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Stairway To Heaven: The Story Behind Led Zeppelin’s Immortal Rock Classic
ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Stairway To Heaven: The Story Behind Led Zeppelin’s Immortal Rock Classic

Intricate and ambitious, Stairway To Heaven was the song that elevated Led Zeppelin to rock’s highest pantheon. It still sounds godlike.

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There are plenty of celebrated classic rock songs out there, but few come with such an exalted reputation as Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. Originally the centrepiece of the band’s multi-million-selling fourth album, this seemingly indomitable song is now over 50 years old, yet it continues to woo new generations of fans and pick up reams of plaudits.

Want to know why? This is the story of how Stairway To Heaven confirmed Led Zeppelin’s status as rock’s most infallible gods.

Listen to the best of Led Zeppelin here.

The backstory: “It’s quite radically different – but that was the intention”

The most requested song on US FM radio at the time of its release as a promo single, on 8 November 1971, Stairway To Heaven is now as ubiquitous in rock lore as the likes of Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water or The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Indeed, with the possible exception of Whole Lotta Love, Stairway To Heaven is still the song most people associate with Led Zeppelin, though its enduring appeal has sometimes surprised its chief creator over the years.

“I knew it was good,” guitarist Jimmy Page said in a 1977 interview with Trouser Press. “I didn’t know it was going to become like an anthem, but I did know it was the gem of the album, sure.”

Both ambitious and intricate in its utilisation of folk and progressive rock tropes, the suite-like Stairway To Heaven runs to eight minutes in length and broadly breaks down into three sections. Each one gradually increases in tempo and volume, with the final, hard-rock section highlighted by Page’s guitar solo and frontman Robert Plant’s heartfelt vocal, which famously concludes with the line “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”, delivered a cappella.

“It begins with the concept of trying to have something [that] would unravel in layers as the song progressed,” Page explained in a 2014 interview with The Guardian. “You’ve got the fragile guitar that is going to open the whole thing, you’ve got the vocal over that fragile guitar, and then it moves into the more sensual wave with the twin 12-strings, and the electric piano as well… The tempo changes from the beginning to the end – it’s quite radically different – but that was the intention.”

The writing: “Jimmy and I just sat down in front of the fire”

Stairway To Heaven’s genesis dates back to 1970, when Page and Plant spent time writing the songs for Led Zeppelin III at Bron-Y-Aur, a remote cottage in Snowdonia, North Wales. Page later recalled that he developed the music for Stairway To Heaven “over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Y-Aur one night”, though he later spent time working on the song with Plant.

“Stairway To Heaven was the result of an evening when Jimmy and I just sat down in front of the fire,” Plant told the NME in 1972. “We came up with a song which was later developed by the rest of the band in the studio.”

The recording: “It flowed very quickly”

Led Zeppelin recorded Stairway To Heaven at London’s Basing Street Studios, during sessions for what would become one of the best Led Zeppelin albums of all time. Despite the complexity of its arrangement, the song came together quickly in the hands of all four bandmembers.

“I do have the original tape that was running at the time we ran down Stairway To Heaven completely with the band,” Page told Trouser Press. “I’d worked it all out already the night before with [bassist] 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.”

Musically, each member of Led Zeppelin contributed to Stairway To Heaven’s arrangement, with Jones adding a recorder part during the introduction and drummer John Bonham making his distinctive entry halfway through the song. Page played a 12-string Rickenbacker, but used a Fender Telecaster gifted from Jeff Beck for his solo – a transcendent piece of playing that still stands as one of the best guitar solos in rock history.

Engineer Andy Johns later recalled the session in some detail in an interview with MusicRadar: “Jimmy was always running his 12-string Rickenbacker through a box, which is a good sound,” he explained. “But if you do it direct [into the desk] and compress it, you get a much more bell-like quality. So I suggested we try that and he really liked it.”

Johns added, “There was a bit of s struggle on the solo. He was playing for half an hour and did seven or eight takes. He hadn’t quite got it sussed. I was starting to get a bit paranoid, and he said ‘No, you’re making ME paranoid.’ But right after that, he played a really great solo.”

Speaking to Trouser Press, Page noted another “slight rerun” during the recording of Stairway To Heaven. “For some unknown reason, Bonzo couldn’t get the timing right on the 12-string part before the solo,” he explained. “Other than that, it flowed very quickly. While we were doing it, Robert was pencilling down lyrics; he must have written three quarters of the lyric on the spot. He didn’t have to go away and think about them. Amazing, really.”

The lyrics: “It’s a complete marriage of music to lyrics”

In the years since its release, Stairway To Heaven has continued to fascinate listeners drawn to the mysticism of its lyrics – a strain of Plant’s writing which is widely believed to have been influenced both by celebrated fantasy author JRR Tolkien and Lewis Spence’s study of occult practices, The Magic Arts In Celtic Britain, originally published in 1945.

A longtime fan of Stairway To Heaven, Heart’s Ann Wilson told The Guardian, “It’s beautiful, a complete marriage of music to lyrics. They go together so well. It’s just one of those situations where you couldn’t have one without the other.

“I’m a word person, and the lyrics are so poetic and so imaginative,” the singer added. “We all know it’s inspired by Tolkien, but at the same time they’re widened out so they’re more universal than that. Those were such optimistic words that fit with the whole hippy mentality. I think people really identified with the lyrics.”

The legacy: “It still has an emotional effect on people who are coming to it new”

Led Zeppelin were justifiably proud of bringing their magnum opus to fruition, yet they had little inkling of the truly stratospheric success Stairway To Heaven would go on to achieve. Immediately taking its place among the best Led Zeppelin songs, it became a central part of the band’s live set from the spring of 1971 onwards, and topped radio polls of the greatest-ever rock songs for years afterwards, clocking up a staggering three million radio plays by the year 2000.

The accolades have kept on coming ever since, with North America’s prestigious Library Of Congress even preserving the song in its National Recording Registry, selecting Stairway To Heaven in 2023, based on its “cultural, historical or aesthetic importance in the nation’s recorded sound heritage”.

Indeed, over half a century after fans first dropped the needle on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, Stairway To Heaven’s popularity shows no sign of waning.

“It’s not just one of those things where it goes verse-chorus-verse,” Jimmy Page told The Guardian. “It was tricky because it had sections, but they didn’t repeat exactly the same each time… The thing I was very keen to establish was that the whole thing would keep moving in tempo and intensity…

“It still has an emotional effect on people who are coming to it new,” Page acknowledged. “It plays with your emotions, entices you in. Stairway’s almost seductive.”

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