.
“Stairway to Heaven” is often rated among the greatest rock songs of all time. According to music journalist Stephen Davis, although the song was released in 1971, it took until 1973 before the song’s popularity ascended to truly “anthemic” status. As Page himself recalled, “I knew it was good, but I didn’t know it was going to be almost like an anthem … But I knew it was the gem of the album, sure.”
“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.
Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone in 1975, “We were careful to never release it as a single.” So, Led Zeppelin refused to release the song as a single, which forced buyers to buy the entire album. Despite pressure from Atlantic Records, the band would not authorise the editing of the song for single release, making “Stairway to Heaven” one of the most well-known and popular rock songs never to have been released as a single. It did, however, appear on two promotional discs in the United States, one of them featuring the 7:55 track on each side, and the other as a 7-inch 33 1⁄3 record produced for jukebox operators with “Stairway to Heaven” on one side and both “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll” on the other. Other “single” appearances were on an Australian EP, and in 1991 as an added bonus with a 20th anniversary promo book.
The group’s recording of this song also appeared as the sole Led Zeppelin track in the 1977 Atlantic Records two-LP promotional sampler album We’ve Got Your Music, marking the first time that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” made its official debut appearance in an American-released various artists compilation collection.
On the 20th anniversary of the song’s release, Esquire magazine featured an article on the song’s success and lasting influence. Karen Karbo wrote:
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.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine put it at number 31 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. An article from 29 January 2009 Guitar World magazine rated Jimmy Page’s guitar solo at number one in the publication’s 100 Greatest Guitar Solos in Rock and Roll History. Since 2001, the New York City-based classic rock radio station Q104.3 has ranked “Stairway to Heaven” no. 1 on their annual “Top 1,043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time”.
Erik Davis, a social historian, and cultural critic commented on the song’s massive success, subsequent backlash, and enduring legendary status:
“Stairway to Heaven” isn’t the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it… Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne’s World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant’s public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. “Stairway to Heaven” is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR will ever get you to the absolute.
Page has himself commented on the song’s legacy:
The wonderful thing about “Stairway” is the fact that just about everybody has got their own individual interpretation to it, and actually what it meant to them at their point of life. And that’s what’s so great about it. Over the passage of years, you know, people come to me with all manner of stories about, you know, what it meant to them at certain points of their lives. About how it’s got them through some really tragic circumstances … Because it’s an extremely positive song, it’s such a positive energy, and, you know, people have got married to [the song].
Robert Plant once gave $1,000 to listener-supported radio station KBOO in Portland, Oregon during a pledge drive after the disc jockey solicited donations by promising the station would never play “Stairway to Heaven”. Plant was station-surfing in a rental car he was driving to the Oregon Coast after a solo performance in Portland and was impressed with the non-mainstream music the station presented. Asked later “why?” Plant replied that it wasn’t that he didn’t like the song, but he’d heard it before.
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