Writers: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
Band: Led Zeppelin
Album: Led Zeppelin IV (or whatever you would like to call it)
Original Release: November 8, 1971
There are a few songs in the rock music canon that stand apart as transcendent masterpieces. They are the emblems of rock yet they step over a line into something completely different, a higher art form of which they are each the only example. The two most obvious songs in this category, at least to me, are Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." While the Beatles' catalogue practically requires its own genre, I'm not sure even their best quite matches up.
"Stairway to Heaven" is an extraordinary song for many reasons. The haunting melody and ethereal lyrics are lovely in and of themselves. But what makes the song a classic is the gradual build from the Renaissance-style acoustic guitar and recorders in the intro to the hard rock anthem finale. My favorite moment is the drum entrance that kicks off the fifth verse. Until that moment - over four minutes into the recording - you don't even notice the absence of drums. Build is a popular device in musical composition. Few works have achieved it so elegantly.
For all of its critical and commercial success, or perhaps because of it, "Stairway" is much mocked in popular culture. Still, it endures. I love this quote from Erik Davis:
"Stairway to Heaven" isn't the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one. Everyone knows it... Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic. The dumb parodies; the Wayne's World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant's public disavowal of the song—all of these just prove the rule. "Stairway to Heaven" is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR [ed. note: Album-Oriented Rock] will ever get you to the absolute.No song transports me back to my teenage years quite like "Stairway," recalling lying back in the beanbag chair in my bedroom. As a music teacher, I so wish that I could bring my students to the blissful joy I felt when I first discovered it. I kept a door-length poster of the Gandalf-esque illustration on the inner fold of the album packaging above my bed for years. Once in the night, it fell on top of me. I woke up terrified!
Many have covered "Stairway" over the past (is it possible?) near half-century, but none more beautifully than the band Heart. The following is their show-stealing tribute at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012. My two favorite parts of the video: the band members' obvious emotional response to the performance and Yo-Yo Ma headbanging: