Stairway to Heaven Turns 40
Classic Radio Hit Continues to Wind on Down the Road
The classic rock standard Stairway to Heaven turns forty this year and it’s sort of hard to believe as it feels as if the song has always been around. Led Zeppelin released the track in 1971 on the album best known as Led Zeppelin IV.
Overwrought with lyrics which sound as though they were cribbed from J.R.R. Tolkien, the song was originally ignored by annoyed fans, recalls Zeppelin bassist, John Paul Jones. When the then unfamiliar song was first being played before audiences, fans would sit impatiently waiting to hear “Whole Lotta Love.”
Since the songs rise in popularity it’s been associated with public displays of grief, allegations of double meaning, complete with backwards message, with stories of the band swearing allegiance to Satan. This is truly one of the main reasons to mourn the decline of vinyl. Just try and play your mp3 of the track backwards while being smoked out amongst friends in an attempt to find proof positive that Page, Plant and company made their allegiance to the horned groundskeeper of the underworld.
But I digress. For many, the song became a punch line. A few years after its release, when punk was emerging and then later, alternative music, the song had become a symbol of everything bloated, unnecessarily big and indulgent. From the breathy folkiness at the beginning, to the overblown middle section and the guitar workout, the song represented a pretentious rock aristocracy with nothing to say to a younger generation who believed that “England’s Dreaming.”
Over the years many artists have tried their hand with the song with mixed results. Some approached the tune with the sacrosanct piety of a bona fide religious relic, and others who openly treated the song with contempt, slapping it around with little room for reverence.
Here are some notable, if less well known renditions of Stairway to Heaven which you will be richer for knowing.
Butthole Surfers – Hairway to Steven. This is just the name of the album. There no song by this title, which seems criminal, but it is fun to say.
Frank Zappa – The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life. Zappa’s version of this song was played regularly during his 1988 tour and was a centerpiece of his live show. The arrangement changed nightly, but was most often given a reggae treatment. And as the guitar solo approached, the listener expected Zappa to unleash his legendary fret board skills upon it. But no, the horn section was given the unique pleasure of fleshing out Jimmy Pages solo, note for note.
Skurvy the Clown – “Just Like Stairway to Heaven.” Recorded in 1994 in lo-fi splendor, on what would come to be known as “The Karma Sessions,” thisFlorida band cobbles together the music of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” with the lyrics and then later the harder and final part of “Stairway” into a one of a kind mash up. This was one of the bands earliest moments of retarded genius on display and some how they managed to rock it as well.
Dolly Parton – Halos and Horns. This country legend released a stripped down acoustic cover of the song in 2002 on the CD Halos and Horns. It’s startlingly pretty and completely unexpected. Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant spoke highly of Parton’s version, noting that he was pleasantly surprised with her version.
Little Roger and the Goosebumps – “Gilligan’s Island (Stairway),” aka, “Stairway to Gilligan’s Island.” It should be noted that in a 2005 interview on NPR, Robert Plant refers to this “as his favorite cover version of the song.” In 1977, this San Franciscoband recorded a parody of the song where the Gilligan’s Island TV shows theme song was sung instead of the original lyrics. Five weeks after its release Led Zeppelin’s lawyers threatened to sue them and demanded that any remaining copies of the recording be destroyed.Gilligan\’s Island (Stairway)