Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most popular songs of all time. The song has reached the status of those rare, though uber-beloved songs that get requested by fans at any concert, along with others like “Free Bird.”
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Strangely, the song is also hard to interpret. Ask your friends who love rock ‘n’ roll the meaning and they’ll likely shrug. Then maybe they’ll sing the song’s final line in their best Robert Plant falsetto: And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
So, what does the song mean, exactly? What is this stairway and who is buying it? Let’s dive in.
Writing the Song
Recorded at the end of 1970 in London, the song was included on Led Zeppelin IV in 1971. At the time, “Stairway to Heaven” became the most requested song on FM radio, despite the fact that the band never officially released it as a commercial single.
Featuring Plant on vocals, Jimmy Page on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass and other instruments, and John Bonham on drums, the song builds and builds until a big rock crescendo. The music begins with a picked guitar line, which is met with recorders played by Jones. It harkens to Celtic songs that the band loved so much.
In fact, the song began in 1970 when Page and Plant were staying at Bron-Yr-Aur, a cottage in Wales while they were working on their third album. Page said, according to a 2000 article in MOJO, that the music for “Stairway to Heaven” was written “over a long period, the first part coming at Born-Yr-Aur one night” (quote via Ultimate Guitar). The song eventually came together via different segments Page had on a tape recorder.
The lyrics, though, began spontaneously when Page and Plant played the song next to a fire at Headley Grange. Page said a large amount of the lyrics were written there, written on a pad by Plant as Page strummed.
The Lyrics, The Two Paths
The most crucial lyrics in the song are:
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
And there’s still time to change the road you’re on
This idea of two paths is personified in the song by the woman, entitled, who thinks she can “buy” a stairway to heaven, who thinks all that glitters is “gold” and who believes, sings Plant, If the stores are all closed / With a word she can get what she came for.
However, there is another path. That is one of the singer’s, who sings about rings of smoke, trees and other natural wonders. This is the path worth taking, according to the singer. In fact, music may lead the way for all of us, even the misguided woman who wants to buy a stairway to heaven.
This is what the singer hopes will happen to all people, especially the woman—a brush with reason, or logic:
And it’s whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter
Yes, says the singer, there is hope. You’re being called:
Your head is humming and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him
The song gets especially epic ahead of the final stanza. Plant’s voice rises like a wave about to crash. But while the woman who wants to buy a way to heaven continues on her misguided journey, the song is calling us to a better way. The singer hopes the woman falls in line, too.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all, yeah
To be a rock and not to roll
Yes, don’t be a rock. Don’t be rigid, sedentary, set in your ways. Instead, roll. Move, learn, see and listen.
In the end, the song tells us: even if people don’t learn, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to. So pay attention, observe and learn to love nature, and keep it moving forward!
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images