Musikwissenschaft – Vol. 5

An appreciation of some of the finest performances in musical history.

 

The first 2012 edition of this feature opens with a song often considered to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time.  Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven was composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant in 1970 while spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote 18th Century cottage in Wales, following the band’s gruelling concert tour of North America.  The progressive rock epic can be found on the band’s 1971 untitled fourth studio album (usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV) but remains one of the most well-known and popular rock songs never to have been released as a single.  Stairway To Heaven was voted #3 by VH1 on its list of “The 100 Greatest Rock Songs Of All Time”, #8 by Q Magazine on its list of “The 100 Greatest Songs Of All Time”, #31 on Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time”, #1 on Guitar World’s list of “The 100 Greatest Guitar Solos In Rock And Roll History” and was named as the UK’s favourite rock anthem by radio station Classic Rock.  According to Page, the song “crystallised the essence of the band.  It had everything there and showed the band at its best… as a band, as a unit”.

Social historian and cultural critic, Erik Davis, has commented on the English rock band’s seminal 1971 classic, its massive success, subsequent backlash and legendary status: “Stairway To Heaven isn’t the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s.  Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one.  Even our dislike and mockery is ritualistic.  The dumb parodies; the Wayne’s World-inspired folklore about guitar shops demanding customers not play it; even Robert Plant’s public disavowal of the song – all of these just prove the rule.  Stairway To Heaven is not just number one.  It is the One, the quintessence, the closest album-oriented rock will ever get you to the absolute”.

Led Zeppelin were never too far away from controversy and, following claims made in a 1982 television programme, the band were at the centre of a media frenzy when the California State Committee held a hearing on hidden messages and backward masking in popular rock songs.  The hearing featured testimony from “experts” who claimed that Stairway To Heaven, when played backwards, contained Satanic references.  The alleged message, which occurs during the middle section of the song, contains the words: “So here’s to my sweet Satan; the one whose little path would make me sad; whose power is Satan.  He’ll give those with him 666.  There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan”.  However, the band itself has for the most part ignored such claims and Eddie Kramer, the band’s audio engineer, has branded the allegations “totally and utterly ridiculous”.

The song itself is over eight minutes long and is composed of several sections which increase in tempo and volume as the song progresses.  The song begins with a slow and quiet introduction, with the sensitive sound of Page’s acoustic guitar accompanied by John Paul Jones on recorder.  As the song builds, John Bonham comes in on drums and Page swaps his acoustic for the more aggressive and distorted electric string instrument.  What starts as a gentle folk-based song speeds up like an adrenaline flow until it eventually evolves into a high-tempo heavy metal anthem.  After an intricate blues-based and slightly psychedelic solo from Page, Plant’s voice rises and he wails the song’s famous chorus with an incredible amount of power and energy.  Then the rest of the band break off and Plant’s unaccompanied voice marks the song’s emotional end and a return to the solitary poignancy of its beginning.  The rather mystical and quasi-medieval lyrics provide a very open text and, as a result, invite endless interpretation.  Despite this, the words are strong, deep and clear, requiring no rigorous study in order to become meaningful.  However, there are many who feel that the lyrics to Stairway To Heaven are horrible, nothing more than nonsense words made interesting only by cliché.

The version included below was performed on 27th June 1972 at the Long Beach Arena in California and can be found on the band’s 2003 live album How The West Was Won.

 

Led Zeppelin – Stairway To Heaven

 

 

– Load It, Check It

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