March 5, 2021

It was 50 years ago today: the first public performance of "Stairway to Heaven."

From "Stairway to Heaven: the story of a song and its legacy/Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven continues to prop up best-ever lists. But what made it great? Jimmy Page and some of the song’s admirers explain its magic" (The Guardian): 

John Paul Jones has said the song’s first performance, at Ulster Hall in Belfast in March 1971, won no plaudits from the crowd – “They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew” – though bootlegs of the show have it ending to perfectly respectful and sustained applause....

[Later], Stairway usually featured in the middle of Zeppelin’s live set (at that Belfast show, it was played sixth, between Dazed and Confused and another new song, Going to California), then, Page says, “it got to the point where, because of the affection for it from the audience, it was gonna be better to put it at the end, so there was anticipation for it. And what were you gonna follow it with? So you’d finish the set with it then come back on and do the encores.”

Zeppelin legend holds that to maximise the song’s impact, the band’s manager, Peter Grant, told Plant not to speak after Stairway, to maximise the moment of profundity. Page has an idea for what would happen if he were playing the song in this era: “Now you should just open with it.” He laughs at his own audacity. “That’d be something, wouldn’t it?”

79 comments:

chickelit said...

Does anyone remember laughter?

chickelit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chickelit said...

What made John Bonham such a good drummer?

link

It wasn't the vodka

Nonapod said...

For a long time it was one of those riffs you'd here endlessly at guitar stores. These days you're more likely to hear "Master of Puppets" or "Crazy Train" being jammed on.

YoungHegelian said...

And don't forget all the great covers!

tim in vermont said...

"Peter Grant, told Plant not to speak after Stairway, to maximise the moment of profundity.”

I went through a long interaction with Netflix to express my frustration and hatred of the fact that they went straight to commercial with no warning at the end of a movie instead of letting the credits play with the music, so you could sort of continue the experience. It was like being robbed not being allowed a moment of reflection after a movie like “The Departed” for example. I must not have been the only one, because they have changed it. I had stopped using Netflix completely because of that.

As for Stairway, being an amateur guitarist of a certain age, of course I learned it, I could probably still play it now, but I never really got the song as a piece of art. Other Led Zeppelin stuff seamed a lot better to me.

Ice Nine said...

If you've never watched the video of Ann Wilson singing this at the Kennedy Center, with Zep in the audience, go to You Tube and do it now. Absolutely magic.

Geoff M said...

Didn't Robert Plant say that he grew to hate the song?

Unknown said...

Last time I saw Frank Zappa he closed with Stairway to Heaven: he transcribed the closing guitar solo for horn section- fabulous!

NCMoss said...

The intro has the notoriety of being the...
Forbidden Riff!

M Jordan said...

Profundity. Lol.

tim in vermont said...

"Didn't Robert Plant say that he grew to hate the song?”

I can see how. It’s like Joni Mitchell said once “No one ever shouted out from the crowd at Van Gogh “Paint Starry Night again!"

Mike (MJB Wolf) said...

I've never understood it's presence on top of “best of” lists. It's long and pretentious and pseudo-spiritual in a way ‘70s songs sometimes were. Maybe being stuck at a “Song Remains the Same” screening when i had a migraine scarred me. OTOH crank the volume and play “Black Dog” or “Nobodies Fault but Mine” anytime. Great stuff!

unknown said...

Meh. I remember thinking Stairway was cool when I was 14. I can still hear the entire song in my head, as if I’m wearing ear phones and listening to it on my Sony discman. I don’t need to own it. Anyway, it’s just an okay song. But too long and trying too hard.

Did you ever post about the infringement case, which was ultimately tossed by the Ninth Circuit? Legal technicalities aside, it’s a pretty fucking egregious theft, in my view.

Yancey Ward said...

It is important to note that the album for which "Stairway" was a track wasn't released until 10 months later. It is why the performance is significant.

Mike (MJB Wolf) said...

Of course once you learn it, as played or simplified for amateurs, it is fun at first. Then you realize its so close to other familiar songs. And the great option of playing Zep but singing the theme to Gilligan’s Island. Good times man!

tim in vermont said...

"it’s a pretty fucking egregious theft, in my view.”

Compare Stairway to another song I enjoy picking on the ukulele Chim Chim Cherrie.

Here it is from Saving Mr Banks.

https://youtu.be/oYp5J6BJdvE

Basically the point is that riffing counterpoint to a descending scale in a minor key has been done plenty throughout the history of music.

Amexpat said...

Yesterday I was thinking about the similarities in the band names of Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin (heavy metals combined with airborne things). I assumed that the IB, being the lesser entity, was inspired by the greater entity, LZ. Just checked and saw that IB was formed first.

tim in vermont said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yancey Ward said...

Plutonium Cloud, Uranium Titmouse, and Dysprosium Duck didn't sound as good.

Yancey Ward said...

Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell, The M1 to Leeds. Discuss.

tim in vermont said...

Depleted Uranium Hot Air Balloon was taken by a band that never made it. Liz Cheney and the Pedophiles was a band name nobody would touch.

Joe Smith said...

It is a well-crafted song, and even though I am not a LZ fan, the boys could really play and sing.

But it's one of those songs (like 'Bohemian Rhapsody') that one hears so much it just becomes part of the background noise...

Andrew said...

A little off the subject, but here's a great video of scenes from The Lord of the Rings set to The Battle of Evermore:
https://youtu.be/UUmd6lujmuE

Tolkein himself appreciated Led Zeppelin:
https://youtu.be/XAAp_luluo0

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

tim in vermont said... [hush]​[hide comment]

Basically the point is that riffing counterpoint to a descending scale in a minor key has been done plenty throughout the history of music.

Rick Beato does a pretty good job of explaining that with examples here.

Gahrie said...

Highway to Hell is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. There is not a single song on the album that isn't good enough to release as a single. Definitely the band's best album with Bon as singer.

What's amazing is that Back in Black, the next album they released, (with a new lead singer) is every bit as good. Again, every track could be a single.

WK said...

It was hard to dance to.

Joe Smith said...

"Rick Beato does a pretty good job of explaining that with examples..."

This guy is really great at breaking down rock music songs/styles.

He makes it simple in a way, but there is a LOT of music theory, which always eluded me.

Francisco D said...

I first heard Stairway to Heaven after graduating HS and going away to college. My initial impression and that of sophisticated college students was that it was a song for HS students.

Music snobbery was big as we transitioned from the 60's to the 70's.

Gahrie said...

"Rick Beato does a pretty good job of explaining that with examples..."

This guy is really great at breaking down rock music songs/styles.


I am completely tone deaf, and have no musical abilities whatsoever. I still love the guy's videos.

Earnest Prole said...

Failed masterpiece.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

It probably needs to be pointed out that the Taurus/Stairway lawsuit was brought by whoever currently owns the publishing rights to Randy California's song catalog and not by Randy California (who drowned in 1997) or his family. It's purely a financial move and nothing to do with artistic integrity.

If you want to go after Page and Plant for plagiarism, then you're better off looking into the 'Dazed and Confused' issue. That one appears to have been lifted (although maybe unconsciously) from Jane Holmes.

Jamie said...

I always said Stairway was a whole lot of kids' first sexual experience (besides solo efforts). Pace the commenter above who said it's hard to dance to, I can attest that it was always considered a slow-dance song at my high school's dances. So, you start off just doing the usual slow dance shuffle, and then the tempo and intensity pick up, the rhythm gets more insistent, the shuffle becomes more... focused, shall we say, involving more movement of leg against leg. Though you started off sort of generically pressed together, that pressure becomes less and less generic. Finally, "And she's buying a stairway... to heaven." As that last note and last word quaver into silence (because no dj would crossfade over it), you release one another, and (if you're a boy, and you liked the girl you were dancing with to any degree) you thank your lucky stars that the lights are low.

I hung onto virginity for quite a lot longer than I might have otherwise, I think, thanks to that song.

Lyle said...

Elon Musk

effinayright said...

"... it’s a pretty fucking egregious theft, in my view."
******************

Listen to Johnny River's "Summer Rain".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xa9vWVEYojg

The descending chords open the song.

He even plays a few seconds of the opening of "Sergeant Pepper".

LOCK....HIM....UP!!

tim in vermont said...

I don’t get the worship of Rick Beato you see in the comments to his videos, but I do like his videos a lot.

Blair said...

It's not a bad song. Almost as good as Carouselambra...

tim in vermont said...

I always felt like the song that ripped off this song from Cass Eliot’s group, The Big Three was about the worst.

The Banjo Song

Andrew said...

Wow. Thanks to all those who mentioned Rick Beato. I never heard of him until now. Just looked him up - what a treasure trove. He will be my new YouTube background while I work.

New fact I just learned from him: Bob Dylan inducted Gordon Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. (Did you know that, Ann?)

Mark said...

In many of these new music reaction videos, they play a live version of Stairway to Heaven.

Sometimes live is better. Sometimes not. Here, the studio version is better.

Gahrie said...

I can attest that it was always considered a slow-dance song at my high school's dances. So, you start off just doing the usual slow dance shuffle, and then the tempo and intensity pick up, the rhythm gets more insistent, the shuffle becomes more... focused, shall we say, involving more movement of leg against leg. Though you started off sort of generically pressed together, that pressure becomes less and less generic. Finally, "And she's buying a stairway... to heaven." As that last note and last word quaver into silence (because no dj would crossfade over it), you release one another, and (if you're a boy, and you liked the girl you were dancing with to any degree) you thank your lucky stars that the lights are low.

I knew I should have asked you to dance more often...

Ann Althouse said...

I'm not a big fan, but come on, it's the 50-year anniversary!

Richard Fagin said...

That's not Stairway to Heaven. THIS is Stariway to Heaven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HedGpn9A4_o

It helps to have turned the radio off about 1967 or so.

Howard said...

What Jamie said. An 8-minute slow song, StH was played at every Jr and Sr High dance that I went to. It was magical to a teenager. I only ever danced with her once, still remember her name and everything about that moment.

For the entire Zepellin catalog, it's in the bottom half musically. In the epic song genres, I prefer Achilles Last Stand and Kashmir.

Narr said...

But nothing topped the elephant solo in the long version of Ina-Gadda-da-Vida.

Narr
Isn't it Dave Barry and his pals who describe Stairway as the -worst- rock song ever?


Kate said...

I'm just here for the Rick Beato love. Hahaha!

tim in vermont said...

"But nothing topped the elephant solo in the long version of Ina-Gadda-da-Vida.”

OK, I laughed out loud.

hstad said...

Blogger Ice Nine said...
Absolutely magic. 3/5/21, 9:59 AM

Agree 100%!

The Kennedy Center honoring Zep with Wilson's 'Stairway to Heaven' was a musical production of superb collaboration between the Wilsons, a Rock Band, Full on Orchestra and finally the massive Ensemble of Singers was "Magic". The video shows the remaining Zep players loving it. I was also taken with 'John Bonham's' son playing drums.

Fernandinande said...

I've never liked Stairway all that much, but do have interesting covers by Iron Horse, Dread Zep, B52s, Beatnix, The Doors, Leonard Teale, Neil Pepper, Pardon Me Boys, Rolf Harris, and Vegemite Reggae.

Yancey Ward said...

Part 5 of Damone's dating tips was putting on side 1 of Led Zeppelin IV.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

Denied!

Howard said...

Best Led Zeppelin cover

Tool version of No Quarter

Ficta said...

Surveying your attitude towards Zeppelin, at least if you're a white American male, is an easy way of testing for Gen-X membership. The Boomers never really did quite get Zeppelin. Rolling Stone still seems to be a bit ashamed of the way they reviewed Zep on initial release. Of course, Zep, themselves, being Boomers, were kind of annoyed about the lack of respect. Reading Boomer critics talking about Zep in 1970 is like reading Greatest Generation types talking about Rock and Roll in 1962 (too loud, too one dimensional, appeals to the lowest common denominator, for children only, in short, too much fun) : it's the eternal recurrence.

M Jordan said...

Rock music has, in large part, terrible lyrics. "Stairway" fits into the "DEEP" class along with Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge." Other "DEEP" songs include The Killers' "Are We Human or Are We Dancer?", "Hotel California," and "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees." Just kidding about that last one.

There was one rock song that truly was deep ... "American Pie," an allegory, an epic poem, a masterpiece. I taught it to high school seniors for many years, each year getting a firmer handle on it. My favorite moment in that period was when I discovered what "the levee" was that McLean sang about in the chorus. I went backstage to an aging Don McLean concert at Culver Military Academy, oh, around twenty years ago. I asked him, "What's the levee?"

He answered, "A levee is a pile of dirt."

Ha ha, I responded and he then moved to the next person in line. So I posted this on my web site at the time which had my analysis of the entire song. Some guy wrote me: "I can tell you what the levee is all about. It was a bar in New Rochelle, NY that McLean and his buddies frequented in the 50's and early 60's listening to "them good ol' boys" sing early rock style. It went out of business ... or, as McLean crooned it, "went dry." So McLean and his buddies traveled across the river to Rye, NY to a new place to listen. You know, where them "good old boys were drinking whiskey IN Rye."

Clever huh? The song is a highly personal account of McLean's being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, of Innocence. Music is his metaphor.

Great, DEEP song.

M Jordan said...

By the way, I confirmed that Levee angle when driving down the Interstate from Boston and seeing a "Rye" exit. Got off, found a local working at a beach check-in, and she told me the same tale.

GingerBeer said...

What a God-awful song. I was a freshman in HS at the time, and you couldn't escape it. As someone who was already listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet at the time, it is a total assault on the senses and sensibility.

Ficta said...

"it is a total assault on the senses and sensibility" You say that like it's a bad thing. :-)

Jim at said...

If you've never watched the video of Ann Wilson singing this at the Kennedy Center, with Zep in the audience, go to You Tube and do it now. Absolutely magic.

Nope. I watched it once and couldn't make it all the way through. They kept showing the Obamas. As if those assholes knew the first thing about what they were hearing.

stevew said...

Great song. A guitar shop I used to frequent would let you noodle around on the various guitars for sale. They had a sign up, "No Stairway" which they ripped off from "Wayne's World". Denied! LOL.

The Greatest Song in the World

Jim at said...

I just witnessed a miracle.
For the first time ever, I agreed with Howard.

@1:07

Skippy Tisdale said...

Stolen.

Tomcc said...

The last song played at the HS dances and difficult to dance. I have a lot of songs from that era on my playlist, Stairway to Heaven is not.

Skippy Tisdale said...

Stairway to Heaven, Highway to Hell, The M1 to Leeds. Discuss.

Midnight Train to Georgia

Unknown said...

I heard them live in Macon GA in 1969 I think. F-ing amazing. Every song.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

The Dead first performed "The Other One" the night Prankster Neal Casady died February 3, 1968.

"Escaping through the lily fields, I came across an empty space
It trembled and exploded, left a bus stop in its place.
The bus came by, and I got on. That's when it all began.
There was Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land."

Narr said...

IANA musicologist, but to me Hotel California (which I don't much like) sounds an earful like We Used To Know by Jethro Tull (which I do).

When bands I enjoyed started appearing with symphony orchestras in the mid-70s, it struck me as pretentious and always overblown. I'm a purist-- I like milk and I like chocolate, but I don't really like chocolate milk.

Narr
Last Train to Clarksville

Howard said...

Good artists copy great artists steal, apocryphal quote from Pablo Picasso, Wm Faulkner, Igor Stravinski.

Nobody cares about all the black blues music stolen by the Rock n Roll greats

Howard said...

https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/the-conversation/sd-hotel-california-a-brief-timeline-of-lawsuit-over-mexican-resort-name-20180119-htmlstory.html

Darrell said...

Best song ever about a vibrator.

GingerBeer said...

Ficta: Yes I do. In the movie "White Christmas" there is a cast party where the song "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" is played by a trio (piano, double bass, and guitar) while others sing the lyrics and the stars of the film dance. I thought that was what a mature and sophisticated party would be like when I grew up. I could never imagine a similar scene as an adult w/ "Stairway to Heaven being played. Whatever the appeal of Rock, it is lost on me. And for that I'm grateful. Regards.

Another old lawyer said...

If you're new to Rick Beato, you should watch his "What Makes This Song Great?" series. It's fascinating even if you don't know a song or aren't a fan, and it's really enjoyable when he breaks down a song he loves. Even if The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" has become background music for you, watching Beato pick it apart - and his adoration of the song - will bring the original chills you likely got hearing that song.

If you need the same 'hear it again like it's the first time' experience for Stairway to Heaven, go to YT and watch Dolly Parton's cover. I've read hers is the only version is the only time that Plant and Page were OK with changes to the lyrics.

NorthOfTheOneOhOne said...

My favorite cover version right here.

tim in vermont said...

If you ever watch those reaction videos on YT, There are a couple where there is a couple reacting to “Whole Lotta Love” and the distaff half of the pair starts pretty clearly getting kind of hot.

Iman said...

Hate that song! Beat Farmers had the best cover.

Doug said...

There's a Stairway to Heaven and a Highway to Hell, which must say something about the anticipated traffic.

Kirk Parker said...

There's an entire album of covers.

RobinGoodfellow said...

“Blogger Yancey Ward said...
Part 5 of Damone's dating tips was putting on side 1 of Led Zeppelin IV.”

Advice which was not followed, as seen in the following scene where he is playing Kashmir from Physical Graffiti.