'Stairway to Heaven' Turns 40

You know it, you love it, you’ve heard it a bazillion times; you learned how to play the opening on guitar — the song really does remain the same:

Forty years ago today, British rock juggernaut Led Zeppelin released their magnum opus, “Led Zeppelin IV.” Rife with flourishes of haunting folk, gritty blues and rafter-shaking rock of the heaviest order, “IV” swiftly became the band’s defining album, largely thanks to the epic 8 minutes and 2 seconds of the fourth song on the LP, “Stairway to Heaven.” Rock music hasn’t been the same since.

Arguably classic rock’s preeminent ballad, “Stairway to Heaven” is a multi-tiered suite that segues from lilting acoustic delicacy into feral rock ‘n’ roll abandon and back again. It’s inspired legions of aspiring guitarists and spawned droves of ham-fisted imitations, but has never been equalled in its bombastic rock pageantry. Its lyrics are steeped in enigmatic allusions to the conflict between spirituality and earthly materialism, although a few of its verses have left even the most scholarly rock fans scratching their heads. “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed now/It’s just a spring clean for the May queen” (which, when played backwards, delivers a very different message indeed to some ears) is just mysterious enough to sound deeply meaningful, even when sung by a quartet of tight-trousered hellions.

It helps that the opening chords were “borrowed” from an earlier song by the California psychedelic band Spirit, whom Zeppelin had once toured with during their very early days. But as a piece of beautifully recorded pop craftsmanship, there’s a reason why it’s stood up this long. Here it is at Zeppelin’s career peak during their 12-year existence as a working band, their 1975 pull out all the stops extended stay at London’s Earl’s Court:

It’s a remarkably multifaceted song. Anybody can play it!

And it’s the one tune to have if you’re going on a three-hour tour