Strider Posted March 5, 2011 Share Posted March 5, 2011 40 years ago today an epically historic moment in music occurred. For it was on March 5, 1971 in Belfast, Ireland that STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN was performed for the FIRST time in concert. So although the recorded studio version wouldn't make it's debut until November of that year with the release of Led Zeppelin IV, or Rune album, 4 symbols, greatest hard rock record ever...whatever name you prefer...I like to think of March 5 being Stairway's birthday. And in honor of its 40th birthday, I would like to pay proper tribute to the song and the impact it had and hopefully rectify some of the insidious revisionism that has festered over the past 20 years or so. That's right...I am here to proclaim loudly and unashamedly: I LOVE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN! Unironically and unconditionally. And you should too. Sadly, in the years since Zeppelin ended, there has been a movement afoot to denigrate Stairway. The post-punk, post-modern, post-ironic crowd love to dismiss it as some hippy-dippy relic and because of its ubiquitousness on the radio, even Zeppelin fans started to belittle the song. It became fashionable among Zepheads to say that only newbies or poseurs liked Stairway. If you were a true fan you liked Kashmir or Achilles but never Stairway. Well fuck that Jack. I say let your freak flag fly and openly proclaim your love for Stairway. Maybe it's because I am old enough to remember a time when there wasn't a Stairway to Heaven...when the song most associated with Led Zeppelin was Whole Lotta Love. Just imagine what it must have been like 40 years ago to be in that audience in Belfast and to experience Stairway for the first time. As one who is half-Irish himself, it warms my shamrocks that Ireland was awarded the privilege of hearing Stairway first among the world. The next night on the 6th of March, the band played Dublin. That is what makes those 1971 concerts so amazing, apart from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse impact of the band's playing...you get to hear Stairway in concert for the only tour where it was an unknown entity. 1971 is the only year where the beginning of the song isn't immediately met with a rush of cheers. You actually can hear the start of the song and feel the hush of the audience. And the qietness of the audience as it settles in to listen to this unfamiliar song only makes the rapturous response at the song's conclusion that much more a testament to Stairway to Heaven's immediate impact on the public. Listen to just about any bootleg from 1971...Los Angeles...Berkeley...the effect is dramatic. People really FELT this song. I was too young to see Zep in 1971...had to wait until '72...but I still recall how GOBSMACKED I was later that year when I first heard the song on the radio and then when I got the record. There's a reason Stairway became so popular immediately upon release. It was truly mesmerizing...hypnotic...EPIC!!! This was no fluke, no accident, and certainly no hype. People responded because the song touched their hearts...their souls. Plus it just SOUNDED AMAZING! It sounds weird but it was the kind of song that you didn't know you wanted to hear until you actually heard it. Then, it was like, YES!, THIS is what I have been wanting to hear all my life. Sure, there had been long...even what you could call "epic" songs before Stairway. Day in the Life and Hey Jude by the Beatles. Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands by Dylan. Midnight Rambler by the Stones. In-a-Gadda-da-Vida by Iron Butterfly. Allman Brothers...Grateful Dead, etc. etc. But none of those songs, as great as some of them are, did what Stairway achieved. Most of those other songs were in the same tempo or mined one style of music over its duration. What Stairway achieved was a melding of all sorts of disparate musical elements into a unified whole, while also slowly and almost imperceptibly increasing momentum and intensity along the way. There is the hushed, delicate folky beginning of just acoustic guitar and recorder. Then the ambient pastoral middle passage, with Jimmy's chiming guitars and JPJ's keyboards melding into a shimmering hum. Bonzo's drums enter to pick up the pace the song starts to rock and provide a framework to hang the guitar solo on. And what a guitar solo!!! Not for nothing is it still the solo by which other solos are measured, with its storming the Gates of Valhalla beginning...the impeccable construction as Jimmy climbs that stairway...the yearning call and response of the second section...and of course, those finger vibratos from god...all with that glorious Fender Telecaster tone...all in just over a minute. Next thing you know the song has turned into a headbanger with Bonham's drums cascading around your head and the band driving the song to its smashing conclusion as Plant gives a performance of the ages. And after that blast of fury a sudden return to the graceful calm of the beginning as the song whispers to a close. That is what is what makes the song so effective and memorable to this day...its movement and propulsion. The song takes you on a journey...you feel you are going somewhere but at the same time it lulls you into a sense of calm so that by the end you find yourself surprised that you're banging your head. Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd is one of those songs that came in the wake of Stairway to Heaven. But you notice right away the change in tempo when the guitar solo starts in Freebird...you say to yourself, "ah here's the rocking part." Stairway works it's magic more subtly...its much more layered and textured than most songs of its kind. Gradually it builds a head of steam as the listener is propelled along with the song and ultimately borne aloft. And how about Robert Plant. Simply an incredible and magnetic performance. And I don't find the lyrics as bad or hippy-dippy as some, including Mr. Plant, suggest. Some call it mystical blather. Well, what's wrong with a little mystical blather? Does every rock song have to be about cars and booze and girls? The guy was only 21 when he wrote it...I'd say it holds up pretty well. You know, not every Dylan or Springsteen song is a lyrical gem. You often hear people ask "what does it mean?" And the answer is that there is no ONE RIGHT meaning. It means different things depending on the listener. That is what makes it timeless...it's the songs tied to one specific event that often sound dated with the passage of time. The "medieval" elements that some critics complain about I think are overstated. Yes, there are a couple lines about May Queens and Pipers but overall I found much in the song that I could relate to when I was growing up...and even still to this day I find solace in the tune. Some of my favourite lines in the song and what they meant to me are as follows: "There's a feeling I get when I look to the West"...being born and raised in California, the Golden State, this has always struck a chord with me...in fact, I always feel better when I am traveling West than East...I prefer to follow the sun...ride into the sunset than away from the sun. "There's still time to change the road you're on"...nothing is preordained...no matter what the circumstances you find yourself in, you can always change course, try a different path until you find the road that suits you. "To be a rock and not to roll"...in stormy and troubled times, it is best to be solid as a rock...for yourself and your friends. But hey, even if you don't like the words Plant is singing, you can't refute the way he sings them. In short, in my humble opinion it is one of the finest vocal performances in rock n roll. The tender opening verses, so intimate it is like he's singing directly into your ear...his wonderful phrasing and melody lines...the powerful climax. It's all here in a masterclass for future generations on what rock singing is all about. But to disect the song into its individual parts is beside the point...yes, broken into its components, the guitar playing, the singing, etc. all hold up. But the true power and meaning of the song is how the glorious whole is greater than its individual parts. Everything...the playing, the singing, the production...all added up to some sort of harmonic convergence of GODHEAD. The alchemy of the four members of the band achieved a watershed moment in the band's history...and rock music history. There is no understating the way Stairway exploded into the consciousness of rock fans...and all without the hype of Top 40 radio as there was no single. No MTV, no multimedia exposure. No, it was simply a groundswell of demand by people who heard the song via the record or in concert and requested Stairway in droves to their local radio station til it was literally everywhere and for years ruled as the number one rock song in radio polls. Did it get overplayed? Perhaps. But I would rather live in a world where it was overplayed than to live in one without a Stairway to Heaven. So THANK YOU Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham for creating one of the greatest musical moments ever. I can't tell you how often the song got me through difficult times in my life. Those of us who saw the band in concert can testify to the impact the song had on audiences...the song literally inspired the ritual of flicking your Bic lighter. So Stairway fans be silent no more. Don't let those hipper-than-thou types sway you with their negativity. To hell with "Wayne's World"...if you want to play Stairway to Heaven at your next visit to the guitar shop, let 'er rip! There is no shame in loving Stairway to Heaven. It deserves your love. It deserves your praise. So Zeppelin fans one and all...raise and flick your Bic lighter in honor of the 40th anniversary of the first ever performance of Stairway to Heaven!!! Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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