On March 5, 1971, Led Zeppelin rolled into Ulster Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland to roadtest some songs they’d written for their upcoming fourth album. Things were rockin’ pretty hard until Jimmy Page picked up his double-neck guitar halfway through the set and started plucking out what sounded like some kind of new weird folk song. The audience wasn’t impressed even after things progressed towards a big finish almost seven minutes later. Bassist John Paul Jones remembers that the new song was met with a smattering of polite applause.
The song they debuted that night? “Stairway to Heaven.”
“Stairway” was strange for a rock song of that era. It started slow but slowly built up starting about two-thirds the way through. The tempo increased. And what the hell was Robert Plant going on about? Who said things like “bustle in your hedgerow.” And who is this piper fellow that will lead us to reason?
By the end of 1971, “Stairway” had turned into a monster. The album from whence it came, the untitled fourth Zep record, would eventually sell somewhere around 40 million copies. The song’s publishing worth has been estimated at US$500 million. And here’s an astounding fact: By 2000, the song had been played on the radio somewhere around 3 million times. Add that all up and you have 45 years’ worth of airtime.
And although it was never released as a single–manager Peter Grant wouldn’t allow it–the song became a sizeable hit on top 40 AM radio. That’s a feat few songs have ever achieved. (There were, however, two promotional 7-inch singles release for jukebox operators that played at 33 1/3 RPM.)
“Stairway” has become one of the best-known songs of all time. It was used as a template for countless songs that followed. It’s been parodied. It’s been voted the number one rock song ever countless times. The sheet music has sold over one million copies.
In 1982, spurred by a blockbuster report on the religious Trinty Broadcasting Network, some California politician demanded that warning labels be placed on the album because he said the song contained the backward message, “Here’s to my sweet Satan / The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan, / He’ll give you, he’ll give 666 / There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.” Satan’s toolshed? Uh, okay.
And of course, Zep has been sued for plagiarism over it, most notably over the opening bits, alleged stolen from a Spirit instrumental called “Taurus.” That case dragged on for years before it was finally (and rightfully) dismissed.
And if you ever want to get the stink eye in a guitar store, just pick up an axe and start plucking out that opening arpeggio.
Robert Plant never really got why “Stairway” was such a big deal and never really liked the song. But you can never predict what the public will like, right?
Happy 50th, “Stairway.” And here we go one more time.