In countries more developed than ours, you have massive guitar stores, with a designated area where you can plug the guitars into the amps available and test them out. Most of these shops will have a sign in the area, warning all former and future guitar virtuosos that they’ll be kicked out if they play Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. This song has p***ed off the employees so much that it’s now banned (along with a select few others: Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, and Hotel California by Eagles).
It’s an impossible task to evaluate the worth of a single song and locate its place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so the best we can do is judge it by anecdotal evidence and causality. Inspiring thousands of children to pick up the guitar to learn it should fare quite high on the basis of these parameters, I think. Today, 45 years later, even in India, you’ll have pre-pubescent chumps buying a rackety Givson guitar for Rs 3,000 and forcing their parents to pay for a guitar teacher. “Screw scales and exercises,” they say, “I want to learn Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a testament to the longevity of a single melody, which steers the song into such lofty heights, developing new lives with each passing movement. For what it’s worth, the relevance of this song has not waned (And I say this as a sceptic, one who staunchly refuses to commit to the cult of Led Zeppelin.)
There’s no such thing as a perfect song, of course; if there were, there’d be no need to write or listen to any new music. We’d just play that thing on loop until rigor mortis. But you have all these little self-contained rules and regulations to judge just how important a song really is. Being a source of inspiration is a major factor, but so is the obsession it can elicit.
Music fans tend to, by nature, be a nerdy lot who’ll internalise music to worrying degrees, getting lost in the process. Like that time one sadsack young fan decided he liked Stairway to Heaven so much that he just had to play it backwards. Thus began the discovery of those mythical Satanic proclamations that are apparently embedded in the song. Inciting such rabid commitment has to stand for something.
There’s a case to be made about the musicianship and the songwriting: how so much of what we hear in the mainstream is essentially rehashing old tropes and tricking our brains into mistaking familiarity for fondness. Some songs are simple and catchy, so we like them (like everything the Beatles wrote before they discovered drugs). Some aren’t, but they’re well-crafted, so we like them anyway (like everything the Beatles wrote after). Stairway to Heaven falls somewhere in the middle: it’s not exactly a simple three-chord song, and has plenty of dynamics in its arrangement. But it’s not some grand display of virtuosity either. It’s just a really solid rock ‘n’ roll song with that little something extra.
I don’t know them personally, but the guys in the band sound like horrible people. They took the “sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll” template to its logical extreme — the tragic death of drummer John Bonham is a case in point. And yet all’s forgiven. In fact, they’re venerated for their recklessness. They’re icons of rock ‘n’ roll, to the point that so much of the music that came after them was really either a continuation of what they did, or a counter-response to it.
You can’t attribute all of that to just one song, but it does help. It has that transcendental quality that unites opposing factions. You can play it at a house party and no one minds; play it on a “Bollywood night”, an “EDM night”, or just at a dive bar with crackly speakers, and no one minds. The reaction is always one of thrill or wistful nostalgia. So you judge the band less harshly.
That softened stance becomes all the more important given recent events. They have, since before this writer was even born, been facing accusations that the memorable intro by Jimmy Page features parts they lifted from the guitar line of a song called Taurus, by an obscure ’60s psychedelic band called Spirit, who they crossed paths with back in the day. The suit was finally filed in 2014, and, last month, Led Zeppelin was found not guilty of plagiarism. It doesn’t mean they didn’t steal it, though —just that a jury decided that they hadn’t.
That’s the thing: anything truly famous and remarkable will inevitably be followed by persistent accusations of dishonesty and intellectual theft (just ask Anu Malik). Sometimes it’s because of the endless maze of copyright laws, where copying certain things is permitted, like a chord progression, but copy a guitar line and you’re dead meat. It get more complex when you bring a tribute or homage into the picture. The reason why people commit crimes is not because we’re immoral; it’s because the laws are impossible to fully understand. The answer is rarely black-and-white, but the conversation itself — and how closely it’s followed by people — signifies its relevance in contemporary culture. And just for that, Stairway to Heaven has now become an even more important song in the grand scheme of things.
Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based musician and journalist.