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In the only memorable moment of the 1992 comedy film Wayne’s World, the slacker played by Mike Myers visits a guitar shop. He starts to pick out the first four notes of a familiar acoustic arpeggio. Abruptly, the shop owner cuts him off, pointing to a sign that reads “No Stairway to Heaven”.
The song that became a favourite among budding bedroom guitarists was the highlight of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, arguably of their entire career. Singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page knocked together the outline of the song at a cottage in Wales in 1971 before finishing it off with their bandmates at the Hampshire manor house that was their base for the album.
“Stairway” combines the band’s signature themes. It starts with the folksy mysticism with which they had started to experiment on their previous album. The lyrics of “Stairway” are often taken to be hippie gnosticism, but in fact the opening verse was, in Robert Plant’s words, “about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration”.
For the first four minutes of the song, Plant’s voice wraps around Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar and multi-tracked recorders played by John Paul Jones. Then, John Bonham’s drums reinforce the beat. The tension builds; the tempo subtly accelerates. A couple of minutes later, Page leans hard into an electric guitar solo and Bonham’s drumming suddenly explodes. This is no accident: Bonham was happy with the track he originally laid down, but Page deployed the right mixture of passive-aggression to goad him into another take, on which he audibly sizzles with anger.
“Stairway to Heaven” was never a single — it was too long, and impossible to edit; and in any case the band wanted people to buy the whole album — but it became Led Zeppelin’s calling card, regularly performed in concert. “Does anybody remember laughter?” Plant would enquire rhetorically, mid-verse.
It has, though, had a contested afterlife. Wayne played the riff only in the cinema version of the film because the band, zealously protective at least of their own copyrights, squashed its use in television and home video releases. They were later hit with a lawsuit of their own by the estate of Randy California of the band Spirit, claiming that the opening bore a similarity to his melody for Spirit’s song “Taurus”. In June this year, after a colourful trial during which Jimmy Page was quizzed as to whether the Mary Poppins song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” might have influnced “Stairway”, a jury in California rejected the claim.
For years after the dissolution of the band in 1980, Plant refused to perform the song, although he was pressed into it for Live Aid, along with Zeppelin colleagues Page and Jones, backed by the drummers of Genesis and Chic; and for the 2007 Led Zeppelin reunion that marked the death of their record company boss Ahmet Ertegun. Both renditions were ramshackle. Unlike other Zeppelin warhorses, it is not part of his current set with Plant’s band, The Sensational Soul Shifters.
But others have attempted it. Frank Zappa and the Mothers went heavy on the prog — it might have been a joke, it might not. Parody band Dread Zeppelin’s version sounds like Elvis Presley fronting the Wailers. Lez Zeppelin, an all-woman “she-incarnation” of the band, played it surprisingly straight.
Among the best covers is Dolly Parton’s, which starts with Appalachian guitar and Parton humming the recorder part, and works up into a full-scale hoedown, amid which she sneakily interpolates a couple of extra verses. Rodrigo y Gabriela, amiable Mexican acoustic buskers gone large, remove the words altogether in their Hispanic-flavoured rendition.
In 2012, all three surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunited to be honoured for an evening at the Kennedy Center in Washington, with Barack Obama in attendance. Clad in white tie, Plant, Page and Jones saw Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart perform “Stairway”, accompanied by Bonham’s son Jason on drums and by a gospel choir in bowler hats. Page nodded appreciatively to his former comrades. Plant’s eyes filled with tears.