Cover Story 67: Stairway to Heaven



We pay tribute to one of the greatest songs of all time: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” with a dozen facts you might not know about the song.

Rare is the occasion when people agree about music. Music, like sports and politics, is one of those topics that inspires the hottest of takes and causes people to dig their heels in about their viewpoints.

The history of the world has been filled with so many debates about things like the greatest rock band of all time, the greatest hook of all time, whether pop songs are actually good and who won their battle, Jay-Z or Nas?

The head-butting of music opinions only makes this truth more impressive: “Stairway to Heaven” is one of the greatest songs of all time — of any genre, of any time — and most people would agree with that.

Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus debuted in 1971 and has spent the 47 years since becoming one of the most noticeable, popular and covered songs of all time. It’s one of those songs every guitar novice tries to learn to impress their buddies — and probably themselves, if we’re being honest.

Every time there’s a list of the best rock songs of all time or the best songs of all time, you can count on “Stairway to Heaven” being near the top. The song is known for its tempo changes, Jimmy Page’s guitar solo and Robert Plant’s piercing vocals — but when you think about it, it’s not at all your prototypical “popular” song.

It’s eight minutes long, first of all. A wise person once said a great pop song should be three minutes or shorter, so in that respect “Stairway to Heaven” is more like three pop songs. It also doesn’t follow a familiar song structure, which is usually a sure way to turn people off.

Yet “Stairway to Heaven” has endured. Not only was it one of the best songs of its decade, it lives on today as a G.O.A.T. contender. As part of this month’s appreciation of the song, we now offer you 12 things you may not know about “Stairway to Heaven.”

  1. Add this to the list of things that make “Stairway to Heaven” an outlier as far as hit songs go: It was never released as a radio single by Led Zeppelin, which actually makes sense because it’s so long.
  1. That doesn’t mean people didn’t play the song at an ungodly frequency. In 1991, when the song celebrated its 20th anniversary, it was estimated that “Stairway to Heaven” had been played 2,874,000 times, which amounted to 44 years worth of airtime. And that was in 1991! Imagine those stats in 2018.


  1. Even in more recent years, “Stairway to Heaven” is still played almost 5,000 times per year on the radio in the U.S.


  1. You probably know the story that “Stairway to Heaven,” if you play it backward, supposedly features Satanic messages. Including, “The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”

    About that: Rolling Stone fact-checked that claim and even talked to the band about it. They, of course, denied it.

    “Who on Earth would have ever thought of doing that?” singer Robert Plant said of the backward-Satanism charges. “You’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to even consider that people would do that.”


  1. “Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t an immediate fan favorite. John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin’s bass player, once said that when the band performed the song for the first time in 1971, nobody at the concert seemed impressed. “They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew,” he said.


  1. Likewise, in Rolling Stone’s review of Zeppelin’s “IV” album, it barely even talked about “Stairway to Heaven.”


  1. Plant, the man who sang the song, has gone on record saying he would understand if people hated the song’s lyrics. “If you absolutely hated Stairway to Heaven, nobody can blame you for that because it was so … pompous,” he said in an interview with Q Magazine in 1988.


  1. Plant is said to have written the lyrics to the song while sitting next to log fire.


  1. Here’s a fun one that proves just how much people love to try to play “Stairway to Heaven” themselves. The song is the largest-selling piece of sheet music ever. It’s sold more than a million copies. Other famous songs sell in the tens of thousands.


  1. In 1991, a radio station in New Mexico played “Stairway to Heaven” for 24 hours straight, which amounted to more than 200 times in a row. It was a gag to get attention for their new classic-rock format.


  1. Plant certainly wouldn’t listen to it that many times in a row. By 1977, he was quoted as saying he didn’t like singing the song anymore: “ “There’s only so many times you can sing it and mean it … It just became sanctimonious.” After the band broke up, Plant refused to sign “Stairway to Heaven” except on very rare occasion — like one Live Aid concert.’


  1. In 2007, “Stairway to Heaven” appeared on the UK singles chart for the first time, once it was made available for digital download. Remember, it was never released as a single, rendering that impossible until the digital music age.

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