Stairway to Stardom

If Led Zeppelin reunites, will they play the song that almost destroyed them?

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page

Led Zeppelin, which is reuniting for a one-off charity gig in London on Dec. 10, appears to be positioning itself to make the Biggest News in the History of Rock: a new album and world tour—a prospect described by Billboard’s Ray Waddell as “like twenty Super Bowls rolled into one.” While there are still many obstacles to a Zeppelin tour, the most vexing may be that Robert Plant will have to overcome his reluctance to sing the song that has done the most damage to the band. Yes, “Stairway to Heaven.”

Variously described as “a song of hope” (Plant), “an optimistic song” (Jimmy Page), and “a wedding song” (these words popped into Plant’s mind as he was finishing the lyrics—his unconscious muse tipping him off to the mixed blessing that he had just received), “Stairway to Heaven” remains the closest thing Zeppelin has to a hit, as it was their policy not to release singles. In 1971, when the band refused to edit the song into four minutes of radio-friendly pop, stations simply started playing the whole track, and it soon became the most requested song on rock radio.

It also turned Zeppelin into a joke.It was “Stairway” that branded Zeppelin as spaced-out mystics. It was “Stairway” that drove them to the madness of the absurd fantasy sequences in their movie The Song Remains the Same. It was “Stairway” that sold them to a mass audience that found it amusing to hold lighters aloft throughout the song, perhaps under the understandable impression that they were attending a concert by the Moody Blues. Plant has disowned “Stairway.” But “Stairway” would be an essential component in any set list constructed by a band calling itself Led Zeppelin.

The first rungs of the stairway were borrowed from the band Spirit (their song “Taurus” is clearly the inspiration for the opening chord sequence), for whom Zeppelin had opened on their first American tour, in 1968-69. By the time of 1970’s Led Zeppelin III, Page was convinced that the band needed to work on an extended composition—his one criticism of III is that it lacked “a long track.” And so “Stairway” was pieced together, over two or three years, until its appearance on the untitled fourth album, which was intended to show the group’s critics that the music would sell itself, even encased in a sleeve that made no mention of the band or an album title.

Plant seemingly realized that he’d written some kind of classic, and Page saw “Stairway” as Plant’s coming-of-age as a lyricist. They had high expectations for the song. It had gone down well in concert before the album was released, and Page decided to print the lyrics to this one song on the inner sleeve—the first time Zeppelin’s lyrics had been used on album artwork. “[The] moment at which the stairway to heaven becomes something actually possible for the audience would also be the moment of greatest danger.” So wrote no less an authority on the dangers of transcendence than William Burroughs. The quote is from a 1975 interview with Page in the rock magazine Crawdaddy. Burroughs was thinking of the risks posed to an audience by overexposure to the magical energy of Zeppelin’s music. If that strikes you as hyperbolic, then we can assume that you have not listened to “When the Levee Breaks” under the headphones for quite some time.

Page had developed a new approach to rock, based on a multilayered “guitar army” (his words), ragalike uses of sevens and fives in meter, insistent drones drawn from folk music, and hypnotic, shifting cycles that swirled around you (during the elongated endings to “Celebration Day” and “Out On the Tiles” on Led Zeppelin III), and which sometimes sucked you right under (the sublime closing minutes of “When the Levee Breaks”). The notion of a new magic art—trance rock based on non-Western scales and nonstandardized song architecture coupled with odd bar structures—had already occurred to Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, to George Harrison of the Beatles, and to the Grateful Dead. But Jimmy Page was the first to harness these ideas to the tantric possibilities of the modern recording studio.

Does “Stairway to Heaven” possess these qualities? Absolutely not. The guitar army, yes, that is there. But this song is not just atypical of Zeppelin’s music, it is unique among their epic tracks in that it privileges melodic/lyrical development at the expense of rhythmic exploration and timbral/psychoacoustic experimentation.

It also doesn’t help that the lyrics appear to be an index of a confused mind. If, for instance, the lady at the beginning of the song is a fool (she believes, after all, that she can buy a stairway to heaven), then why at the end of this long and winding lyrical road is she shining white light and showing us how everything still turns to gold? Some critics have turned themselves inside out trying to prove that this must be a different lady. Cultural-studies theorists will see this is an “open” text. Industry bean counters will notice that its ambiguity is the key to its popularity.

Let’s be clear about just how aberrant this track is, in the context of the Zeppelin oeuvre: In Almost Famous—Cameron Crowe’s airbrushed account of the 1970s rock scene—it is “Stairway,” naturally, that the young aspiring rock crit plays to his uptight mother when he wants permission to cover the beauty and the debauchery that was Led Zeppelin on the road. (The scene is available as a bonus feature on the DVD.) If the Crowe character had played his mom “Dazed and Confused” (or worse, “Gallows Pole”) one imagines that she would have said no.

As Erik Davis points out in his unsurpassed book on the fourth album, “Stairway” is so familiar to us that it’s a real challenge to listen to it. “Stairway” live suffered from the comparison with the warm acoustic guitar layers of the studio recording that are stuffed deep inside our collective aural memory. “Stairway” is also one of the few tracks that loses something essential from the absence of bass guitar when played live: Whereas usually John Paul Jones’ dexterity at the keyboard bass pedals and John Bonham’s ocean-deep kick drum fill the gap at the bottom of the sound, here the inevitable comparisons with the lushness of the studio version leave Zeppelin sounding like a lame cover band.

So, will the audience hear “Stairway” on Dec. 10 and will Zep reunite? We can expect a yes to that first question, but the business of reconstructing the band as a live unit could be protracted. While Page and Jones are keeping their options open, Robert Plant, the man who has said that he no longer wants to sing “Stairway” and who has the most to lose from a reunion (he has a successful solo career) is the key. The deciding factors lie in some combination of art and industry—how much Plant enjoys Dec. 10 multiplied by what he stands to gain from the new publishing deal.

The stakes are very high. Zeppelin, even in its heyday, was a notoriously inconsistent proposition, and today the “Zeppelin mystique” has been passed on to many new generations of music fans for whom live Zeppelin is a digital video experience. A new album and tour could seal their reputation as bigger (and much more important) than the Rolling Stones, or … it could expose that mystique as a mere facade. Page, Plant, and Jones are highly intelligent men who have to balance aesthetic and financial decisions in the face of extraordinary demand. The Web site for the London show’s 20,000 tickets received more than 1 million hits. One hopes they will remember that all that glitters is not gold.