Led Zeppelin’s song, Stairway to heaven, is perhaps one of the most famous rock songs written. Its introduction is cliched and to some extent mocked and its mystical, Arthurian aura cruelly if hilariously parodied by Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge.’ Despite all this, I’m going to argue in this post for its importance and meaning.
The song comes from Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which was released in November 1971. The album is officially ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ but it is often called ‘The four symbols’ from the mystical style symbols that appeared on the inside of the gatefold album sleeve (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Led_Zeppelin_IV for a full discussion). No band name or album title appears on the album sleeve itself.
I first encountered the album in 1974 or 1975, aged about 14 or 15. It was already recognised as a classic and important record and (as with many records at that time and at that age) I approached it with a good deal of reverence. It was representative to me of serious, adult progressive rock. This was music with meaning, unlike much of what I saw on Top of the Pops or heard on Radio One at the time. This may appear to some readers to invest far too much into a rock album, but that was my response in my mid-teens and I am going to maintain that position now in this post. Also, given that I subsequently lived through punk, new wave, new Romanticism, rave and Brit Pop, this reversion to my rock past may seem aberrant. It is perhaps a testimony to the song in question that I am still drawn to it and still believe that it has greater value than many other songs of the period, including the rest of the album it featured on.
Let’s start with the cover. The full double spread shows a partially demolished wall of a Victorian house bearing a painting on the peeling wallpaper. In the background are new tower blocks and waste ground. The place is actually Ladywood, Birmingham, and one of the new high rise developments built by the city council to replace cleared slums. On the face of it, this is photo about progress. It’s a very post-war, last 1960s/ early 1970s scene typical of many British towns and cities of the time. The future is the modern development; the past is the Victorian terraces that are being swept away. But there’s that painting, still hanging on the wall despite the advanced state of demolition of the house. Obviously the former resident has died, rather than being decanted into a new flat, and their possessions remain behind. Perhaps this is a relative from a hundred years earlier- a poor rural labourer whose children or grandchildren relocated to an expanding city, replacing impoverished toil in the countryside for something better in a factory. But there’s a suggestion that ‘progress’ may be brutal (and with forty years of hindsight we’d almost definitely say this and reckon that the terraced houses should have been saved and renovated and the tower blocks not built); additionally, progress is only incremental. In the time between slum clearance and rebuilding, nature invades the urban landscape and starts to convert it back to woodland. There’s a connection between the old man in the picture, bent double with his load of withies or firewood, and the spreading rosebay willowherb and shrubs in the space between the ruin and the new development. There’s some sense that nature and the old ways may be preferable- or at least not so easy to ignore or deny.
Inside the double sleeve, things are less happy for me. The image is entitled “The Hermit” and was painted by Barrington Colby. It’s reminiscent for me of Arthur Rackham and other early twentieth century illustrators of fairy tales and children’s stories. Its style doesn’t fit with that of the cover and has always seemed rather jarring, in my opinion. Regardless of my personal taste, though, the picture is a further statement of intent. There’s an indication that we’re going to be dealing with themes of fantasy, myth and medieval legend. It’s very ‘Tolkienesque’ in a very 1960s style- and all for good reason, as we’ll see.
I’m most interested, of course, in the LP contained in the cover, and more so with the last two tracks of the first side. These are ‘The Battle of Evermore’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Let’s discuss context first. During the mid-1960s affordable paperback issues of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were published in the USA and their arrival on a mass market initiated a world wide fascination with his mythical, pseudo-medieval worlds. Recording during late 1970- early 1971, it seems inescapable that the books were a major influence upon Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Other examples of the contemporary fascination with a mythical, magical past might be the film of the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, issued in 1973, and (at a stretch) Monty Python’s film King Arthur and the Holy Grail of 1975.
The background to the creation of the album must also incorporate a strain of ruralism or pastoralism in British culture. Concepts of peace and love and of an alternative, ecological lifestyle almost inevitably led British minds to a romanticised recreation of an idealised non-urban past. Communes and free festivals gave these ideas practical reality, bolstered by talk of William Blake and Albion alongside inspiration from continental thinkers, Marxist, Situationist, feminist and others. This thinking drew in a revival of British folk music, too, with bands such as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull combining traditional music with rock.
It was within this culture of late 1960s hippy peace and love mixed with magic and fantasy that the ideas for the album emerged. The two songs need, I think, to be read together, the former, ‘The Battle of Evermore’ being the more directly influenced by a reading of Lord of the Rings. Full lyrics for both are found on a separate page.
‘The Battle of Evermore‘ is a kind of English folk song, this resemblance strongly reinforced by the presence of guest vocalist Sandy Denny, formerly of Fairport Convention. The lyrics are full of conflict and medievalising grammar to the extent that they could be from one of Tolkien’s poems or songs. We have ring wraiths, castles, drums, a ‘Dark Lord,’ a ‘Queen of Light’ and dragons of darkness. It’s quite biblical, with references to ploughs and swords; there is a theme of defending a homeland from some unspecified aerial menace. For Page and Plant, born in 1944 and 1948 respectively, the presence of World War Two and the Blitz will have been very real- both in their parents’ talk and physically in urban bomb sites, as suggested by the rear of the album cover. The War was a spectre over British society well into the seventies (at least).
We also have in the song material from far older British legend- angels of Avalon and magic runes. The looming conflict with the forces of evil is contrasted, too, with evocations of rural peace: “waiting for the eastern glow,” “The apples of the valley hold the seeds of happiness,/ The ground is rich from tender care.” Eventually peace is victorious, the sun shines and “the clouds of blue roll by.” The cultivators will be able to return to their fields and pastoral security and comfort is restored (much as in Lord of the Rings). It’s a fine tune, played on a mandolin, and although the words may be a little overblown in places, a touch too melodramatic, the melody combined with the intertwining of the voices of Plant and Denny make it a success. There’s a driving quality to the song which seems to me entirely appropriate to its folk character: a lot of traditional music can be quite relentless in its length and repetition.
Side One of the album concludes with ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ The song commences with the famed guitar lines, followed quickly by recorders. The tune is haunting and the use of woodwind emphasises once again the folk quality of the music. The first few lines suggest a very commercial and self centred scenario, with references to ‘gold’ and to a ‘sign on the wall’ (advertising?) but then the lyrics veer away to the rural and pacific setting envisaged at the end of the previous song. (Whilst I know that Robert Plant sings about “the stores” being closed, I have always heard his vowel in the word as ambiguous, so that “stars” might equally be what he sings- in which case the song is dealing with something less material and more magical right from the outset).
From the end of the first verse on the lyrics are purely a paean to a fairyland of rustic charm, wistfulness, mystery and longing- for example:
“In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”
(Once again we have the deliberately archaic diction, a suggestion of Shakespearean or older provenance, along with a simple, natural scene)
“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.”
(There’s a yearning to depart to a western paradise, akin perhaps to the place to which Galadriel and the elves of Middle Earth depart at the end of Tolkien’s trilogy. The West in British terms may suggest also the Isle of Avalon or even the lands of youth of the Irish and Welsh myths- Tir nan Og and the like).
“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.”
(We are escaping to reason and to a better future- and it seems that that more prosperous and happy future is not to be found in inner city tower blocks but in some distant rural idyll. Those recorders, Hamelin like, will guide us to a place of communal joy and unity where our patience will be rewarded. If our destination is reason, our point of departure might fairly be supposed to be a realm of unreason- a land of war, industry and commercialism).
“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.”
(This is just a delightfully clever line and an evocative image of fairies, seasonal festivals and all that is magical and pleasant in the countryside of ‘Merry England’)
“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.”
(The primary references here are to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but this also very much puts me in mind of certain Scottish fairy ballads such as Thomas of Erceldoune or The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice in which the fairy queen magically reveals to her human companion different paths through life, leading to hell, purgatory or heaven. In Plant’s version, though, we are given hope that we can all correct past mistakes and still attain salvation on those western isles).
“There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.”
(I connect this to the Queen of Light of the previous song; ‘Stairway’ in some sense may represent the resolution of the aftermath of the conflict depicted in ‘Battle of Evermore.’ Whatever the exact significance, it is again a suggestion of fairy maidens, magical powers and a promise of ultimate redemption).
The song is about mystery, wonder and enchantment (the head humming); it’s about getting away from the here and now to some form of utopia. This is my personal reaction and interpretation (there are plenty of others, considering some of the more occult or satanic aspects of the song and you can research them all online). For me, the song is not at all sinister and is much more about hope and redemption. It is quintessentially a British rural hymn: salvation in the British psyche, from Piers Plowman on through Samuel Palmer up to Peter Blake and the Brotherhood of Ruralists, has been about finding liberty and peace in some sort of countryside retreat. This may be escapist, but it is nonetheless deeply appealing to the British soul. I have also discussed these themes separately in postings on johnkruseblog on WordPress. See too my website for fuller details of my writing (fiction and non-fiction) on folklore and music.