Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin wrote dozens of all-time classic tunes during their career, but “Stairway to Heaven” stands above the rest. Page, perhaps knowing the Led Zeppelin IV tune would be a massive hit, pushed John Bonham so hard during the recording session that the drummer lashed out at him. Between recording IV in early 1971 and its release late in the year, Page experienced an “incredible” moment that let him know “Stairway to Heaven” would be a huge hit.
Jimmy Page pulled out all the stops on ‘Stairway to Heaven’
Led Zeppelin’s first three albums had several songs that broke the six-minute barrier. Yet “Stairway to Heaven” was their first epic in the truest sense. It was unlike any other song they’d done up to that point.
The folk-inspired acoustic opening that turns electric, the sped-up time signature (Page called it the cardinal sin), and the blend of several instruments made it a standout in the Zeppelin repertoire to that point. Page played several guitars on “Stairway to Heaven.” He used two 12-string guitars to produce slightly different sounds as he played the same notes. The guitarist had his famous double-necked Gibson built so he could play the song live without having to switch instruments.
Page knew “Stairway to Heaven” would become something special because he experienced an incredible moment with the song well before Led Zeppelin IV’s release in November 1971.
Page experienced an ‘incredible’ moment that proved ‘Stairway to Heaven’ would become a massive success
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Led Zeppelin divided the recording sessions for Led Zeppelin IV between the Headley Grange country house and Island Studios (per the band’s website) from November 1970 through February 1971. Yet the album didn’t come out in the United States until November 1971.
Still, Page recalled an “incredible” reception when the band first played the song live for U.S. fans. Led Zeppelin played the first of back-to-back shows at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., and fans took to “Stairway” immediately, as George Case writes in Led Zeppelin FAQ:
“Its U.S. debut during the 1971 summer tour of North America quickly alerted the band to the significance of what they’d come up with. At [the] Inglewood Forum on August 21, more than two months before Led Zeppelin IV was released, Jimmy Page remembered a ‘sizeable’ standing ovation after the piece was premiered.
“I thought, ‘This is incredible, because no one’s heard this number yet. This is the first time they’re hearing it.’ It obviously touched them, you know.”
Jimmy Page describes the incredible moment he knew “Stairway to Heaven” would be a hit
“Stairway to Heaven,” with Page’s virtuosic solo, Bonham’s powerful drum part, Robert Plant’s earnest lyrics, and John Paul Jones’ five-instrument performance, quickly became Led Zeppelin’s signature song. Led Zeppelin IV sold more than 24 million copies (per the Recording Industry Association of America), meaning generations of music fans have let “Stairway to Heaven” bustle in their hedgerow.
Led Zeppelin basically retired the song after John Bonham died
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Led Zeppelin made “Stairway to Heaven” a concert staple long before Led Zeppelin IV hit shelves. Page’s incredible moment at Zep’s first U.S. concert of 1971 proved to him the band had something special. The guitarist later explained the longevity came from a powerful, everlasting quality.
“Stairway” made every set list for Led Zeppelin, but the last time the band performed it was July 7, 1980, in Berlin. That was the last show Zep played together before Bonham died. Page said Led Zeppelin could never replace Bonham, and they didn’t, meaning the last time the four musicians who recorded “Stairway to Heaven” played it live happened in Germany as part of a swing through northern Europe.
Aside from a disastrous Live Aid set in 1985, a 2007 reunion, and a scant few other performances, the song has remained on the shelf since 1980. Still, that can’t take away the incredible moment Jimmy Page knew “Stairway to Heaven” would be a massive success.
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