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.”