It's the 500-pound gorilla sitting smack-dab in the middle of the Led Zeppelin IV tracklist. Is the eight-minute-long king of rock radio playlists -- and the bane of guitar store clerks everywhere -- the greatest rock song ever after all? The answer: maybe.
I’ve been long amused by the acoustic cover of “Stairway to Heaven” the Foo Fighters performed on Later with Craig Kilborn a few years back. It’s a pretty entertaining take, certainly (love the guitar solo!), but what always strikes me most about that broadcast is how that it only takes Dave Grohl a scant few notes of guitar-picking before the studio audience recognizes the tune and accordingly loses its mind. Furthermore, huge chunks of the crowd are able to recite the lyrics by memory to assist Grohl when he forgets the proper lines. That doesn’t happen with just any random tune.
The fourth track from Led Zeppelin’s fourth album isn’t any ordinary song -- it’s an institution. I’m not talking about the eight-minute-long multi-act monster that is “Stairway to Heaven” merely being the blatant centerpiece of Led Zeppelin IV -- it’s the only cut from the album to have its lyrics included in the packaging, and the first effort from the group’s songbook to be afford the honor of having it words appear in the liners--I’m talking about it striding confidently as Zeppelin’s signature song, the most-played track in the history of FM radio, and a rite of passage for any budding guitarist noodling around in his or her local music instrument store until some killjoy employee comes by to tell the poor kids that song is not allowed there (the famous clip from the film Wayne’s World where the protagonist is shown a store sign that says “No Stairway to Heaven” after attempting the tune hits close to home for many musicians). A towering achievement that casts a massive shadow over rock music 40 years later that few dare challenge, “Stairway to Heaven” is nothing less than one of the greatest rock songs ever -- possibly even the utmost finest, judging by a scan of critics’ lists and by informally polling the nearest group of classic rock-loving bros you can find.
Of course there are those out there who are sick about the endless ravings that accompany Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus. With a song this revered and well-known, it’s only natural that given the millions who have heard it, even if a small minority of that number could go without ever listening to it again, the total would still be quite sizable. Think of anyone who hates hard rock or heavy metal, or those long-suffering Guitar Center employees who would be grateful if teenagers would just stop fumbling around with the song’s opening chords on the display guitars in their misguided attempts to look impressive. Whether someone has grown weary of Robert Plant singing about bustles in hedgerows for the zillionth time or never liked the sound of his voice to begin with, not everyone is willing to bow at the altar of “Stairway”.
The constant charges of plagiarism that dog Zeppelin maestro Jimmy Page also follow his most beloved song, as critics over the years have pointed out the similarity between “Stairway”’s acoustic introduction and the 1968 recording “Taurus” by the California band Spirit. Page was certainly aware of the group—the two ensembles toured together—and the similarity between the chord progressions is unmistakable, but it can be argued that the guitarist weaved his own distinctive melody for his composition. Does “Stairway”’s resemblance to “Spirit” tarnish its majesty? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
In my view, the similarities between the songs do little to dampen the legend of “Stairway to Heaven”, as the power of the song really lies in its slow-burn climbing structure, not in its melody or lyrics. “Stairway” journeys gradually from away from folkish acoustic finger-picking that it begins with, garnering additional musicians and inching toward faster tempos until it climaxes with an incendiary heavy metal ending. The first big signpost is when Page switches from his acoustic to electric guitars around the 2:14 mark, with Plant musing “And it makes me wonder” as the transition takes place. The new chord progression that arrives when Plant sings “There’s a feeling I get” has an ascending quality that builds up anticipation for the listener. At 4:19; drummer John Bonham makes his impeccably-placed introduction, finally nailing down the song’s groove to inch it ever more towards rock Valhalla. At 5:13, Bonham hits a cymbal crash to announce a chord figure that sounds like a fanfare announcing the arrival of the gods. In a way, it does: just before the six-minute mark, Page launches into The Solo, a stirring segment that on its own goes a long way towards maintaining the man’s place in all those “Greatest guitarists ever” polls. Bonham takes the opportunity to unleash some pummeling fills, and then for the last minute or so we are treated to the full-on rock-out section, with Page strumming barre chords on his electric guitars, Plant screaming at the top of lungs, John Paul Jones playing melodic riffs on his bass, and John Bonham pounding the ever-loving hell out of his drumkit. When the maelstrom subsides, Plant eases back and lets out one last sighing “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven” to close out the now-spent juggernaut.
Two important factors directly account for the outsized aura that shrouds “Stairway to Heaven”: its previously-detailed scope -- master that song and you become the envy of all your friends -- and the fact that—despite its instant appeal to the rock faithful and against the urgent pleas of Zeppelin’s record label, Atlantic—it was never released as a single. Oh, “Black Dog” was a single from Led Zeppelin IV—but not “Stairway”. Page wouldn’t have it. His choice to keep “Stairway to Heaven” an album track ensured that record buyers would have to shell out for the entire LP, resulting in the record’s astronomical sales figures that place it near the top of any tally of the biggest-selling releases the industry has ever seen. And unlike many contemporaries, Led Zeppelin has been fiercely protective of how its music has been licensed, refraining from selling its songs to just any commercial or compilation with hefty wallets. If you pick up the generic “Rock Classics of the ‘70s” best-of comps offered at your local department store, don’t be surprised if “Stairway” is a glaring omission from the tracklists. In most instances, if you want to experience the original recording by the group, you have to do it on the band’s terms: by putting on a copy of Led Zeppelin IV or, barring that, one of the official Zep compilations.
The effect of Zeppelin’s careful guarding of how its music is packaged and distributed is that even though radio has played the band to death, its songs have not become overfamiliar to the point of cultural mundanity as, say, certain tunes by Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones or Aerosmith. The restraint Zeppelin has shown in selling “Stairway” has ensured that the song has to be uncovered by new listeners constantly as if it were some arcane talisman, and not just another classic rock staple. There’s a chance that every few minutes or so, some teenager’s mind is being blown by hearing this song for the very first time. He or she may have an inkling of what they are in for, but nothing can fully prepare them for the eight-minute ride they are about to undergo.
So I guess the obvious question left to tackle is: is “Stairway to Heaven” the greatest rock song of all time? Well... maybe. I myself would rank Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which admittedly drew inspiration from “Stairway”) a smidge above it. But it is awesome undertaking, one that is fearlessly ambitious and succeeds at its lofty goals unquestionably. And having been one of those sense-shattered teenagers when I first encountered “Stairway”, I for one will never, ever forget the first time I heard it. If it’s not the greatest rock song ever, there are few legitimate contenders for that honor.