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.
One of the song’s visual signatures is Page standing in the spotlight with a Gibson EDS-1275
double-neck guitar strapped over his shoulders. More important than the guitar’s striking looks was its functionality. The EDS-1275 saved him the trouble of switching between six- and 12-string necks. In 2007 the Gibson Custom Shop built 250 Vintage Original Spec Jimmy Page Signature EDS-1275s, modeled after his red 1971 original.
Atlantic Records pressured the band to edit “Stairway To Heaven” down to a more traditionally radio-friendly length for the November 1971 release of Zoso/IV, so it could be pitched to programmers as a conventional single. But Led Zeppelin were staunch in their refusal. “Stairway To Heaven” was a fully realized work of art, they contended, so Atlantic had to be content with servicing radio with an EP — an amazing EP. Side A was “Stairway”; side B was “Black Dog” paired with “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
As of the year 2000, “Stairway To Heaven” had scored more than three million radio plays and remains the most popular piece of sheet music in rock, selling 15,000 copies annually. (Take that, “Free Bird!”) Nonetheless, it scored a mere 31 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of “The 500 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time,” although Guitar World ranked Page’s stunning solo number one in its list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Solos in Rock and Roll History.”
“Stairway” wasn’t the only epic number on Led Zeppelin IV. Their definitive cover of Memphis Minnie’s blues chestnut “When the Levee Breaks” also clocked in at more than seven minutes and featured blistering sequences of guitar and harmonica. Another song, “The Battle of Evermore,” also captured the idyllic influence of Bron-Yr-Aur. And “Misty Mountain Hop” and “Four Sticks” added to the album’s visceral side, while “Going To California” displayed their mastery of blues dynamics. Zoso/IV reached number two on Billboard’s top albums list, but “Stairway” dominated the radio charts for a triumphant 44 weeks.
Page still considers the song a milestone. “Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time,” he told filmmaker and music journalist Cameron Crowe in 1975. “I guess we did it with ‘Stairway.’ “