The name itself has a legendary aura around it. How often do you see a band so incredibly tight and talented, that they could record an entire album (‘Presence‘ in 1976) in just 18 days? A band so good that back in the day, in a little more than half a decade after their arrival, they were playing for a larger audience than even the Beatles or the Rolling Stones! A band that was always evolving and exploring their limits as musicians not just with each album but rather with each song. Unique instruments, weird ways of playing the traditional ones (yes, I mean the violin bow in ‘Dazed And Confused‘) and revolutionary recording techniques. That is the precise reason why millions of people around the world, from generations past and present, absolutely love them. Genius would be the one word I’m looking for right here, if I had to describe the band. Truly one of the greatest bands in the history of Rock!
There will always only be one Led Zeppelin, and just as fittingly there will always only be one ‘Stairway To Heaven‘. The iconic song was recorded in 1971 for the band’s 4th album, referred to as ‘Led Zeppelin IV‘, an album which would eventually top the UK, Australian and US charts, selling over a massive 32 million units worldwide till date!
Speaking of which, how many of us have heard this song and loved it ever since? And how many of us have felt that there’s something about this song that refuses to let it be, just a song? Well I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely one of them. ‘Obsessed‘ would be an understatement here.
Stairway To Heaven : Decoded.
”There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stars are all close
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven”
— Robert Plant begins the classic song with the obsession for money and how we run after all the luxuries in life as anything that appeals (glitters) to us surely must be as precious as “gold”. What is the point of a lifetime of struggling for more than what we need when we can get all of that and more “with a word” later in heaven.
“There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”
— he goes on to say that people nowadays have become mistrustful of sorts. Too much thinking goes into everything we do “Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings”. Besides sometimes all our reasoning turns out to be wrong (misgiven) anyways.
“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.”
— one of my favourite verses in the song. “there’s a feeling I get when I look to the west”. Quite deep, this one. “When I look to the west” is just another way of saying, when he sees the sun set. But that’s not what he literally means by it. A lot of the poetry we learn, shows how poets use events in nature as analogies to one’s life. I assume this case is no different, also considering the fact that they were hippies.
Sun rise and sun set poetically represents the birth and death of each day. So as he sees the sun set, he realizes that just like the day he too will finally die. This makes his soul desperate to leave. But why would he want to die? Because “in his thoughts” he keeps remembering all the wars (rings of smoke through the trees) and barbarisms done by man. What’s worse is how people just talk about it and criticize rather than taking relative actions (voices of those who stand looking).
The ability to convey a deep message in the simplest of lines like “when I look to the west” and “voices of those who stand looking” makes me fall in love with this song over and over again.
“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.”
—Now all of Led Zeppelin’s songs are based on various mythologies (mostly Norse and Welsh), nature, and sex. They were hippies…it’s all cool. He finally begins to get around to the point here. This verse is just saying what we have always been hearing from all the saints, messiahs, prophets, etc. Stop obsessing about all the materialistic things in life and follow the path which will ultimately take you to where you are trying to reach.
What I really like about this verse are the last two lines. Again sheer poetry on display.
In simple words he is conveying that a new age will come for those who persist (stand long) on the whole peace loving spiritual aspect of life, and when that happens there will be peace even in the deepest reaches of the earth, even the “forests will echo with laughter”.
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
And it makes me wonder.”
–whatever Plant was high on when he wrote this song really got him in the groove.
Ok so…”bustle in your hedgerow” and “spring clean for the May queen” is in its literal sense referring to the bees preparing the hedgerow for their queen. Why the hell would he write that in a song about reaching heaven?
It’s no secret that Plant was into literature so it’s quite obvious he would have learnt the art of using strange and surprising metaphors. What he means by all this is that if your head (headgerow) is “bustling” with conflicting thoughts, there’s no reason to be alarmed. It’s just the natural process of opening up your mind so that finally, the big picture (may queen) may be able to nest there. Even if u cant seem to decide which “path” you want to follow after an open mind, you can always change it. Hence you can always try the spiritual side of life and if it doesn’t work for you then you can always revert back to your old ways.
(Trivia:- The initial parts of this song were apparently written when jimmy page came up to his band mates around a camp fire and started playing this new riff he had just made and Plant began to string along words to go with it.)
“Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.”
—The first line is quite straight forward in saying that now that your head has the true idea of salvation seeded in it, the “humming” inside is not going to go anytime soon. The “piper” (prophets, messiahs, etc) is asking you to follow him. He then speaks about the winds of change coming around, and that the road to enlightenment lies in those “winds”.
<insert one of the greatest solos of all time, here>
“And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.”
—This is where the whole song really comes together and shows how well all these random lines, verses and their meanings encompass what the song is essentially about… a stairway to heaven.
As we grind on in our life and the path of true salvation there shall be a point when “our shadows become taller than our souls”. Shadows becoming taller is a throw back to the earlier phrase about the days metaphorically representing one’s life….as the sun begins to set our shadows become taller and so as our life nears its end our experiences and intellect again begins to grow larger than our faith and soul.
“There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light and wants to show, how everything still turns to gold”.
—Our faith begins to dwindle. After years of perseverance and no foreseeable results we are lured by the materialistic side of life. It looks more and more appealing. But at this time if we “listen really hard” i.e. not lose our faith then we shall finally see things for what they are…”how all is one and one is all , to be a rock and not to roll”.
While ‘she’ yet tries to buy her stairway to heaven…
So there you have it!
In every list of the greatest songs ever made, that I checked, this song was listed at no.1 in most.
Every list of the greatest guitar solos ever made, that I checked, this was listed at no.1 in most.
And every time I listen to this song with its meanings swirling around in my head I fall in love with it a little more.
In one of their live performances Robert Plant, being as good with words as is quite evident now, summed this song up in the simplest of words possible.
“I think this is a song of hope”.
DISCLAIMER: I do not claim this is what the band intended or actually meant by the lyrics, this is simply what I think the words meant after listening to this song like a million times. Beauty in the eyes of the beholder kinda stuff.