Stairway to Heaven
|"Stairway to Heaven"|
US promotional single sleeve
|Song by Led Zeppelin|
|from the album Led Zeppelin IV|
|Released||8 November 1971|
Samples of the three song sections
"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.
- 1 Writing and recording
- 2 Composition
- 3 Spirit copyright infringement lawsuit
- 4 Live performances
- 5 Success and legacy
- 6 Claims of backmasking
- 7 Accolades
- 8 Formats and track listings
- 9 Personnel
- 10 Charts
- 11 Other versions
- 12 Cover versions
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
- 15 External links
Writing and recording
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:
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. 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 described as progressive rock, folk rock and hard rock. The song consists of several distinct sections, beginning with a quiet introduction on a finger-picked six-string guitar and four recorders in a Renaissance music style (ending at 2:15) and gradually moving into a slow electric middle section (2:16–5:33), then a long guitar solo (5:34–6:44), before the faster hard rock final section (6:45 to 7:45), ending with a short vocals-only epilogue. Plant sings the opening, middle and epilogue sections in his mid vocal range, but sings the hard rock section in his higher range which borders on falsetto.
Written in the key of A minor, the song opens with an arpeggiated, finger-picked guitar chord progression with a chromatic descending bassline A-G♯-G-F♯-F. John Paul Jones contributed overdubbed wooden bass recorders in the opening section (he used a Mellotron and, later, a Yamaha CP70B Grand Piano and Yamaha GX1 to synthesise this arrangement in live performances) and a Hohner Electra-Piano electric piano in the middle section.
The sections build with more guitar layers, each complementary to the intro, with the drums entering at 4:18. The extended Jimmy Page guitar solo in the song's final section was played for the recording on a 1959 Fender Telecaster given to him by Jeff Beck (an instrument he used extensively with the Yardbirds) plugged into a Supro amplifier, although in an interview he gave to Guitar World magazine, Page also claimed, "It could have been a Marshall, but I can't remember". Three different improvised solos were recorded, with Page agonising about deciding which to keep. Page later revealed, "I did have the first phrase worked out, and then there was the link phrase. I did check them out beforehand before the tape ran." The other guitar parts were played using a Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic guitar and a Fender Electric XII guitar (a 12-string guitar that was plugged directly to the soundboard); these can be heard on the left and right recording channels respectively. For live versions, Page switched to a Heritage Cherry Gibson EDS-1275 6/12 Doubleneck guitar. The final progression is a i-VII-VI (natural minor) progression (Am-G-F), a mainstay of rock music.
Another interesting aspect of the song is the timing of the lead-up to the famous guitar solo. While staying in 4/4 throughout this section, most of the accents shift to the eighth notes. This makes the rhythm figure challenging for some musicians, but adds a feeling of anticipation to the approaching guitar solo.
Spirit copyright infringement lawsuit
Over the years, some people have considered that the song's opening guitar arpeggios bear a close resemblance to the 1968 instrumental "Taurus" by the Los Angeles-based rock band Spirit, written by Spirit guitarist Randy California. In the liner notes to the 1996 reissue of Spirit's self-titled debut album, California wrote: "People always ask me why "Stairway to Heaven" sounds exactly like "Taurus", which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played "Fresh Garbage" in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour."
In May 2014, Spirit bassist Mark Andes and a trust acting on behalf of California filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin and injunction against the "release of the album containing the song" in an attempt to obtain a writing credit for California, who died in 1997. A lack of resources was cited as one of the reasons that Spirit did not file the suit earlier; according to a friend of California's mother, "Nobody had any money, and they thought the statute of limitations was done ... It will be nice if Randy got the credit." If the Spirit lawsuit had been successful, past earnings due to the song—estimated at more than US$550 million—would not have been part of the settlement, but the publisher and composers may have been entitled to a share of future profits.
On 11 April 2016, Los Angeles district judge Gary Klausner ruled that there were enough similarities between the song and the instrumental for a jury to decide the claim, and a trial was scheduled for 10 May. The copyright infringement action was brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late guitarist, whose legal name was Randy Wolfe. On 23 June, the jury ruled that the similarities between the songs did not amount to copyright infringement. In July, Skidmore's attorney filed a notice of appeal against the court's decision. In March 2017, the verdict was appealed, with a main argument being that the jury should have been able to hear a recorded version of "Taurus".
The inaugural public performance of the song took place at Belfast's Ulster Hall on 5 March 1971. Bassist John Paul Jones recalls that the crowd was unimpressed: "They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew."
The world radio premiere of "Stairway to Heaven" was recorded at the Paris Cinema on 1 April 1971, in front of a live studio audience, and broadcast three days later on the BBC. The song was performed at almost every subsequent Led Zeppelin concert, only being omitted on rare occasions when shows were cut short for curfews or technical issues. The band's final performance of the song was in Berlin on 7 July 1980, which was also their last concert until 10 December 2007 at London's O2 Arena; the version was the longest, lasting almost fifteen minutes, including a seven minute guitar solo.
When playing the song live, the band would often extend it to over ten minutes, with Page playing an extended guitar solo and Plant adding a number of lyrical ad-libs, such as "Does anybody remember laughter?", "And I think you can see that" (as seen in the film The Song Remains the Same), "Does anybody remember forests?" (As seen on the live performance in Seattle 1977), "wait a minute!" and "I hope so". For performing this song live, Page used a Gibson EDS-1275 double neck guitar so he would not have to pause when switching from a six to a twelve-string guitar.
By 1975, the song had a regular place as the finale of every Led Zeppelin concert. However, after their concert tour of the United States in 1977, Plant began to tire of "Stairway to Heaven": "There's only so many times you can sing it and mean it ... It just became sanctimonious."
The song was played again by the surviving members of Led Zeppelin at the Live Aid concert in 1985; at the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert in 1988, with Jason Bonham on drums; and by Jimmy Page as an instrumental version on his solo tours.
The first few bars were played alone during Page and Plant tours in lieu of the final notes of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You", and in November 1994 Page and Plant performed an acoustic version of the song at a Tokyo news station for Japanese television. "Stairway to Heaven" was also performed at Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert at the O2 Arena, London on 10 December 2007.
Plant cites the most unusual performance of the song ever as being that performed at Live Aid: "with two drummers (Phil Collins and Tony Thompson) while Duran Duran cried at the side of the stage – there was something quite surreal about that."
Footage of the song being played live is preserved on the band's concert film The Song Remains the Same, featuring a performance from Madison Square Garden in 1973, and on the Led Zeppelin DVD, featuring a performance from Earls Court Arena in 1975. Official audio versions are also available on The Song Remains the Same's accompanying soundtrack, on Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions (a performance from London's Paris Theatre in 1971) and on How the West Was Won (a performance from the Long Beach Arena in 1972). There are also hundreds of audio versions which can be found on unofficial Led Zeppelin bootleg recordings.
Success and legacy
"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 331⁄3 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.
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".
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.
Claims of backmasking
The claimed backmasked section of Stairway to Heaven
The same section reversed
Problems playing these files? See media help.
In a January 1982 television program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network hosted by Paul Crouch, it was claimed that hidden messages were contained in many popular rock songs through a technique called backmasking. One example of such hidden messages that was prominently cited was in "Stairway to Heaven". The alleged message, which occurs during the middle section of the song ("If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now...") when played backward, was purported to contain the Satanic references "Here's to my sweet Satan" and "There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan."
Following the claims made in the television program, California assemblyman Phil Wyman proposed a state law that would require warning labels on records containing backward masking. In April 1982, the Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee of the California State Assembly held a hearing on backward masking in popular music, during which "Stairway to Heaven" was played backward. During the hearing, William Yarroll, a self-described "neuroscientific researcher", claimed that backward messages could be deciphered by the human brain.
The band itself has for the most part ignored such claims. In response to the allegations, Swan Song Records issued the statement: "Our turntables only play in one direction—forwards." Led Zeppelin audio engineer Eddie Kramer called the allegations "totally and utterly ridiculous. Why would they want to spend so much studio time doing something so dumb?" Robert Plant expressed frustration with the accusations in a 1983 interview in Musician magazine: "To me it's very sad, because 'Stairway to Heaven' was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that's not my idea of making music."
|Rock and Roll Hall of Fame||United States||"The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll"||1994||*|
|Classic Rock||United Kingdom||"Ten of the Best Songs Ever!"||1999||1|
|VH1||United States||"The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time"||2000||3|
|RIAA||United States||"Songs of the Century"||2001||53|
|Grammy Awards||United States||"Grammy Hall of Fame Award"||2003||*|
|Rolling Stone||United States||"The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time"||2003||31|
|Q||United Kingdom||"100 Songs That Changed the World"||2003||47|
|Toby Creswell||Australia||"1001 Songs: the Great Songs of All Time"||2005||*|
|Q||United Kingdom||"100 Greatest Songs of All Time"||2006||8|
|Guitar World||United States||"100 Greatest Guitar Solos"||2006||1|
|Rolling Stone||United States||"100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time"||2008||8|
|Triple J||Australia||"Hottest 100 of All Time"||2009||10|
(*) designates unordered lists.
Formats and track listings
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 (US: Atlantic PR 175 [picture sleeve])
- 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)
- A. "Stairway to Heaven" [stereo] (Page, Plant) 7:55
- B. "Stairway to Heaven" [mono] (Page, Plant) 7:55
1972 7" promo (South Africa: Atlantic Teal)
- A. "Stairway to Heaven" (Page, Plant) 8:02
- B. "Going to California" (Page, Plant) 3:31
1978 12" single (Brazil: WEA 6WP.2003)
- A. "Stairway to Heaven" [stereo] (Page, Plant) 8:02
- B. "Stairway to Heaven" [mono] (Page, Plant) 8:02
1990 7" promo (UK: Atlantic LZ3)
- A. "Stairway to Heaven" (Page, Plant) 8:02
- B. "Whole Lotta Love" (Bonham, Jones, Page, Plant, Dixon)
1991 20th Anniversary promo (US: Atlantic PRCD 4424-2, Japan: Warner Pioneer PRCD 4424-2)
- CD single, 7" single
- Robert Plant – lead vocals, tambourine
- Jimmy Page – acoustic, electric guitar, and electric twelve-string guitar
- John Paul Jones – recorders, Hohner electric piano, bass guitar
- John Bonham – drums
|Chart (2007)||Peak position|
|New Zealand RIANZ Singles Chart||13|
|Norwegian Singles Chart||5|
|Irish Singles Chart||24|
|UK Singles Chart||37|
|US Billboard Hot Digital Songs Chart||30|
|US Billboard Hot Singles Recurrents Chart||16|
|Canadian Billboard Hot Digital Singles Chart||17|
|EU Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart||79|
|Swiss Singles Chart||17|
|Portuguese Singles Chart||8|
|Chart (2008)||Peak position|
|Swedish Singles Chart||57|
|German Singles Chart||71|
|Chart (2010)||Peak position|
|German Singles Chart||15|
Note: The official UK Singles Chart incorporated legal downloads as of 17 April 2005.
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Gold||400,000|
*sales figures based on certification alone
A different version of this song by Led Zeppelin is featured on the remastered deluxe 2CD version of Led Zeppelin IV. Known as "Stairway To Heaven (Sunset Sound Mix)", it was recorded on 5 December 1970, at Island Studio, No.1, in London with engineer Andy Johns and assistant engineer Diggs. This version runs 8:04, while the original version runs 8:02.
The song has been covered a number of times. Rolf Harris's didgeridoo-and-wobble board interpretation reached number seven in the UK charts in 1993. His performance on BBC's Top of the Pops involved swapping instruments mid-song, with the help of an aide introduced as "Miss Given". His version was one of 26 different versions of the song that were performed live by guest stars on the early 1990s Australian chat show The Money or the Gun – each being a unique version of the song in the usually idiosyncratic style of performance of each guest star. A video and CD album were released featuring 25 and 22 of the performances, respectively.
In 1977, Little Roger and the Goosebumps recorded a parody of the song in which the words to the theme song of the television show Gilligan's Island were sung in place of the original lyrics. Within five weeks, Led Zeppelin's lawyers threatened to sue them and demanded that any remaining copies of the recording be destroyed. The group won the damages in the suit, and Little Roger and the Goosebumps had to pay thousands of dollars in damages. However, during a 2005 interview on National Public Radio, Plant referred to the tune as his favourite cover of "Stairway to Heaven".
A version by Far Corporation was released in 1985 and reached number 8 in the UK singles chart. It also hit 89 in the US Billboard Hot 100, making it the only version of the song to hit the chart.
Frank Zappa created an arrangement of the song as one of the centrepieces of his 1988 tour. The arrangement, as heard on the album The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life, features the horn section of Zappa's band playing Jimmy Page's guitar solo.
Australian physicist and composer Joe Wolfe composed a set of variations on "Stairway to Heaven". This work, The Stairway Suite, is composed for orchestra, big band, chorus, and four part choir. Each variation is in the style of a famous composer: Franz Schubert, Gustav Holst, Glenn Miller, Gustav Mahler, Georges Bizet, and Ludwig van Beethoven. For example, the Schubert inspired variation is based on the Unfinished Symphony, and the Beethoven inspired variation includes vocal soloists and chorus and resembles Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Wolfe posted the full score of this piece on the Internet.
A performance of the song is featured in the Total Balalaika Show, a two-disc album recorded live in Helsinki on 12 June 1993 by the Leningrad Cowboys and the Alexandrov Red Army Ensemble. It was not included in the 1994 Aki Kaurismäki documentary film of the same name and concert. Less official concert footage that includes this song can easily be found.
Heart performed a cover of the song at least once in 1976; the 2004 reissue of the band's album Little Queen includes a recording as a bonus track. In 2012, Heart performed the song in tribute to Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center Honors, during which Plant was visibly moved to tears. This performance was so well-received and popular that a limited edition single was released on the iTunes Music Store.
In 2010, Mary J. Blige released a version on her album Stronger with Each Tear featuring Travis Barker on drums, Steve Vai and Orianthi on guitar, Randy Jackson on bass and Geffen Records chair Ron Fair on piano. Blige performed the song on American Idol with Barker, Vai, Orianthi, and Jackson; the recording was released via download for charity.
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- Lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics