If you were to be questioned about your pick of the greatest rock song of all time, it would be a rather tedious trip down the memory lane. So, let us ease your troubles. “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin has often been dubbed the ‘greatest rock song of all time’ or even ‘the greatest song of all time’ by countless masses around the world. This is not entirely sugar-coated, but closer to fact than fiction. Why do we say so? Let us take a look at the song lyrics and meaning behind it to find out.
“Stairway to Heaven” was released as a non-single on Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album which is untitled. The album is, hence, referred to as ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ released on November 8, 1971. Despite not being released as a single, this track was one of the most played and requested songs on the radio in the 1970s. And this is especially significant considering the track had a runtime of 8 minutes and 2 seconds, making it into the list of longest songs of all time.
Who wrote “Stairway to Heaven”?
Led Zeppelin’s lead vocalist Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page wrote the lyrics to the entire song. The writing process is said to have taken several months from May to December 1970. However, additional lyrics were added while recording the song.
What song is “Stairway to Heaven” based on?
In 2015, a trustee of the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin and their iconic hit. The copyright infringement lawsuit claimed that “Stairway to Heaven” had the riff copied from a song titled “Taurus” by the band Spirit. However, in 2016, Led Zeppelin was cleared of this lawsuit ruling that it was not copied. NME claims that the case was re-opened in 2018.
What makes “Stairway to Heaven” such an iconic hit?
There are many reasons. For some, it is the greatest piece of lyrics written. For some, it is the greatest piece of guitar work done. However, a lot of them would also agree that it is a combination of lyrics, music, genre-mixing, and elaborate song meaning it embodies.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song as the second-best work by Led Zeppelin on their discography noting;
“The signature power ballad on Led Zeppelin IV towers over Seventies rock like a monolith. From the Elizabethan ambiance of its acoustic introduction to Plant’s lyrical mysticism to Page’s spiraling solo, the eight-minute song is a masterpiece of slow-reveal intensity that withholds power, then ascends skyward like nothing in rock. ‘It speeds up like an adrenaline flow,’ said Page, whose on-the-spot improvisation was the perfect complement to Plant’s evocation of excess and salvation. ‘It was a milestone for us.’”
“Stairway to Heaven” begins at a slow tempo with acoustic instruments and sharp but solemn vocals by Robert Plant. Soon it progresses into a mix of electronic instruments and to an up-tempo. The song further progresses into a hard rock anthem with deafening vocals. The final part reduces to an acapella with intensely powerful vocals. In this process, the track crosses over three main genres; progressive rock, folk-rock, and hard rock.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked “Stairway to Heaven” at #8 on ‘100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time’ and #31 on ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the song into their list of ‘The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.’ The Academy Awards awarded the song to the ‘Grammy Hall of Fame Award.’ VH1 magazine ranked the song at #3 on ‘The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time’ list. RIAA ranked the song at #53 on ‘Songs of the Century.’
Who was “Stairway to Heaven” written about?
The main protagonist of the song is an unnamed female who is characterized to be ‘greedy.’ However, this person does not relate to any real-life figure in particular. She is more of a symbol of this world of materialism and consumerism.
What’s the meaning behind the song “Stairway to Heaven”?
Robert Plant’s idea about why this song became such a classic hit was due to its “abstraction.” He further explained this; “depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics.” So this leaves us with very little room to elaborate on the full spectrum of meanings this song could fathom in a person. But we are going to try!
In the gist of things, “Stairway to Heaven” talks about a woman who is delusional about the ways of the world. The line “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven” sums up the idea behind the song, which is an absurdity in its essence. You cannot ‘buy’ your way to heaven. You have to ‘give’ your way to heaven.
The song has also been related to religious themes as well. From God to Mother Mary to Satan himself, different lyrics have been perceived differently by fans and critics around the world. Because, just as the song says, “you know sometimes words have two meanings.”
Maybe this is not a song to be understood. Maybe this is a song to be felt deep within us.
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Does “Stairway to Heaven” contain a Satanic message?
Another popular belief is that this classic rock hit is actually a worship to the devil itself. The claim is raised against the fourth verse of the song. It is said that when this verse is played backward, it sounds like “Here’s to my sweet Satan / The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan / He’ll give, he’ll give you 666 / There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.” However, Led Zeppelin has denied this claim strongly.
Lyrics Review and Song Meaning of “Stairway to Heaven”
The first verse of the song sets the stage for the entire song right away. The singer speaks about a woman who is misguided by wealth. She was a “woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand … and it softened up after that,” says Robert Plant.
This section of the song also alludes to the popular high-fiction novel series ‘The Lord of the Rings‘ written by J. R. R. Tolkien. In the book, is a poem beginning with “All that is gold does not glitter…”
This woman is capable of getting, or rather buying, anything she wants in this world. So she presumes it is the same situation in the afterlife. Her delusions lead to her trying to buy her way to heaven. But heaven works in the exact opposite way. You gain merits by giving. So her ticket may find her at closed Pearly Gates of Heaven for her.
Led Zeppelin states that sometimes words have two meanings. Indeed they do! But how that relates to this particular situation is a mystery.
The song turns away from this specific woman now and turns into a much more general sense.
‘West’ is the direction of sunset and a clear metaphor for everything dark and dreary, including death. This ties in with the next line which says that the singer’s spirit is crying to leave this world.
‘Rings of smoke through the trees,’ yet again, baffles to make the connection to the theme of the song. This is one reason why this song also has been labeled a psychedelic experience on drugs. In reference to The Lord of the Rings, it could relate to the character of Gandalf, a wizard, often seen blowing smoke rings from his pipe.
The ‘Piper’ in the third verse of “Stairway to Heaven” is often referred to be a portrayal of God. Much like the Pied Piper of Hamelin story, God will lead his children to salvation only if the subjects ‘call the tune’ or adhere to his ways. For those who stand by His side, a better day will dawn on the morrow.
The verse that has been labeled as a Satanic call when played backward ironically has the heaviest religious influence on the entire song. May Queen is annotated to be Mother Mary to whom the month of May is dedicated. It could also mean the “beginning of Spring” as Robert Plant explains.
Led Zeppelin also suggests that there is free will in the world and one can choose any path they seem best. But in the end, everybody will realize that there is only one right path. This could be a religious path or a self-righteous path. But the band wants you to remember that it is never too late to correct your path.
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When it comes to the right time, we all have to go. Up or down, we have to trod into the afterlife. That is the Piper’s calling to everyone and that is a guarantee. Zeppelin directly talks to this ‘greedy woman’ who is the protagonist of the story but also represents all of us in this world. The singer tells her that the ticket to heaven’s stairway is not something you buy with gold or silver or dollars. It is something you earn by giving away everything you have. This knowledge lies in the “whispering wind” which could be a reference to common knowledge. “Whispering wind” could also mean ‘prayer.’
In the bridge of the song, Led Zeppelin summarizes the idea of the song so far.
The singer paints a picture of the final stage of a person’s life. It is the end of the road and the sun is setting casting a longer shadow. There will be (hopefully) angels to guide us to the next dawn of our life. And if you listen hard enough, not to anything or anyone else, but to yourself in honesty, you will learn what is needed for this next journey. And on this path, everything does turn to gold–even the ones that do not glitter!
“When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll”
The above lyrics are possibly some of the most creative in this song. Led Zeppelin states that we are all one and all of us are one. If everyone thinks this way, there would be no issues in this world. But this is as a utopian statement as “Imagine” by John Lennon.
“To be a rock and not to roll” not only delivers a pun on the ‘rock n roll’ genre but also delivers a message. A rock represents something steady and strong. ‘To roll’ is to be volatile and unsteady. This line is in contrast to the popular idiom ‘rolling stone gathers no moss.’ This is a good example to illustrate that this complex world cannot be defined or explained in one fool-proof statement or idiom. Everything is subjective.
The final cry of “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven” is as powerful as the rest of the song. Despite everything said and done, this woman still keeps on to her ways, much like this world. But there is hope, as distant as it may seem.
All of these complexities, vibrance, and chaos of “Stairway to Heaven” make it such a perfect creation to discuss its theme–which is essentially human life.
Let us hear what you think about the song by leaving a comment below.