"Stairway to Heaven" is, whether you like it or not, the most popular rock song of the past forty years (at least as measured by radio airplay). The song's very popularity has caused some (rather harsh) critics to slag it off mercilessly. It's overrated, they say. It's words are nothing more than "corny medievalism." If you play the record backward (why would you do that, again?) you might even find satanic messages.
Ohhhhkaaaaay. On the other hand, critics (and backwards-record-playing, satan-hunting lunatics) notwithstanding, "Stairway to Heaven" has also been called rock's greatest song. An epic that, at eight minutes long, has defied market researchers and been played over 3 million times on the radio. The pinnacle of hard-rocking lyrical and musical composition.
These opinions, on both sides, get so charged that any analysis that took sides would be totally inadequate. ("No 'Stairway'! Denied!") Even if it seems a bit ridiculous to talk about the "satanic messages" that supposedly fill the track when played in reverse, it may be necessary if we wants to appreciate the immense cultural potency of the song.
So what is it, exactly, about the song? Why is it probably being played on your favorite classic rock station right now, almost 40 years after its recording?
"Stairway to Heaven" plays out as a kind of spirit quest, a journey into a quasi-mythical, pagan past through music. The classical guitar and lyrics recall Romantic poets like Keats as nature itself becomes a voice of truth whispering in the distance. The song's key thematic element—a journey in search of meaning in a world of ambiguity—is emphasized by the constant evolution of the song as it, too, searches for an adequate voice. When that voice finally seems to be found—in Jimmy Page's soaring guitar solo, which starts almost six minutes into the piece—it is ritualistically and gloriously prefaced by a fanfare. It seems that the song is channeling the spirit of some kind of guitar god. The energy of the song then becomes incredible: Robert Plant's singing an octave higher, the distorted guitar bellowing, the rhythm section frantically pounding away. The song becomes less about Page as an individual musician and more about the band acting on Page's energy. There is a shift from "extreme individuality" to "extreme community," in the words of musicologist Susan Fast. And then, as if somehow the heavy metal sound isn't good enough, as Robert Walser explains: "The apotheosis/apocalypse breaks off suddenly, and the song ends with Plant's unaccompanied voice, a return to the solitary poignancy of the beginning." We are left with an ambiguity of sound, but also with a powerful sense of ritual and meaning found in the implicit rejection of contemporary pop music (and traditional religion) that metal and pagan/mystical lyrics represent. In this countercultural voice, looking for meaning "in the west" and from the "songbird who sings," at the very least there is a romantic assurance that some kind of spirituality exists… and it's something that can be experienced through heavy metal's aggression, emotion, and mysticality.
Whoa. There's a lot going on here, it seems. And we didn't even have to play the track backwards to find it.
Asking what spurred the culture of rejection embodied by "Stairway to Heaven," Musicologist Robert Walser noted that the 1960s and '70s marked a large period of destabilization in the Western world: "the end of Pax Americana; new economic crises; de-industrialization, the decline of unions and the rise of low-pay service jobs; revelations of corrupt leadership; powerful social movements challenging dominant policies on race, gender, ecology, and consumer rights; new challenges to the stability of social institutions such as the family; and redefinitions of political themes such as freedom."
It is also important to point out the development of postmodernism, an umbrella term for the general sense that there is no universal "truth" in the world and that we should instead explore and understand various local, cultural, and more relative values. Walser goes further to say that heavy metal, like the horror genre in film, developed to "restore the sense of security undermined by these disruptions." What that means is that when George Ramero was filming Night of the Living Dead and Black Sabbath were playing "Iron Man," they were attempting to find new, undeniable truths—the absoluteness of evil in flesh-eating zombies, the power of aggression in crunching guitars. This may all sound overthought and over-intellectualized—and maybe it is—but the popularity of the horror and heavy metal genres could not be denied.
Led Zeppelin, to the fascination and disdain of many, plays into the powers of occult and emotion. Anti-rock-n'-rollers have taken Led Zeppelin's mysticism and attempted (rather successfully) to allege that "Stairway to Heaven" contains satanic messages when played backward. But fans find the occultism and myth surrounding Led Zeppelin to be one of the band's best attributes. In Susan Fast's book on Led Zeppelin, In the Houses of the Holy, she cites fans as saying things like, "I enjoy the sense of magick [sic] in the music"; "A lot of their lyrics portray far off, mystical lands, castles, oceans, etc. The band's image was known as being mystical and somewhat secretive"; and "They are consummately modern with cores of ancient and original spirits." Note the use of the older, occulty-sounding British spelling of "magic" with a -"ck" ending, and the romantic ideas of mysticism and ancientness. The fan who spoke of the band's "original spirits" raised an important point: the folk/mystical sensibilities of the beginning of "Stairway to Heaven" and references to enchanting figures like "the May Queen" and "the piper" or "Rings of smoke through the trees" seem so elemental to us because they are old ideas. There is—in "Stairway to Heaven," Led Zeppelin, horror, and metal—a longing to go back to a time when the evil spirits in the forest grounded our beliefs in good and evil. This is the time of Homer and his Iliad, of King Arthur and his Grail, of Tolkien and his rings—the (in the imaginations of many) pre-political, pre-economic, and pre-industrial era. This is a time when things like the "gold" "souls" and "the west" had simpler meanings… or so we like to believe.
The classical music and nymphs in your hedgerow are only half of the story. If that were all there was to Led Zeppelin, the band would have ended up as wannabe minstrels playing at the Renaissance Faire. The fusion of hard rock with the classical is what makes the song so interesting. The authenticity of aggression and emotion was an important belief to the creators of heavy metal. Jimmy Page believed absolutely that he dealt in the power of real emotions, and he was heavily influenced by emotive, improvisational American blues acts like Chuck Berry. This explains the fanfare prefacing his solo in "Stairway to Heaven." The repeated triplet chords on the guitar echo the horn-played fanfares of coronations and royal weddings. It is as if the wandering of the song until this point has ceased to make way for a guitar hero who can provide the sense of authenticity and escape that Plant sings of. No wonder the solo is improvised; it seeks to convey pure emotion. While musicologists and critics have often said that the song gradually adds in instruments as it builds to this solo, it's more true to say that the classical music elements—the recorder, the acoustic guitar—are replaced by more modern instruments in a sort of movement through time, a summoning of truths and myths through the contemporary. It is a way to bring these past ideals into the now, and Page is the lone guitar hero who can do that.
That's not the end of the story, though. Robert Plant and the rest of the band adopt Page's aggressive new sound in joining the guitarist for the wailing final verse. When Plant sings, "As we wind on down the road" there is a sense of that he speaks of the band and their followers—that there is a musical community now moving against pop culture and into a contemporary realm of mysticism and power. That power is in rock n' roll. As the song becomes increasingly hard rock, Plant begins to rhyme his lyrics more frequently, as if rock provides this sense of poetic truth to him. And, more literally, the power of rock n' roll is in the words "rock n' roll" as Plant sings: "When all are one and one is all / To be a rock and not to roll."
But then, in an instant, we return to loneliness of the song's beginning. The rock section breaks off unresolved—on the F rather than the tonic of the song, the A—and Plant is left to sing us back to the A in his ghost dog croon. It suggests that the transformational sound of the second half of the song provides no lasting answer, but instead only a temporary escape—a kind of symbolic ritual rejection of the culture and some possibility of transmutation of the mystical past into the rock of the present.