Graded on a Curve:
Led Zeppelin,
“Stairway to Heaven”

So if this Hobbit Trilogy of a ditty ain’t the greatest epic in the history of rock’n’roll, what is? It contains multitudes! Encompasses whole mythopoeic civilizations of stargazing shrub worshippers! And oh, it’s got three sections each of which is a wheel, which means it ain’t a stairway, it’s a tricycle! And if you hop aboard said tricycle it’ll ride you straight to heaven, which will save you from having to take the stairs!

“Stairway to Heaven” is both an architectural folly and the fullest and most baroque realization of the rock’n’roll dream–if Chuck Berry’s songs are street-ready hot rods, “Stairway”’s the fucking Sistine Chapel set down on the chassis of an Oldsmobile 442.

Written in part at the band’s Welsh hideaway Bron-Yr-Aur in 1970 following Led Zeppelin’s fifth American tour and in part at recording sessions at Headley Grange, Hampshire, “Stairway to Heaven” is–to employ yet another metaphor–a majestic and ever-widening river, one fed in turns by the tributaries of Renaissance music, English folk, heavy metal, and progressive rock.

“Stairway to Heaven” was famously never released as a single, but two U.S. promotional discs were issued in very small numbers, so collectors start your engines. Of course FM radio played the shit out of it anyway–I’m talking to the tune of an estimated 2,874,000 times by 1991, which if you were to listen to all 2,874,000 radio plays back to back would take you 44 YEARS! So start listening!

No wonder so many people hate the fucking song. If familiarity breeds contempt, for some folks “Stairway to Heaven” breeds homicidal ideation. You never hear drunks shouting “Play ‘Stairway to Heaven’!” at live shows, probably cuz they’re afraid the band will take ‘em up on it.

Still, you gotta give the song its due as a divinely inspired piece of musical workmanship. “Stairway” begins in a sylvan glade where some pipers are piping in the new dawn, then lulls you into a trance with its magical acoustic spell until the drums come in and Bobby tells you not to worry about the bustle in your hedgerow cuz it’s just the May Queen’s vacuum cleaner. Then everything stops and these majestic chords ring forth and Jimmy Page plays what many argue is the greatest ax solo in the history of rock’n’roll and lo and behold you’re suddenly ascending heavenward step by step as Plant howls like a banshee and Bonham beats the shit out of his skins. Until the whole thing stops and Plant sings “And she’s buying a stairway… to heaven.”

Talk about your heavy numbers, dude! No wonder Page likened “Stairway” to a sonic orgasm!

As for the lyrics they’re so much goofy mysterioso hoodoo, equal parts straight-up description (forests echo with laughter, smoke rises through the trees, your shadow’s taller than your soul) and “occult” wisdom (if you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last, there are two paths you can go by and there’s still time to change the one you’re on, etc) of the sort to be found on affirmational bumper stickers. But just what does it mean to be a rock and not to roll? Wouldn’t that make you a square rock?

Plant undoubtedly spent way too much time perusing J.R.R. Tolkien for his own good, but there’s no denying his misty mountain lyrics fit Page’s music like a falcon’s hood. What was he supposed to have sung about? Defiling groupies with mud sharks at Seattle’s Edgewater Inn? The plethora of 14-year-old “road wives” to be found at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in L.A.? Good luck with that! No, it was go the Hobbit route or forget about it!

And the mysticism doesn’t stop with the lyrics. The song’s composition itself is occult too, in keeping with Jimmy Page’s status as the world’s biggest fake Devil worshipper. Not only do its three sections correspond to the three tines on Satan’s pitchfork and the number of Cerberus the dog’s heads–three’s also the number of points you get for a field goal and how many people you need for a three-way! And just in case you’re still not convinced camels have three eyelids! And I was a third child, and boy am I special!

None of which, I’m sure, occurred to Page when he was composing “Stairway to Heaven.” If certain morons are to be believed, he and the boys spent most of their time backwards masking the words, “There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan” on to the thing. That and the words, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” Talk about your subliminal advertising; you wouldn’t believe how many LifeCall medical alert pendants “Stairway to Heaven” has sold!

Me, I never ever turn on “Stairway to Heaven” of my own accord. But I’m always overjoyed to hear it at the gym or on my car radio or at the local supermarket–it makes me feel like some cowl-wearing Druid dude officiating at some awful pagan ritual in a clearing in an English oak forest somewhere a long, long time ago. And how many songs can you say that about?

I pay “Stairway to Heaven” exactly what it’s due when I say it’s the greatest piece of ersatz mysticism ever set to a rock’n’roll beat. You probably have to be an idiot to truly buy into it as a spiritual statement in any way, shape or form, but I’ll be damned if some small unreasonable part of me doesn’t respond to the words, “And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune/Then the piper will lead us to reason.”

In 1888 the esteemed English art critic Walter “Party Dog” Pater wrote, “All art aspires to the condition of music. And to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” in particular.” Ok, so he didn’t write that second sentence, but only because he never got to hear “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s more than just a hoot; it’s the fucking greatest song Led Zep, or anybody for that matter, would ever conjure up. Or my name isn’t 5 mysterious glyphs and pronounced “Frodo”!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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