Hello there! This week our blog features a song that many rate as the greatest rock ‘n roll song ever, Stairway To Heaven. We will first discuss the original version by Led Zeppelin. Next, we will review a cover by Frank Zappa, and we will finish with a cover by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.
Led Zeppelin and Stairway To Heaven:
In 1968 Jimmy Page had left the Yardbirds, and he set out to create a new blue-based group. He eventually settled on a quartet with himself on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, John Bonham on drums and vocalist Robert Plant. This turned out to be a true rock supergroup, as each member of the group is generally considered to be one of the world’s greatest on his particular specialty.
Below is a photo of Led Zeppelin performing at the Bath Festival in June, 1970. From L: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.Embed from Getty Images
Led Zeppelin was an incredibly successful combo. The quartet combined tremendous virtuosity with an extraordinary musical range. Although they were known as the quintessential hard-rock band, initially focusing on heavy-metal covers of blues standards, they also produced some exceptional acoustic music.
Stairway To Heaven is arguably the best-known Led Zeppelin tune. The song was written in fall 1970. The genesis for this and other Zeppelin songs was a trip by Page and Plant to the remote Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales. There, the two became interested in branching out to include acoustic songs, and also in Celtic music and traditional folk tales.
Page recorded snippets of the tune on a portable tape recorder, while Plant worked out the lyrics. Recording of Stairway To Heaven began in December 1970, but then continued into 1971 as Plant added the lyrics and Page supplemented his guitar solos. Stairway To Heaven was a cut on the band’s fourth untitled album (generally referred to as Led Zeppelin IV).
Robert Plant’s lyrics describe a mythical woman who is so wealthy that she is reputed to be purchasing a stairway to heaven.
There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Here is Led Zeppelin in a live performance of Stairway to Heaven.
Stairway to Heaven contains a number of different segments. The song begins as a stately ballad in Baroque style, with Robert Plant singing his intricate lyrics while Jimmy Page finger-picks the melody. On the record this is played on a Harmony acoustic guitar, accompanied by four recorders (multi-tracked by John Paul Jones).
In the live performance Page’s guitar solos are played on a double-necked guitar, so that he could play the “acoustic” parts on one guitar and the later hard-rock segment on the second guitar [bad joke: why do rock musicians employ double-necked guitars? So they can rock – and roll!]. John Paul Jones arranged the recorder parts on a synthesizer.
After a few minutes, Jimmy Page transitions to a slow rock tune. Shortly before the 5-minute mark, John Bonham’s drums enter for the first time. A couple of minutes later, Jimmy Page commences a tour de force guitar solo that picks up speed and power; on the studio cut, this was played on Page’s 1959 Fender Telecaster electric guitar that he used during his days with the Yardbirds. During this segment, Robert Plant’s vocals shift from his normal range to falsetto.
Right at the very end, Plant sings the final solo line “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
Jimmy Page’s extremely inventive and intricate guitar solos, combined with Robert Plant’s lyrics and tremendous vocal range, make the tune simply unforgettable.
Despite great demand and massive play on the radio, Stairway To Heaven was never released as a single. At the time, if you wanted the song you had to purchase the album.
Several critics cite Jimmy Page’s guitar solos on this piece as the best ever in rock music. In 2001, VH1 ranked the song #3 on its list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs. Rolling Stone ranked the song #31 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. Stairway To Heaven was the most-requested song on FM radio stations during the 70s (this despite never being released as a single!).
The arcane lyrics are famously confusing (e.g., “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May Queen”) – which I always misheard as “it’s just a sprinkling.”
Apparently I am not the only person who confused the song’s lyrics — there is a massive list of misheard lyrics for Stairway To Heaven. It’s hard to imagine that some of these “misheard lyrics” are genuine – for example, can you imagine the line “and as we wind on down the road” being mistaken for “and there’s a rhino down the road,” or “and there’s Bill Wyman down the road” [Wyman was the bass player for the Rolling Stones]?
As a side note, in 1982 Paul Crouch of the Christian TV Trinity Broadcasting Network claimed that Satanic messages were being programmed into pop songs through a technique called “backmasking.” Crouch claimed that Stairway To Heaven was one of those backmasked songs.
Crouch’s claim was that, if these songs were played backwards, a hidden message would be revealed. For Stairway to Heaven,
the alleged message, which occurs during the middle section of the song (“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now…”) when played backward, was purported to contain the Satanic references “Here’s to my sweet Satan \ The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan \ He’ll give, he’ll give you 666 \ There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”
Well, the California Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee took this seriously. They brought in self-proclaimed “neuroscientific researcher” William Yarroll, who claimed that the human brain could decode backward audio messages. The committee briefly considered passing a law that would require warning labels on any songs containing encrypted messages. Led Zeppelin’s record company felt compelled to release a statement that “Our turntables play in only one direction – forwards.”
In addition to their stunning musical abilities, the musicians in Led Zeppelin were famed for their legendary sexual excesses, alcohol and drug usage. In the late 70s, Jimmy Page’s heroin use apparently became sufficiently incapacitating that John Paul Jones took over most of the band’s composing and producing duties.
Tragically, in October 1980 John Bonham died from alcohol-related asphyxiation after reportedly consuming 40 shots of vodka. Following that, the surviving members of the group decided to disband, rather than continue on without Bonham. The band has occasionally reunited for short periods or for special occasions. Page and Plant went out on tour in the 1990s, and each of the surviving members continues to produce records and to tour with other groups.
The three remaining Zeppelin members successfully made it through the turbulent 70s, and produced some breathtaking music. We salute them and wish them all the best.
Frank Zappa and Stairway To Heaven:
Frank Zappa was one of the most prolific and inventive rock musicians of all time. There is no way we can do justice to his entire career, so we will provide a brief intro to his life and work.
Frank Antonio Zappa was born in Baltimore in 1940. His father was a chemist who worked on chemical weapons for the defense industry. As a youth, Frank began amassing a vast record collection and an eclectic taste for music ranging from experimental classical to funky R&B.
By the end of his senior year in high school, Zappa was writing and arranging avant-garde music for his school band. Afterwards, he began to work at a recording studio that had experimental multi-track capabilities in an era that was dominated by monotonic sound.
Below is a photo of Frank Zappa.
In his spare time, Zappa produced a number of movies. In 1966 Zappa was “discovered” by producer Tom Wilson, who had produced Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Wilson produced the first album by Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention.
Zappa’s debut album, Freak Out, was typical of Zappa’s eclectic tastes. It was a diverse mixture of
R&B, doo-wop, musique concrète, and experimental sound collages.
Zappa gained fame as an innovative and prolific artist. This continued with a series of albums that combined avant-garde musical ideas with wicked satire.
Although Frank Zappa amassed a devoted worldwide cult following, his records never sold that well, and he was chronically short of funds. In 1969 he dissolved the Mothers of Invention and became a solo artist.
Here is Frank Zappa and his entourage with a live cover of Stairway to Heaven. This was from Zappa’s final tour in 1988 with a 12-member band.
As is often the case, it is not evident whether Zappa is being serious or whether he is spoofing. As soon as they finish the previous song, the band segues directly into the guitar intro to Stairway to Heaven.
Frank Zappa is at left front playing guitar, while the vocalist is sitting at far right. While the arrangement largely follows the Led Zeppelin version, Zappa throws in the occasional bizarro touches, including animal noises and electronic special effects.
Note that the horn section is throwing in some coordinated dance moves during the song. However, right at the 5-minute mark in the song, the horn section commences a note-for-note reproduction of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo.
So, as it happens, Zappa is creating an homage to Jimmy Page. At the very end, the entire ensemble sings the final line. The audience is extremely pleased with this, and erupts into thunderous applause.
Frank Zappa’s career was legendary. Although he died from prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 52, he had released over 60 albums. And following his death, another 40 albums have been released posthumously by the Zappa Family Trust, which consists of his wife and the four Zappa children Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet and Diva.
When he passed away, among the people lamenting his passing were L.A. Symphony conductor Zubin Mehta and classical pianist and composer Pierre Boulez. Both had collaborated with Zappa and had high praise for his creativity.
Apparently Zappa managed to maintain a high level of productivity by working every day for at least 12 hours. In addition to his music, he also produced music videos and full-length movies, and designed album covers.
Frank Zappa was an extreme libertarian. He was deeply opposed to any restrictions on free speech, and as an atheist was bitterly critical of the religious right in the U.S. When Czechoslovakia became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its first president Vaclav Havel designated Zappa a “Special Ambassador on Trade, Culture and Tourism.”
Frank Zappa’s biting satire made him a number of enemies in the music industry. I enjoyed his frequently sophomoric humor (one of his albums was titled Sheikh Yerbouti, and another Weasels Ripped My Flesh :-)). After being turned down a couple of times, Zappa was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Well-deserved, Frank.
Ann & Nancy Wilson and Stairway To Heaven:
Heart is a hard-rock band that was fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. In the late 60s, a number of rock bands formed in the greater Seattle area. White Heart became Hocus Pocus, and then in 1973 Heart was formed in Vancouver. Below is a photo of the Wilson sisters in their early years.
Lead vocalist Ann Wilson was an original member of Heart, and her sister Nancy soon signed on as a rhythm guitarist. One feature of Heart has been its ability to switch effortlessly from folk-inspired acoustic ballads to hard-rocking anthems.
In 1973 the band released its debut album Dreamboat Annie, which became quite popular in Canada and was subsequently released in the U.S.
In 1976 two singles from that album, Crazy On You and Magic Man, turned into best sellers. Featuring Ann Wilson’s powerhouse vocals, Heart rode a series of single hits to rock ‘n roll stardom. The band headlined a number of festivals, including the 1978 California Jam with an audience of 350,000, and the inaugural Texxas Jam the same year that drew 100,000.
By 1984, Heart’s record sales had begun to slide, although the group was still pulling in big crowds on their tours. In 1985, a re-tooled Heart band moved to Capitol Records, where they developed a more hard-edged “arena rock” sound.
In 1986, Nancy Wilson married writer-director Cameron Crowe, who had begun his career as a teen-age rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. In the mid-90s Nancy was in charge of the musical score for several of Crowe’s most successful movies, including Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky.
Here are Ann and Nancy Wilson, with Jason Bonham on drums, in a live performance of Stairway to Heaven.
This took place in Dec. 2012 at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Led Zeppelin. Nancy Wilson begins by reprising Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar intro. Ann Wilson’s powerful vocals are a good fit for this song, particularly as it shifts from soft folk-rock to the harder-edged finale.
Ann is joined in the middle of the song by not one but two choirs of background singers; and there appears to be a full orchestra supporting this tune. Of course, the arrangement follows closely the iconic original version, even though the final guitar solo is merely a pale imitation of Jimmy Page’s licks.
You can see the surviving members of Zeppelin (Page, Plant and Jones) in the audience, who seem to be greatly enjoying the music, as well as the Obamas. The tribute by the Wilson sisters was only available on iTunes for two weeks, but it immediately shot to #1 on those charts.
Heart achieved great commercial success over a sustained period of time. Worldwide, they have sold over 35 million records, and they placed 10 albums in the Billboard Top 200 charts over a period of four decades. In 2013 the original lineup of Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, the sisters had a falling-out in 2016 when Ann’s husband pleaded guilty to assaulting Nancy’s twin sons. After a couple of years where the sisters went their separate ways, they have apparently reunited and Heart is currently part of the Love Alive Tour in 2019.
Ann and Nancy, glad to see you back together. All the best, your fans are “crazy on you.”