BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

Accessibility help
Text only
BBC Homepage
BBC Music
Sold on Song. Classic songs, covers, songwriting and more. Listen Live.

 Full Schedule

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

"Stairway To Heaven"
Led Zeppelin
 Led Zeppelin

A show at Belfast's Ulster Hall, on 5 March 1971, marked Led Zeppelin's first appearance in Northern Ireland.

But as Melody Maker's Chris Welch noted, that night also marked the debut of a new song: "'Stairway To Heaven', featured Jimmy on double-necked guitar, which gives him a twelve string and six string sound on the same instrument. An excellent ballad, it displayed Robert's developing lyricism." Not everyone shared this initial enthusiasm when they first heard it live as John Paul Jones recalls:

John Paul Jones
"They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew"

Little did anyone, Led Zeppelin included, guess that this "excellent ballad" would go on to become the most requested song ever played on American radio. But the song was included at every subsequent Zeppelin show and soon guitar shops started to fine customers £5 if they played the "Stairway" opening. Years later, the song even survived a cover by Rolf Harris!

"Stairway To Heaven" first took shape in December 1970, as Zeppelin were limbering up for their fourth album. Jimmy Page was tinkering with the riff by the fire at Headley Grange, a big Victorian mansion in Hampshire that the band had hired for rehearsal, when Robert Plant suddenly plucked the lyrics out of the air. "I was holding a pencil and paper," Plant later recalled, "all of a sudden my hand was writing out the words… I just sat there and looked at them, and almost leapt out of my seat!" Unsurprisingly Plant doesn't take much creditfor the lyrics and attributes any success to their ambiguity:

"I don't consider there was anything particularly special about it"

Although typecast as Heavy Metal Maestros, there was always a softer, more acoustic side to Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin IV also featured Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny guesting on "The Battle Of Evermore", while "Going To California" was influenced by Joni Mitchell but Zeppelin’s Incredible String Band leanings were best exemplified by the closing track on Side 1 of the album.

"Stairway To Heaven" was cut at Island Studios in London, and from the moment the album hit the racks in November 1971, the song took on a life of its own. Page’s gently constructed acoustic guitar tracks weave in and out of Plant’s wistful lyrics John Paul Jones' recorders further enhance the song’s pastoral feel while John Bonham's continent-splitting drums keep the song firmly rooted in the land of rock and roll. In a documentary about the album, Jimmy Page gave his verdict on the drums and the tempo of the song:

Jimmy Page
"It speeds up like an adrenalin flow"

Plant mutates from weary troubadour to high-pitched metal daemon over a catalogue of period guitar moods. An acoustic descending pattern like the Beatles' "Michelle" (plus recorders for a madrigal effect like The Stones' "Lady Jane"). Into a trippy electric guitar change for "Ooh and it makes me wonder" a la Crosby, Stillls, Nash & Young. After a Clapton 'Badge'-style link and a fanfare, Jimmy finally incandesces at six minutes. Classic.
Dominic King

Everyone - apart from Led Zeppelin - wanted "Stairway To Heaven" to be released as a single. But the band vetoed the idea, and were vindicated when American fans started buying Led Zeppelin IV like it was a single - the album went on to sell 11 million copies in the USA alone!

"One of those air guitar and air drum classics"

Simon Mayo

  Listen to Simon Mayo

Make a comment

Songwriting tips

The music is the driving force behind the power of this song. Want to write your own song? Take a look at our Songwriting Guides.
Test your knowledge

Have a go at the "Stairway To Heaven" quiz!

More songs.

Like this song? Try these...

Walk On The Wild Side
Lou Reed 

Doves Doves
Special guests on Dermot's show this week

What's on

Radio 2 Documentaries
Find out more about current and forthcoming documentaries on Radio 2.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy