Performer: Led Zeppelin
Songwriters: Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Original Release: Led Zeppelin IV
Definitive Version: BBC Sessions, 1997. The concert that’s on the second disc, which is worth the price of purchase, was one of the first times that this song was played live. It’s a fascinating listen. Here is, arguably, the greatest rock song of all time, and the band delivers an excellent performance. At the end, the crowd has only polite applause. Yeah, that was OK; now play Whole Lotta Love.
In all honesty, I don’t know where to rank this song. As far as my music preferences go, Stairway is as seminal a song as Like a Rolling Stone is to rock itself. It really shouldn’t be behind some of the songs that it is.
However, again, this isn’t a ranking of the quality of the songs themselves or even their importance but how much I like them, and maybe I’ve been a little burned out on this song. Honestly, if Zeppelin reformed and toured, I could name a dozen songs—as you’ll see on the list—that I’d rather hear them play than Stairway. That takes nothing away from my respect towards the song.
Because this is one of only a handful of songs on this here list that would have appeared on a similar list 30 years ago, I can’t ascribe a single story to it but multiple stories over time. Here are a few, in bulleted form:
* I went to see Song Remains the Same at the midnight movies my sophomore year of high school after my eye-opening morning at swim class. I went with Jeff, with whom I also saw the Jimi Hendrix movie. That probably more than anything was the thing that inspired me to get the album.
A couple years later, I saw the movie again with Mike. The midnight movies had moved from a theater on campus that had closed to nearby University City, a now closed theater that was next to the first McDonalds I remember seeing (back when the sign said 18 billion served).
The crowd, as you might imagine, was far more sedate at this location. In fact, the theater was mostly empty—another difference. But knowing what was coming made it a more enjoyable screening for me. Mike seemed nonplussed, until the end of this song, when he said “good job” with almost no emotion but definite awe.
* For a long time, every year at Memorial Day, Q-FM in Columbus would do its countdown of the top 500 songs of all time. Every year for a long time after I was introduced to this feature, Stairway was No. 2 to whatever song happened to be trendy at the moment, like Free Bird.
In 1986, I was following along fairly closely, more closely than usual, wondering what song was going to beat out Stairway this time. I was at Beth’s the day of the last songs, and I distinctly remember listening to the top 10 while in her dining room and kitchen. I have no idea why I or we were there, but I seem to recall that I was there by myself, because I wanted to hear the last songs.
Anyway most of the usual suspects were there: Won’t Get Fooled Again, Roundabout, Suite:Judy Blue Eyes. Free Bird was No. 8. A Day in the Life was No. 2, and unless I missed Stairway, it was going to be No. 1, finally.
Anyway, when Day in the Life finished, the DJ came on and said, “coming up next, the No. 1 song of all time,” and the first thing you heard was Carl Douglas crooning “Woah oh-oh-ohhhhhh”
Wait, what? Kung Fu Fighting? Seriously? No. It was the start to an ad or something, and I thought that was pretty funny. When Q-FM came back, it played Stairway.
The punch line though was that EVERYONE in my circle heard that, it seemed. For a while, if you heard Kung Fu Fighting, you could say, “No. 1 song of all time,” and everyone understood the reference.
* When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland in 1995, Debbie and I became charter members, which enabled us to get cool T-shirts and discounted admission.
Back then, of course, the actual Hall, where the names of all the inducted members of an act were inscribed was at the pinnacle of the I.M. Pei pyramid. (It since was moved down to a larger, supposedly less sedate area years ago.)
Anyway, I don’t know whether it was on a printed map to the museum or in the museum itself or what, but I would swear that the last staircase to the Hall was called the Stairway to Heaven. When I went back years later, in 2003, any such reference was gone, and I have been unable to find just where I saw that reference.
Maybe I just thought it up while Debbie and I were in line. It’s not a bad idea, although, of course, the point is now moot.