Stairway to Heaven: “The” Ballad

Those who like me are veterans in the metallian wars feel the thrills to the simple mention of the name of this song. Many simply love it devotedly, a few hate it equally, but one thing I can tell for sure: it is impossible not to feel a thing to its fingered intro, to the sweet first words sang by Robert Plant until the final ecstasy to Jimmy Page’s wonderful guitar solo. I do not know how many times I rewinded the cassete to listen to the solo over an over again. The perfect song after all.

A fun fact about “Stairway to Heaven,” is that in many non-English speaking countries, the song was mistakenly took as a romantic song due to its slow cadence and the sweetness of its instrumental. Well, at least in the most part of it. Thus, many danced cheek-to-cheek in the dance rooms improvised in garages or so.

Listen to the studio version here:

It was not Led Zeppelin that invented the rock ballad. But the monster that was later called ‘power ballad,’ I have no doubt they did. They created what has to be considered one of the most successful, and long-lasting, musical formulas. Unless, the most copied one. A tradition that has been passing through generations of hard rockers and heavy metallers. A fingered guitar intro with a sweet singer voice in a crescendo with a guitar saturation bursting out in one of the greatest guitar solos ever. Pretty effective, huh? So effective at all, commercially also, that in the 1980s it was mandatory for hard rock and HM bands to include one, or more, in their albums. A good power ballad could mean a pocketful of dollars. Of course, this kind of overexposure would lead to a worn out. It did, eventually. But there are still a lot of bands doing it again.

Ballads were pretty well stablished by the 1960s. The Beatles, for instance, were very skilled balladeers, but it was a different deal in terms of music. Their ballads, and also their peers’, still followed the renaissance ballad tradition which were slow tempo songs with pianos or acoustic guitars or any sweet instruments they could. In “Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin did to ballads the same thing they did to the blues: they powered them up with distorted guitars and acid vocals coming up with something brand new and exciting. Led Zeppelin broke all limits musically imposed by creating a sonic contrast never done before. Led Zeppelin handled skilfully, and wisely, with all the musical tension created in a crescendo leading to the top with the guitar solo to slow down again after it just to end up the song.

Here is a good example of a 1960s ballad by The Beatles:

All the fuzz created by “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971 made all big rock bands like The Rolling Stones (“Angie,” 1973) and Black Sabbath (“Changes,” 1972), to mention a few, to record their own ballads in response. Though, the formula was not really apropriated. Nazareth with 1975’s “Love Hurts” were the first band to have really appropriated, with a great commercial success, Zep’s formula. It was “Love Hurts” the song which definitely brought the stardom status to Nazareth.

And what about the guitarists? The first question popped up to a beginner was “Can you play “Stairway to Heaven”? The great guitar player was defined by his skills on playing “Stairway to Heaven.” Guitarists annoyed so much at music shops playing whatever they though would be the intro of “Stairway to Heaven” that the movie Wayne’s World made fun of it.

Watch the part here:

 

“Stairway to Heaven” is also one of the very few songs that is equally loved in both studio and alive versions. There is an urban myth that Jimmy Page lost the bridge to solo and the band had to repeat all the bar to leave him, finally, make his shread.

Watch the alive version here and check it out:

 

There has been no other ballad that has been in the hearts of fans for such a long time. “Stairway to Heaven” ruled, almost alone from 1971 to the mid 1980s. Even commercial radios played it in a regular basis. From that time on, “Stairway to Heaven” was the ballad to most. But as rock, and HM, went down in 1990s, so did, unfortunately “Stairway to Heaven.”

This sad and lonely world became a lot more cruel without “Stairway to Heaven.” I do not mean to be a nostalgic veteran. I am only playing a traditional role in rock and HM, which is to present to the young generations all the great songs ever made, so the genre can go on forever.

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