The following article is a detailed explanation and analysis of Led Zeppelin’s epic 1971 ballad Stairway to Heaven. I took the article from suite101.com.
The Meaning Behind Stairway to Heaven
Led Zeppelin’s flagship rock ballad, Stairway to Heaven was released in November 1971 as part of the band’s fourth album, Led Zeppelin IV.
The song remains as popular today, as it was at the height of Led Zeppelin’s recording days, and in 2000 was crowned the third greatest rock song of all time by VH1.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant began crafting the song in 1970 and while Page told UK music magazine MOJO (2000) that the instrumentals were written “over a long period”, he had also told Guitar World (1998) that a huge portion of the lyrics flowed from Plant over a single night of spontaneous improvisation.
And yet, the song presents listeners with a moral tale of society’s greed through a rich crochet of metaphor, rhetoric and intertextual reference.
The explanation of the lyrics that Plant gave Total Guitar (1998) was that Stairway to Heaven “was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration”. However, it is likely that the song takes aim at society as a whole, rather than a single woman.
There’s a Lady Who’s Sure All that Glitters is Gold – Materialism in Society
Stairway to Heaven begins by introducing a Lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. The woman may represent the increasing materialism of society in the late 1960s, and the following decades, along with the belief that material possession will assist one on the road to Heaven.
Of course, in the context ‘Heaven’ is not a religious destination, but the state of divine happiness, supposedly achieved through wealth and power.
As the song progresses it is revealed that greed is foolish, childish and can have some horrific consequences.
There’s a Song Bird Who Sings ‘Sometimes All of Our Thoughts are Misgiven’ – The Earth as the Sufferer
In the second verse, Led Zeppelin employs the natural world to illustrate the physical suffering and deterioration selfishness causes to the planet as a whole.
This message begins with a gentle warning from a bird singing in a tree and becomes more explicit in the next verse as a forest burns. The effects on the planet are juxtaposed by the lack of action or responsibility from those who stand looking.
The Piper Will Lead Us to Reason – Society as the Greedy and the Childish
Stairway’s fourth verse draws an intertextual allusion to the tale of the Pied Piper of Hameln, who freed a township from a plague a rodents and was not issued the pre-arranged payment. Angry and vengeful at the townfolk, the Piper returned, lead away all of their offspring with his music and he and the children were never seen again.
It is not clear whether Zeppelin meant society to be the townsfolk or the children in the re-shaping of this frightful tale and quite likely that they meant for the reference to be a two-fold accusation.
The townsfolk were greedy and conniving, wishing to have a rat-free town but not to pay the price, while the children were easily lead astray by beautiful music and the promise of fun and games – both very much like society and its obsession with material wealth without responsibility.
Spring Clean for the May Queen – A Return to Nature
Nature returns to Stairway in the fifth verse, this time in the form of a tamed and domesticated hedgerow – once a form of wealth and status itself.
The lyrics announce that should a flurry of activity begin in the well-ordered and neatly trimmed world society has carved, it will herald the coming of the May Queen – a mythical symbol of purity, youth and springtime, or re-birth.
This may translate to a hope for restoration of modesty and contentment.
There’s Still Time to Change the Road You’re On – It’s Never Too Late for Second Chances
Zeppelin reminds listeners that it is never too late to see the error of one’s ways and that if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last. The tune is a metaphor for knowing that something is wrong and not quite being able to put your finger on it – like a song that plays through one’s mind without words or a title. However, paying close attention to detail, will often present an answer.
There Walks a Lady We All Know – Everyone is Familiar with Desire
In the final verse, The Lady of Greed returns to show how everything still turns to gold. This is clearly a reference to the fact that greed is omnipresent and ever-tempting. Though listeners are told to be a rock and not to roll – perhaps, to be content with the things around you not to cause destruction by seeking greener pastures.
It Really Makes Me Wonder – It Really Makes the Listener Wonder
This simple line, which is repeated four times throughout Stairway, acts as a rhetorical question to plant a seed of doubt in listeners’ minds about the current attitudes of society toward wealth and power.
With each repitition, Zeppelin reiterates the questionable mindset of society until the listener fully rejects the notion that wealth and happiness are intrinsically linked.
Plants’ final notes, ‘And she’s buying a Stairway to Heaven’, carry an entirely different conatation to the initial utterance of the very same words in the first verse.
By the song’s end, the purchase of happiness is no longer an action to be revered but one to dismiss as a pitiful and ignorant act.
This about-turn in the listeners’ beliefs may be attributed to the skillful and poetic use of language employed by Jimmy Page in his crafting of one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
Written by Sarah Mathieson
Here’s Led Zeppelin performing the song live at Madison Square Garden in 1973. It was featured in their 1976 film The Song Remains The Same.