Monday, 15 December 2008

Lyrics & their meanings Part 19- Stairway to Heaven

We tackle the big ones: What the hell is it all about?
Stairway To Heaven (1971) Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was released untitled in November 1971 with the only mention of the band being on the spine of the cover so much was their popularity at the time. Side One track four was the song Stairway to Heaven. A song though never released as a single went onto being arguably the most popular song of all time, winning countless polls over the last 30 years and voted for by people who actually care about this sort of thing.
An early review by the Connecticut Gold Coast Review said the song ‘builds gracefully from a beautiful acoustic backing to a fast moving electric finish. With each change you wait for the explosion and it very gratifyingly comes….Stairway to Heaven is the best musical representation of an orgasm I have ever heard.’
This author is prophetically announcing the wankery that the song was going to inspire through to the present.
The most played track in radio history, it began like most Zeppelin classics on a tape from guitarist/co-songwriter Jimmy Page’s home studio. Recording at Headley Grange in England, Page first played the track to Bassist John Paul Jones where both worked on the arrangement. During this, Singer/Lyricist Robert Plant sat down and proceeded to write 80% of the words on the spot. Plant concurs: Yeah, I just sat next to Pagey while he was playing it through. It was done very quickly. It took a little working out, but it was very fluid, unnaturally easy track. There was something pushing it, saying “you guys are okay, but if you want to do something timeless, here’s a wedding song for you.” ‘
In a Cream Magazine Interview Page said the song came so naturally in the studio it took Plant and himself half an hour to get the whole song constructed, which begs the question of how could something so spontaneous have so much meaning
Never once were the lyrics of the 8-minute opus actually explained by Robert Plant, odd due to the fact he has given detailed accounts in interviews for most other songs on the album. Going to California and Misty Mountain Hop were about Plants experiences from his first visit to San Francisco. Battle of Evermore was a period piece in the vein of Steel Eye Span, which is why Sandy Denny was asked to accompany. Rock ‘n’ Roll and When the Levee Breaks are what Led Zeppelin do best great blues based jams. Black Dog was a great riff with ad lib words named after a mongrel hanging around the studio.
It’s widely held that Plant now loathes Stairway to Heaven, though presumably he doesn’t mind the royalties, the sheet music alone selling in excess of one million copies the highest in Rock history. According to author Charley Cross in his Zeppelin bio, ‘Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell,’ Plant baulked at the thought of playing the anthem at the Atlantic Records Anniversary Concert in 1988. Corporate push came to shove, however, and Plant capitulated. It has been suggested that one of the reasons he shied away from the Zeppelin reunion was the spectre of doing a fifty-city tour in which he’d be forced to sing what he now termed ’that bloody wedding song’ fifty times.
But what does it all mean? Many fans try to break it into stanzas to the point it’s worked like one of Nostradamus’ Quatrains. Some think it’s just a general poetic ramble about hope in dark times. Others an excuse for Plant to distance himself from Pages Devil Worshipping rumours that plagued the band all through its existence. But the truly confused go to great lengths to voice their opinion. For example this very short extract by Dr Robert Walser, Professor of Musicology, Dartmouth College from his book Running with the Devil: Power Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.
We might better understand the associate powers of the lyrics by breaking them into categories. We are presented with a number of mysterious figures: a lady, the piper, the May Queen. Images of nature abound: brooks, a songbird, rings of smoke through the trees, a hedgerow, wind. We find a set of concepts (that pretty much sums up the central concerns of all philosophy): signs, a road, meanings, thoughts, feelings, spirit, reason, wonder, soul, and the idea that “all is one and one is all”. We find a set of vaguely but powerfully evocative symbols: gold the West, the tune, white light, shadows, paths, a road, and the Stairway to heaven itself. At the very end, we find some paradoxical self- referentiality: “ To be a rock and not to roll”.The words provide a very often text, they invite endless interpretation. Yet they are resonant, requiring no rigorous study in order to become meaningful.
In other words I don’t know figure it out yourself. Chuck Eddy author of Stairway to Hell: The 500 best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe sums it up better but using a lot less words.
Stairway to heaven is tremendous. Also proof that words don’t have to mean anything to be meaningful. I mean, what’s this “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now? If I found anything bustling in my hedgerow, I’d get out my shotgun.

And the last word is left to an article written in Esquire for the songs 20th Anniversary in 1991.
The Lyrics to “Stairway to Heaven” are horrible, nothing more than nonsense words enlivened by cliché. If I ever wrote, “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold,” my editor would cancel my contract.

(c)2000 shidot Prod

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