Stairway to Heaven

'Stairway to Heaven' is a 1971 song by English rock band Led Zeppelin. The song was composed by Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant, and recorded at Headley Grange, Hampshire, England in January 1971, and Island Studios, London in February 1971, mixed at Island Studios, London in February 1971. It appeared as the fourth track on Led Zeppelin's fourth album Led Zeppelin IV, released on 8 November 1971. 'Stairway to Heaven' is a song that has become most associated with Led Zeppelin, becoming the band's unofficial signature tune. In 1994, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honoured this song as one of the songs that shaped rock and roll. 'Stairway to Heaven' is also the biggest-selling musical score in rock history with more than 1.3 million copies sold (an average hit tune sells less than 15,000 copies). It is often stated as being the most requested song on US radio, despite never being released as an official single, and it regularly tops music song polls.

Overview

'Stairway to Heaven' began as a concept by guitarist Page, in terms of a semi-classical showcase exploring the dynamics of light to heavy musical passages. The development of the song came about from various ideas guitarist Jimmy Page had encapsulated on a New Vista tape recorder, during the weeks leading up to that Welsh cottage visit, and for the rehearsal sessions for Led Zeppelin III at Bron-Yr-Aur in 1970, with the main track being recorded in January 1971 at Headley Grange, for inclusion on Led Zeppelin IV. The song's main guitar melody is similar to a guitar line from a previous recording called 'Ice Cream Dreams' which was sessioned for Cartoone in 1968, but utilized a riff Page had toyed with during his early 1960s session days with Chris Farlowe. Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch also noted 'Tangerine' as an 'embryonic Stairway to Heaven'. Singer Robert Plant later composed lyrics during the sessions at Headley Grange, Hampshire, in January 1971 and Page's guitar solo was recorded at Island Records' SARM West Studio. Mixing and mastering was completed at Island Studios in Basing Street, London with engineer Andy Johns. This song with its blend of delicate Celtic-influenced folk music and the swaggering bombast of electric blues, has conceivably, more than any other single composition, elucidated the development of the 'power ballad'.

Page's guitar solo on was performed on a 1959 Fender Telecaster plugged into a Supro Thunderbolt amp. Page recorded three variant improvised solos for 'Stairway to Heaven', and eventually decided on one version of the solo on the published recording, feeling it best fit the tone of the composition. The supplementary guitar parts on the song were played using a Martin D-28 acoustic and a 12-string Fender Electric XII. Both can be heard on the left and right recording channels respectively. Bassist John Paul Jones utilised two bass recorders for the opening and a 1960s Hohner Electra-Piano electric piano added for the middle section. Jimmy Page stated: 'I'd been fooling around with the acoustic guitar and came up with several different sections which flowed together nicely. I soon realized that it could be the perfect vehicle for something I'd been wanting to do for a while: to compose something that would start quietly, have the drums come in the middle, and then build to a huge crescendo. I also knew that I wanted the piece to speed up, which is something musicians aren't supposed to do.' The song starts with a folk ballad structure with mellow finger-picked arpeggiated acoustic guitar and harmonized bass recorders leading into Robert Plant's mystical lyrics. Similar to Ravel's 'Boléro', the song is structured to gradually rise in climactic tension with subtle expansion in volume and instrumentation, with the addition of Page's resonating electric 12-string guitar, bass, electric piano, and drums.

Written in the key of A minor with 4/4 time, the introductory four bar ascending chord progression in the verse moves along Am-Am9-G#-C-G-D-F#-Fmaj7-G Am through returning to Am, whilst the descending bassline follows a chromatic progression of A-G#-G-F#-F. The Fender Telecaster guitar enters the progression at the finale of the second verse on the phrase 'Oh, and it makes me wonder ...' The delayed entry of the drums proceeds at the conclusion of the fourth verse at 'the forests… echo with laughter.' Finally, an open D chord rings through the melody, heralding in the guitar solo answer to the revelation that the 'stairway lies on the whispering wind.' Finding Page performing a series of blues riffs and melodic phrases, with slide overdubs. A final crescendo of string bends and unison power chords rapidly ensues, leading to Plant's poignant vocal finale. The final progression is in a i-VII-VI (natural minor) sequence in Am-G-F.

The lyrics, written by vocalist Robert Plant, were spontaneously composed next to a twilight log fire at Headley Grange mansion. Plant was an ardent reader and was conversant with the works of the British folklorist Lewis Spence (1874 - 1955), and later stated Spence's Magic Arts in Celtic Britain as being a major influence on the lyrics of the song. The symbolism behind the lyrics is obscured in ambiguity and mysticism and, supporting the theme of 'light and shade' throughout Led Zeppelin IV. Page has claimed that the words have whatever meaning the listener wants to make of it. The most popular interpretation of the lyrics is that of spiritual emancipation. The metaphorical 'stairway' to 'heaven' is the salvation of the soul, as it makes the great odyssey from Earth (the physical realm) to higher spiritual planes. As Plant proclaimed (on The Song Remains the Same recording, and in many other concerts) when prefacing 'Stairway to Heaven', with 'this is a song of hope ...', a hope which resonated with the ideals of the Hippie counter-cultural movement, of which Plant was closely identified with. The hope that humanity will turn away from desires for wealth and power, and towards a universal love built on the evolution of the soul and mind. It's not coincidental that two songs on Led Zeppelin IV; 'Going to California' and 'Misty Mountain Hop' elicit memories of the 'Summer of Love'. 'Stairway to Heaven' is the only track whose lyrics were printed on the inner sleeve artwork by Led Zeppelin.

Lyrics to Stairway to Heaven inside Led Zeppelin IV

Live performances

'Stairway to Heaven' was performed at practically every Led Zeppelin concert since 1971. For live performances Page employed a 1968 Gibson EDS-1275 double-necked 6/12. Jones utilised a Mellotron M400 in substitution of the three recorders in early concerts before swapping to a Yamaha CP-70B electric grand piano and Yamaha GX-1 polyphonic synthesizer to perform this arrangement in the late 1970s. In concert, the band would often improvise and extend the song to over eleven minutes in duration, with Page playing a lengthy guitar solo and Plant including assorted lyrical ad libs, like 'Does anybody remember laughter?,' 'I hope so', and 'Wait a minute!' During live concerts, visual effects were combined with Page's solo interlude, which included rotating mirror balls and projecting split-screens on the backdrop.

The debut public performance of 'Stairway to Heaven' occured at Belfast's Ulster Hall on 5 March 1971. In later concert tours, the performed the song as their final setlist number prior to the encores. The longest ever performance of 'Stairway to Heaven' was Led Zeppelin's last concert in Berlin on 7 July 1980. It lasted over 15 minutes in duration. Page also performed 'Stairway to Heaven' as an instrumental version on his solo tours, allowing the crowd to sing the lyrics. The song was played by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin with backing musicians at the Live Aid concert in 1985, and at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary‎ celebration in 1988, with Jason Bonham on drums. In November 1994, on a Toyko television news programme, Page and Plant played an abbreviated acoustic version of 'Stairway to Heaven' before an enthusiastic audience and show hosts. As a teaser at concerts, the first four bars were strummed without backing during the Page and Plant tours, as the closing notes of 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You'. It was finally performed in its entirety for the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena in 2007, and released on Celebration Day. Official recorded versions are available on the 1997 BBC Sessions (a live performance from London's Regent Street Paris Theatre in 1971), also on How the West Was Won (Long Beach Arena in 1972), and on the soundtrack The Song Remains the Same (Madison Square Garden in 1973). Live, visual versions appear on the in-concert film The Song Remains the Same, and on the 2003 release Led Zeppelin DVD, recorded at Earls Court Arena in May 1975.

Cover of the Brazilian single

Accolades

  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's  500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll (1994) *
  • Classic Rock - Ten of the Best Songs Ever (1999) 1
  • VH1 - The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time (2000) 3
  • RIAA - Songs of the Century (2001) 53
  • Grammy Awards - Grammy Hall of Fame Award (2003) *
  • Rolling Stone - The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2003) 31
  • Q - 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 43
  • Toby Creswell - 1001 Songs: the Great Songs of All Time (2005) *
  • Q - 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2006) 8
  • Rolling Stone - 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time (2008) 8
  • Triple J - 'Triple J's Hottest 100 of All Time' (2009) 10
  • Absolute Classic Rock - Top 10 Greatest British Rock Songs of All Time (2010) 1
  • Gibson - Top 50 Guitar Solos (2010) 1

(*) designates unordered lists.


Chart positions

Single (Digital download)

  • New Zealand RIANZ Singles Chart (2007) 13
  • Norwegian Singles Chart (2007) 5
  • Irish Singles Chart (2007) 24
  • UK Singles Chart (2007) 37
  • US Billboard Hot Digital Songs Chart (2007) 30
  • US Billboard Hot Singles Recurrents Chart (2007) 16
  • Canadian Billboard Hot Digital Singles Chart (2007) 17
  • EU Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart (2007) 79
  • Swiss Singles Chart (2007) 17
  • Portuguese Singles Chart (2007) 8
  • Italian Singles Chart (2007) 60
  • Swedish Singles Chart (2008) 57
  • German Singles Chart (2008) 71

Note: The official UK Singles Chart incorporated legal downloads as of 17 April 2005.

 

Formats and track listings

1972 7" promo (US: Atlantic PR 175 [picture sleeve], Atlantic PR 269)

  • A. 'Stairway to Heaven' [stereo] (Page, Plant) 8.02
  • B. 'Stairway to Heaven' [mono] (Page, Plant) 8.02

1972 7" promo (US: Atlantic PR-269, Atlantic STPR 269 [picture disc])

  • A. 'Stairway to Heaven' (Page, Plant) 8.02
  • B. 'Hey Hey What Can I Do' (Bonham, Jones, Page, Plant) 3.55

1972 7" single (Philippines: Atlantic 45-3747)

  • A. 'Stairway to Heaven' [part 1] (Page, Plant) 4.01
  • B. 'Stairway to Heaven' [part 2] (Page, Plant) 4.01

1972 7" promo (South Africa: Atlantic Teal)

  • A. 'Stairway to Heaven' (Page, Plant) 8.02
  • B. 'Going to California' (Page, Plant) 3.31

1990 12" single (Brazil: WEA 6WP.2003)

  • A. 'Stairway to Heaven' [stereo] (Page, Plant) 8.02
  • B. 'Stairway to Heaven' [mono] (Page, Plant) 8.02

1991 20th Anniversary edition (US: Atlantic PRCD 4424-2, Japan: Warner Pioneer PRCD 4424-2)

  • 1× CD single, 1×7" single


Credits

Musicians:

  • Jimmy Page - electric guitar, acoustic guitar, producer, remastering, digital remastering
  • Robert Plant - vocals
  • John Paul Jones - recorders, keyboards, bass guitar
  • John Bonham - drums, percussion

Production:

  • Peter Grant - executive producer
  • Andy Johns - engineer, mixing
  • Joe Sidore - original CD mastering engineer (mid-1980s)
  • George Marino - remastered CD engineer (1990)

Bibliography

  • Lewis, Dave (2012) Led Zeppelin: From a Whisper to a Scream. London: Omnibus Press. ISBN 978-1-78038-547-1 (OCLC 782996334).
  • Welch, Chris (2009) Led Zeppelin: The Stories Behind Every Led Zeppelin Song. London: Carlton Books. ISBN 978-1-84732-286-9 (OCLC 317254118).

External links

Registrations

  • APRA: GW00206711
  • ASCAP: 490294198
  • GEMA: 715293-001
  • ISWC: T-070.141.490-5
  • US Copyright Office: EU0000301137

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