“Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most iconic ballads in rock/Metal world. That’s for sure. Read also “Stairway to Heaven: ‘The’ Ballad” here. But do you know the story behind the song? No? So, here it goes:
How did high school dances end before November 8, 1971? That’s the date that Led Zeppelin released a promotional disc to FM rock stations that would become the world’s most-played radio hit and cross over to teen-packed auditoriums everywhere, ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ It was an unlikely on-air success at eight-minutes long, but in the early ’70s FM DJs could still play the full-length version of ‘Inna Gadda Da Vida,’ Iron Butterfly’s 17-minute bathroom break anthem. And the length of ‘Stairway,’ plus the song’s long quiet build-up, made it perfect for slow dancing until the explosive finale, which provided an outlet for the hormonal energy that the slow dancing generated.
The song that Gibson Les Paul legend Jimmy Page described as ‘crystallizing the band’ started taking form in 1970 during Page and Robert Plant’s famous songwriting vacation in rural Wales at a cottage called Bron-Yr-Aur. Page developed the acoustic opening section there, and Plant wrote the initial verse. By the time the entire band regrouped at the Headley Grange rehearsal and recording building in East Hampshire, England, Page had several distinct pieces of electric and acoustic music that he felt were related to that initial theme. While Page tried to weave the sections together with drummer John Bonham and bassist and keyboardist John Paul Jones, Plant sat in a corner, writing. When he stood up and started singing, about 80-percent of the lyrics for ‘Stairway To Heaven’ were complete.
Led Zeppelin cut the basic rhythm tracks for ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in December 1970 at Basing Street Studios in London. Plant cut his vocals in early 1971 at Headley Grange. Then Page retuned to Basing Street to cut his solos. Initially it went poorly. Page couldn’t quite hit the mark after a number of passes. According to Jones, he could see concern in Page’s eyes, so Jones broke the tension by turning toward the guitar wizard and declaring, ‘You’re making me paranoid!’ Page shot back, “You’re making me paranoid!” And with the air cleared by laughter he nailed the solo’s elaborate architecture in a few more passes.
Page saw ‘Stairway’ as a successor to ‘Dazed and Confused,’ an epic musical adventure in several movements. As for Plant, he’d drawn on Scottish folklorist Lewis Spence for his lyrics.
The song got its first live airing on March 5, 1971, well before the album ‘Zoso,’ a/k/a ‘Led Zeppelin IV,’ was released in November. It reportedly took a few weeks for the tune to win fans over, but by the time the group appeared at London’s Paris Cinema on April Fools’ Day 1971 for a concert recording by the BBC it was in full bloom and drove the audience mad.
Watch “Stairway to Heaven” alive video here: