Rolling Stone, Buzzfeed and countless other magazines, websites and blogs love to compile “Top 10” or “Top 50” or “Top 100” lists of best this or best that. Any list of the most monumental songs of the rock era ALWAYS includes Led Zeppelin’s iconic opus, “Stairway to Heaven.”
Why? Is the song really that good? What is it about this admittedly unusual 8-minute track that has so captured the imagination of so many people over so many years?
“Ooh, and it makes me wonder…”
The song has a compelling history that warrants retelling here, even if only because everyone under, oh, 70 years old is familiar with it. It’s been pretty much unavoidable since it first showed up as Track 4, Side 1 of the untitled Zeppelin album (known now as “IV,” or “Zoso,” or “Untitled”) in the late fall of 1971.
According to composer Jimmy Page, the song began as disparate guitar pieces — various tidbits he had come up with here and there and was hoping his band could put together as one long track that went through multiple changes in tempo, instrumentation and volume. Few people would disagree that he achieved what he set out to do.
“Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know, the piper’s calling you to join him…”
Page certainly had help — specifically, vocalist/lyricist Robert Plant, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and drummer John Bonham, not to mention producer Andy Johns, and manager Peter Grant. In the fall of 1970, after concluding its fifth US tour and releasing its acoustic-oriented third LP, “Led Zeppelin III,” the group then chose to remove themselves from the maelstrom of public scrutiny by retreating to a rural cottage in Hampshire called Headley Grange to work on new material without distractions. They built huge fires in the fireplace, took walks in the pastoral setting outside, and hoped the muse would strike.
It was there that this layered song they were creating took on a life of its own. Page gives credit to multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones for suggesting, and playing, the recorders that accompany the acoustic guitar intro. “I was thinking about electric piano textures, but the recorders worked beautifully, giving it a slightly medieval feel,” Page said. When he and Jones did a run-through of what they’d built thus far, they urged drummer John Bonham to not come in until nearly halfway through the track, thus helping the song build in intensity as it progressed. More important still was Plant, who’d been listening intently from a couch off to the side, with pen and paper, writing. As Page recalls, “Robert suddenly stepped up to a microphone and started adding vocals with words he’d come up with over the past hour or two. It was extraordinary.”
“With a word, she can get what she came for…”
Page also remembered the song for the way it broke the cardinal rule among session musicians: “Studio musicians always had to maintain tempo. Never speed up, or you’d be sacked for sure. But I was keen on doing something that had an acceleration to it, both the music and the lyric, so the whole thing would gain momentum by subtly speeding up. That was pretty radical.”
Lastly, Page says, “The concept of the solo at the end was supposed to be a sort of fanfare, so it’s a definite transition from the previous part, and then the solo just soars right on through to the end as the pace picks up for the crescendo.” The frenetic solo is light years away from the delicate acoustic guitar and recorders from the opening section, and to complete the circle, the band drops out and leaves Plant’s solo voice alone for the coda: “…and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…”
Once the album was released, FM disc jockeys went bonkers over “Stairway to Heaven” and began playing it in heavy rotation. Atlantic Records pleaded for the release of the song as a truncated single (8:02 being way too long), but Grant and the band steadfastly refused to release any singles in England, urging their fans to buy the albums instead, and that strategy worked, for the most part. In the US, Atlantic went ahead and released singles anyway (“Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog,” etc.) but not “Stairway.” Why not? Because the band had won control of its masters and could do what they wished. They also had reached a mythical status that proclaimed, “We don’t live by your rules.” Their mantra was, “The songs are meant to be heard in the context of the full album. If they’re good enough, they’ll be heard.”
Oh boy, was it ever heard. By 1975, it had become by far the most requested song by FM radio station listeners across the US. (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” was often a close second, but Zeppelin usually ruled the roost with “Stairway.”) It became so pervasive that there was the inevitable backlash from listeners who said they were sick to death of hearing it — quite a remarkable feat for a song that was never released as a single. Indeed, even Plant has been quoted as saying he doesn’t want to sing it or hear it anymore.
Its popularity also spawned other songs in defiant response, most notably heavy metal titans AC/DC, who told interviewers in 1980, “You can have your ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ we’re on a ‘Highway to Hell.'” Jefferson Starship wrote a song called “Stairway to Cleveland.” Eventually, there was even a hilarious parody by Little Roger and the Goosebumps on which they substituted the words to the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song for the “Stairway” lyrics, although Led Zep’s lawyers intervened with a “cease and desist” order against them for using the band’s actual musical track.
And now, 44 years later, there’s a new chapter to the story.
“And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last…”
If you’re a serious rock music fan, perhaps you’ve heard of Spirit, an inventive West Coast band led by Jay Ferguson and Randy California that achieved only modest chart success with a few singles (“I Got a Line on You,” “Nature’s Way,” “Mr. Skin,” “Fresh Garbage”) in the 1967-1972 period. Their albums didn’t do much better, but they enjoyed a fairly decent cult following. I mention all of this as background, because a little-known track called “Tarkus,” written by California and appearing on the 1968 debut LP, includes a repeating acoustic guitar passage that sounds kind of like…well, frankly, it sounds EXACTLY like the opening acoustic guitar part on “Stairway to Heaven.” Hmmmmm…
Coincidence? Sure, maybe. Many songs sound alike — the same chords, similar rhythms, copycat lyrics, familiar melodies. A previous column explored the court-tested resemblance between George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”; and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”; and most recently, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Many parties of varying degrees of knowledge and experience in songwriting vociferously agreed or disagreed with the verdicts in these cases.
The same holds true here. While some observers feel the “Stairway/Tarkus” lawsuit has some merit, others find the whole thing absurd. One Facebook reader belittled the plaintiff’s claim by commenting, “Ooh! You took half of our riff to make half of your riff in the first minute of your otherwise completely different song! Plagiarism!” There are certainly far more differences than similarities between the two songs; for example, “Tarkus” is only 2:35 and is an instrumental, while “Stairway” runs 8:02 and has many lyrics and a riveting vocal. But the passage in question is undeniably identical, at least for a few bars.
A jury in Pennsylvania will consider whether it’s relevant that on Led Zeppelin’s first tour of the US in early 1969, they played as a warm-up act to Spirit on a West Coast swing (when Spirit was playing “Tarkus” almost every night as part of their set list), where it’s entirely possible, even probable, that Page was exposed to the song and its opening riff.
Still, the whole thing seems mighty suspicious, coming so long after the fact. Another fact: “Stairway to Heaven” has generated more than $550 million in profits, and it appears to be a pure money grab by Randy California’s estate, even though they apparently won’t be eligible for any back pay if they win, only a portion of future revenues, and a songwriting credit.
By the way, this wouldn’t be the first time Page and his friends have been sued (sometimes successfully) for plagiarism. Indeed, Led Zeppelin has a notorious reputation in the rock community for lifting established riffs or chunks of entire songs, virtually daring artists to challenge them for songwriting credits. For example, bluesman Willie Dixon is now listed as a co-songwriter of the Zeppelin classic “Whole Lotta Love,” which borrowed liberally from his tune, “You Need Love.” Folk guitarist/songwriter Jake Holmes wrote a pretty little piece called “Dazed and Confused” in 1967 that Page blatantly lifted and turned into a harrowing blues number called (why hide it?) “Dazed and Confused” on the band’s first album. Holmes was victorious in gaining a composer’s credit, which shows up on recent pressings of that album.
A quick note about this essay’s title: “Bustle” means “disturbance” and a “hedgerow” is the row of hedges that serve as property borders in England, so “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now” has been interpreted to mean, “If there’s an intruder at the perimeter of your property, you needn’t fear.” But clearly, Page and the boys are alarmed by this attempt to seize some of the profits from their most famous work, and are eager for their lawyers to prevail. We shall see…