A couple of hours before I sat down to write this column, I was listening to Gregorian’s version of Stairway to Heaven.
For those rare uninitiated ones, Gregorian is a German band that performs Benedictine chant-inspired versions of modern pop and rock songs. As for Stairway To Heaven...well, it’s just Stairway To Heaven, the greatest rock ballad ever composed! That’s when I started to look through various other cover versions of the song and that, in turn, brought me back to listening to the original all day.
Stairway To Heaven, which started off from a random guitar intro picked up from bits of taped music, was written by Led Zeppelin’s vocalist Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Paige at a remote cottage in Wales while on holiday. Though released in 1971 in their Led Zeppelin IV album, the song gained popular acclaim only two years after and now, after decades of numerous interpretations by fans and critics about its meaning - which included an alleged tribute to Satan if played backwards and Occultist references — Stairway To Heaven has set for itself a legacy and a certain level of sophistication in the way bands wrote and treated ballads. Judas Priest has tried it, Testament has, and so has Metallica — none ever really achieving the fame, musical brilliance or lyrical depth that Zeppelin managed with this one song.
Zeppelin played Stairway To Heaven live for the first time in Belfast on March 5, 1971, at a time when Northern Ireland was a war zone. The world radio premiere of the song was recorded at the Paris Cinema on 1 April, 1971, broadcast three days later on the BBC and was performed at almost every subsequent Zeppelin concert, only being omitted on rare occasions when shows were cut short for curfews or technical issues. The band’s final performance of the song was in Berlin on 7 July, 1980, which was also their last concert for 27 years; with that version of the song being one of the longest, lasting almost fifteen minutes.
What does Stairway To Heaven really talk about? On first listen, it is about a woman who accumulates money, but finds out the hard way that her life has no meaning and will not get her into heaven. But many have suggested “obvious” Christian references to it such as with the lyrics: Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings that supposedly refers to the parables in The Bible. Another popular interpretation, though the band denied it, was that it dealt with Occultist themes, taking from Jimmy Paige’s belief in British occultist Alistair Crowley. The members of Led Zeppelin were great fans of JRR Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings series — with as many as five of their songs having direct references to Tolkien’s literary masterpiece. It’s possible that Stairway To Heaven also makes many references to Lord Of The Rings. While Robert Plant himself explained that the song was inspired by the writings of antiquarian Lewis Spence, and his Magic Arts In Celtic Britain in particular as one of the primary sources for the lyrics of the song, it hasn’t stopped everyone from the evangelists to the awkward teenager from dishing out their own conclusions of what the song meant. Interpret it any way you want to, but that doesn’t shadow the fact that Stairway To Heaven is one of the most popular and well known songs the world over and it has left a legacy — be it for the fans to lose themselves in or for other musicians to find inspiration and set standards.
And as for those cover versions. These are a few artistes whose treatment of Stairway To Heaven you can safely check out — Dolly Parton (I’m not kidding, she did it!), Frank Zappa, Dave Matthews Band, Zakk Wylde, The London Symphony Orchestra, and Gregorian. Oh, it makes me wonder!