Songsplaining: What Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven is All About

Led Zeppelin’s 1971 single Stairway to Heaven is hands down one of the most famous recordings. Many will go so far as to say that it’s the greatest rock song of all time. In fact, the song has been so impactful that it even ensued a legal battle between Jimmy Page and the 1960s band, Spirit. Allegedly, the fight was over the song’s iconic riff. Spirit claimed that Page ripped it off their 1968 instrumental song Taurus. Zeppelin won the years-long case in October 2020.

Led Zeppelin / Jimmy Page leaning on a brick wall, 1993 / Robert Plant 1973 / John Bonham sitting on a couch circa 1969 / Jimmy Page at Earl's Court 1975 / John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page sitting on stairs 1970s

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Anyways, the point is that the song made a real dent in rock and pop culture history. Stairway to Heaven, Zeppelin’s immortal masterpiece (as some refer to it) was written by Robert Plant who has stated that he drew inspiration from Scottish writer Lewis Spence and his book Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. But since the lyrics are more or less vague, people have interpreted the song in their own ways over the years, which only adds to the magic and mystery of the track.

Still, we’re not here to be vague. We’re here to dissect and demystify. So, let’s begin…

The Notorious (and Legally Problematic) Intro

Yes, the intro is very similar to a part of Spirit’s instrumental song Taurus. But now that the Supreme Court has judged that Led Zeppelin are the rightful owners of the riff, we can all rest assured that the intro is theirs and theirs alone. The truth is, Zep (as they’re commonly referred to by fans) was the opening act for Spirit during their first US tour (1968-69), where the song was a regular part of their set.

 The Spirit band members are playing on stage

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This guitar intro has been often parodied, but there’s a reason why it’s remained a classic. It provides a perfect example of a musical concept called contrary motion, where voices move in opposite directions. In the intro, the lowest sound on the guitar goes down from A to G sharp to G, while the higher sound ascends from A to B to C. And then the pattern is broken.

Verse I: All That Glitters Is Gold

“There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold.”

Robert Plant said to Total Guitar magazine in 1998: “It was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration. The first line begins with that cynical sweep of the hand… and it softened up after that.”

Robert Plant Is singing on stage, and John Paul Jones is playing the guitar behind him, 1970

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This lyric was also alluded to by J. R. R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings, the poem goes:

“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.”

Zep actually took a lot from Tolkien. They used his works as inspiration for their 1969 track Ramble On.

Verse I: Stairway to Heaven

“And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”

A stairway to heaven is, of course, a metaphor – a way for us to reach heaven from earth. The same idea is mentioned in a well-known biblical teaching, in which the “stairway” could be a reference to Jacob’s Ladder (in which Jacob has a dream of angels climbing a ladder, thus ascending to heaven).

Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and John Bonham standing together 1969

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The lyric of the woman “buying” the stairway is a statement on materialism and the idea that you can buy your way to salvation (which was a real practice at one time called “Indulgence”). Heaven, in this case, could also be a metaphor for ultimate happiness. “She” is buying her way to having it all. But, as with many classic songs, the lyric could also just be a very broad metaphor used to create speculation (you could, of course, take it to mean anything you want).

Verse I: Who’s “She?”

“When she gets there, she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word, she can get what she came for”

Who is this ambiguous, “she?” Occultist theories argue that it’s a metaphor for a new type of pagan religion, an obscure, unknown belief. But, according to Plant, “she” is “a woman getting everything she wanted without giving anything back.”

Robert Plant is sitting next to a young woman laughing, and he is clapping his hands

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According to others, “she” is the Virgin Mary. Zep seem to silently confirm this (they mention the May Queen later on in the song, and May is traditionally the month dedicated to Mary). Rather than enter a religious debate, we can just read the lyrics at face value: The woman is a symbol of a greedy, materialistic, arrogant society that believes that everything, including the way to heaven, can be obtained with money alone.

Verse I: Two Meanings

“There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.”

Some say this lyric is a shot at women who tend to read into things too much, but considering that Plant was a little more metaphorical and spiritual (or so it seems) than that, another potential explanation could have something to do with the condemnation of the Catholic Church.

Led Zeppelin in a concert at Earls Court, London, 1975

Photo Ray Stevenson/Shutterstock

Once upon a time, in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle church’s door. The theses condemned the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences. With time, the differences in biblical interpretations spawned the Protestant Reformation. Still, the Lady tries to “buy her way to heaven” through good deeds as extra “protection” to achieve her salvation (heaven).

Verse I: All Our Thoughts

“In a tree by the brook, There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving.”

Some believe that this is the song’s reference to a mythos, to the old divinations from things such as birdsong. Still, this is in contrast to “she” who buys her way to heaven, with superficial faith in the church’s beliefs (“a sign on the wall”) and is trying to assure her path to heaven by giving money to the congregation (“but she wants to be sure”).

Jimmy Page sitting playing his guitar during a concert

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“Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven” could mean that she’s misguided. Then again, there’s also the chance that the words have no ulterior meaning – that Plant was just ending the verse with nice-sounding filler words.

Chorus: Wonder

“Ooh, it makes me wonder.”

Since the lyrics in the chorus are pretty straight forward, I can give a little background on the recording of the song in general. The recording of the track started in December 1970 at Island Records’ new Basing Street Studios in London. The song was only completed once Plant’s lyrics were added in 1971.

Robert Plant John Paul Jones and Bill Graham sitting Backstage

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Page then returned to the studio to record his guitar solo. The song originated in 1970 when Page and Plant were spending time at a remote cottage in Wales, following the band’s fifth American concert tour. Page kept a cassette recorder around all the time, and the idea for Stairway to Heaven came together from various bits of taped music.

Verse II: The West

“There’s a feeling I get When I look to the west
And my spirit is crying for leaving”

One interpretation is that since the sun sets in the West, the song’s narrator might be trying to describe his feelings when he thinks about death. His soul is looking to the West, longingly and perhaps grimly (his “spirit is crying for leaving”).

Robert Plant is holding a microphone looking to his left, Jimmy Page is playing the guitar next to him

Photo by Peter Tarnoff/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

There’s also a chance, given Zep’s fondness of The Lord of the Rings, that it’s an allusion to the idea of “The West,” the Undying Lands, in Tolkien’s mythology. The Elves go there to live out eternity in peace (a concept of heaven). Others say the “West” is a reference to the Wild West, which was no longer wild by then, but is still a representation of adventure, mystery, and charm. In this sense, it’s a place where one can remove himself from the materialism of society.

Verse II: Rings of Smoke

“In my thoughts, I have seen rings of smoke through the trees
And the voices of those who standing looking.”

The lyric “rings of smoke” is one reason why the song has been described as a psychedelic experience on drugs. If we continue with the references to The Lord of the Rings, it could allude to the character of Gandalf, a wizard, who is often seen blowing smoke rings with his pipe.

Gandalf, the actor Ian McKellen in The Lord of Rings

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Many say that Plant wanted to guide us on a spiritual journey, to improve ourselves and those around us. And those who hesitate (“Those who stand looking”) are the more conservative types who disapprove of such a spiritual (perhaps psychedelic) journey because they’re imprisoned in societal materialism.

Rings of Smoke (Continued)

Many ideas have been put forth as to what the lyrics “Rings of smoke through the trees” really mean. There’s a possibility that the imagery might have been borrowed from a Bob Dylan song. In the last verse of Mr. Tambourine Man, he sang about “disappearing through the smoke rings of his mind… far past the … haunted, frightened trees.” In this sense, the lyric could be describing a psychedelic experience.

Bob Dylan in Performance at a Concert at Madison Square Garden, New York City, 1974.

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There’s also a similar line in Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey which reads: “Wreaths of smoke, sent up, in silence, from among the trees.” In ancient times, this would be a terrifying sign for a kingdom, as it represents a massive army about to invade.

Chorus: More Wonder

“Ooh, it really makes me wonder.”

Plant’s first attempts at the lyrics were reportedly made next to an evening log fire at Headley Grange. Apparently, they were, in part, spontaneously improvised. Page claimed that “a huge percentage of the lyrics were written there and then.” Page was strumming the chords of his guitar while Plant was scribbling with his pencil and paper.

Robert Plant is sitting on a tall chair and singing at Headley Grange

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The complete studio recording of the track was released on Led Zeppelin IV in November of 1971. Their record label, Atlantic Records, initially wanted to issue it as a single, but Zep’s manager Peter Grant refused to do so in either 1972 or 1973. Why? Because he knew it would lead people to buy the fourth album as if it were a single.

Verse III: The Piper

“And it’s whispered that soon If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.”

The “Piper” is often referred to as a portrayal of God. Much like the old fable of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, God will lead his children to salvation, but only if they “call the tune” or adhere to his ways.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is walking in front of a group of children climbing a mountain

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This is a clever remix of the Pied Piper proverb and the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin:

Proverb: “If you pay the piper, you call the tune.”

Legend: “If we don’t pay the piper, he will lead our children away like rats.”

Led Zeppelin: “If we call the tune, the piper will lead us to reason.”

The Piper (Continued)

The message of the Piper lyric could mean that money doesn’t matter. If we all agree on the vision (“the tune”), we will be led to good things. There might also be a religious connotation. Revelation 7:10 states the end of the world will come when the “great multitudes” of the earth sing: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Bonham at the Melody Maker Pop Poll Awards ,1970

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After the children have sung their “tune,” God (like the Pied Piper of Hamelin) will gather them to follow him to their deaths, which will ultimately lead them to the kingdom of heaven.

It’s in the next lyric that Plant speaks of those who “stand too long” …

Verse III: A New Dawn

“And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.”

For those who stand by His (God’s) side, a better day will dawn on the morrow (heaven). And now, instead of the trees burning with “rings of smoke,” it’s the forests that “echo with laughter.” The lyric “A new day will dawn” could easily be from the bible. Luke 1:78: “A new day will dawn on us from above because our God is loving and merciful.” It’s a statement about how the righteous will get to see the kingdom of heaven.

Robert Plant singing on stage, 1975

Photo by Barry Peake/Shutterstock

It’s important to be aware of the political climate when this song was written. At the time, the whole “New Age Movement” was gaining traction and was the backdrop for much of the hippie culture and alternative religions that sprung from such fertile ground (the “Age of Aquarius”).

Chorus: Woah

“Oh-oh-oh-oh-woahhh”

The song is described as progressive rock, folk-rock, as well as hard rock and is often rated among the greatest rock songs of all time. According to music journalist Stephen Davis, even though it was released in 1971, it took until 1973 for the song’s popularity to become truly “anthemic.”

Robert Plant at a concert looking at the huge crowd

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Page later recalled, “I knew it was good, but I didn’t know it was going to be almost like an anthem. But I knew it was the gem of the album, sure.” On the 20th anniversary of the original release, American radio sources announced that the track had made an estimated 2,874,000 radio plays. By the year 2000, the song was broadcast on the radio over three million times.

Verse IV: No Satanic Message Here

“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now.”

It’s this fourth verse that has been notoriously labeled as a Satanic call if played backward. But Plant had something to say about that: “To me, it’s very sad because Stairway to Heaven was written with every best intention and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music.”

John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in a concert, 1970

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To be geographically relevant, in England, a hedgerow, which is a row of bushes, will often divide two properties from one another. The proverb means that if something surprises you at your borders (physically or metaphorically), don’t let it startle you.

(More on the satanic message later…)

Verse IV: The May Queen

“It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.”

To continue: If the bushes are rustling, you don’t need to “be alarmed now” because it’s the new wind of spring. Others say the “bustle in the hedgerow” represents our state of mind, which can get confused by – or is unprepared for –the possibility of such a spiritual path.

Led Zeppelin at a concert in 1973

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The “May Queen” is considered to be Mother Mary, to whom the month of May is dedicated. The May Queen is also believed to be about fertility. Take it from Robert Plant himself, who said: “What it is, it’s the beginning of Spring, it’s when the birds make their nests when hope and the New Year begins. And it’s nothing to do with any of that weird stuff you read about in America!”

Verse IV: Two Paths

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

The concept of heaven is brought up again, though implicitly. People have a choice to choose between “two paths.” This suggests that there can be another way to God or salvation that the ambiguous “she” in the song is not even considering.

The Led Zeppelin members standing on stairs

Photo by Globe Photos/Shutterstock

It’s a general message to keep an open mind, and it also offers hope. No matter where you are in life, we can always return to righteousness – to get back on the path. In essence, it’s never too late.

Moving on to the fifth and final verse before Jimmy Page’s solo. But first, another chorus…

Chorus: Wonder, Again

“And it makes me wonder
Ohh, woah.”

In 1990, a radio station in St. Petersburg, Florida, aired its “All-Led Zeppelin” format by playing Stairway to Heaven for 24 hours straight. According to Wikipedia, the track is the biggest-selling single piece of sheet music in rock history, with an average of 15,000 copies every year.

Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1990

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In 2004, Rolling Stone placed the song at number 31 on their list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” Robert Plant once gave $10,000 to a listener-supported radio station called KBOO in Portland, Oregon. It was for a pledge drive where the DJ solicited donations by promising they would never play Stairway to Heaven. When Plant was later asked why he did that, he replied, saying it wasn’t that he didn’t like the song; it’s just that he’d heard it before. (Ha ha)

Verse V: Head Humming, Piper Calling

“Your head is humming, and it won’t go
In case you don’t know
The piper’s calling you to join him.”

The lyrics “head humming and it won’t go,” are what most people say is indicative of a song that gets stuck in one’s head: an earworm. And again, “the piper” is present, this time, it’s about his tune and how it’s enchanted and magical. It sticks with you, like a parasite. Some interpret is as Tinnitus, which is being subjected to constant sounds coming from inside your head.

Robert Plant close-up holding a microphone singing in front of a big crowd

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The piper in this story could also be seen as the mythical snake in the Garden of Eden, who pressures Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. In this case, the piper could be the embodiment of external pressures to do something immoral.

Verse V: Dear Lady

“Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow?
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?”

Zep is speaking directly to the lady now, who is, after all, the protagonist of the story. But she also represents all of us. The narrator is telling her that the ticket to heaven (the “stairway”) is not something you buy; it’s something you earn by giving away everything you have. Her path to heaven lies in the “whispering wind,” which might just be a reference to common knowledge.

Jimmy page playing guitar next to purple stairs

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The whispering wind can easily be an analogy for popular opinion – something that was often used in lyrics around this time. The whispering wind is something that everyone can feel and experience, just like the actual wind. But it could also refer to prayer.

Dear Lady (Continue)

The narrator is essentially asking the lady if she can hear the wisdom of the wind that is around her. It is, after all, popular opinion that money (something “she” has) has value. But it’s with this lyric that the narrator hints at a flaw in materialism. Her reliance on money has resulted in her cutting everyone off, to a point where she may not be able to “hear” them anymore.

Led Zeppelin at a concert in 1979

Source: Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

And if “she” is really us, then our minds are still confused. But the sweet tune of the piper is still resounding in our heads, leading us to the end goal: heaven. And the path is both tangible (a “stairway”) and spiritual (the “wind”).

Jimmy Page’s Infamous Guitar Solo

Page’s minute-long guitar solo is one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous and is commonly regarded as one of the best of all time. During their live performances, this solo is often extended for a few minutes more, with some renditions lasting up to six minutes.

Jimmy Page is playing a double-neck guitar

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Sound engineer Andy Johns said in 2007: “I remember Jimmy had a little bit of trouble with the solo… He hadn’t completely figured it out. Nowadays you sometimes spend a whole day doing one thing. Back then, we never did that. We never spent a very long time recording anything. I remember sitting in the control room with Jimmy, he’s standing there next to me, and he’d done quite a few passes and it wasn’t going anywhere… Then bang! On the next take or two, he ripped it out.”

Bridge: Shadow and Soul

“And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.”

In the bridge, Zep summarizes the idea of the song so far. In this lyric, Plant is comparing two passing substances: shadow and soul. The Shadow Archetype, created by Carl Jung, represents a deep-seated negative aspect of the personality.

Robert Plant holding a microphone singing at a concert 1969

Photo by Peter Tarnoff/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

As the sun sets, our shadows get longer. The setting sun is a metaphor for the end of a day or, in this case, life. The “shadows” could also be a symbol of cynicism and doubt, which overshadows the beautiful parts of our souls. It refers to a common belief that the bad deeds in life overpower the good ones.

Bridge: A Lady We All Know

“There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show.”

Now comes a “lady” who is being described as an angel, which goes neatly together with the theme of the song, seeing that angels are often seen as women from heaven. To tie it all in, the May Queen referenced earlier traditionally wears white and represents the idea of God, shining “white light.”

John Bonham, Robert Plant, Sandy Denny and Jimmy Page sitting under a statue, 1970

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The May Queen, the angel, the “lady we all know,” can also represent holiday personification, which suggests the myths of the Bible should be understood as metaphors and shouldn’t be taken literally. Tennyson’s May Queen writes: “He thought I was a ghost, mother, for I was all in white.”

In the bridge, there is also a sharp change in musical tone, rhythm, and style.

Bridge: Listen Hard

“How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.”

This lyric might be a reference to Greek mythology, where King Midas was given the ability to turn anything he touched into gold. (He hugged and thus inadvertently killed his daughter, exposing his “gift” as an actual curse).

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in concert, Sydney, Australia, 1972

Photo by Philip Morris/Shutterstock

At the beginning of the song, Plant introduces an optimistic yet greedy woman. He painted her in a negative light, but now he describes the woman in a positive light, revealing her hope and purity as angelic traits that will allow her the opportunity to reach heaven… if she “listens very hard.”

Bridge: Rock, Not Roll

“When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll
And she’s buying a stairway to Heaven.”

These two lines deliver the song’s punchline: We are all one together – we need to help each other find the truth. The idea is to be steadfast (like a “rock”) and not waver (as in to “roll”). It goes without saying that “Rock and not roll” is a play on the idiom “rock and roll.”

Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones sitting on the floor

Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

It isn’t just a pun, though. It’s a utopian statement similar to John Lennon’s Imagine. The line “To be a rock and not to roll” is in contrast to the popular idiom “the rolling stone gathers no moss.” The only way to find harmony is to be united and “not to roll.”

Stairway to Heaven is a wonderful (“ooh, it makes me wonder”) message of solidarity and equality. At the end of the day, together, we can really change the world.

Claims of Backmasking

For those who don’t know what “backmasking” is, it’s a recording technique where a sound or message is recorded backward onto a track that is really only meant to be played forward; thus, it’s a deliberate process. Backmasking was popularized by The Beatles, who used the technique on their 1966 album Revolver.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page at 'The Song Remains the Same' film premiere, 1976

Photo by Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

Ever since, artists have used backmasking for all kinds of purposes – artistic and comedic effect – on both analog and digital recordings. Anyway, during a January 1982 TV show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network hosted by Paul Crouch, it was claimed that many popular rock songs have made hidden messages through backmasking. One example mentioned on that program was Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.

Alleged Satanic References

The alleged message in the song occurs during the middle section with the lyrics, “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.” When played backward, it allegedly contains Satanic references: “Here’s to my sweet Satan / The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan / He’ll give, he’ll give you 666 / There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”

Robert Plant in a concert 1970s

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Following these claims made on the show, California assemblyman Phil Wyman proposed a new state law requiring warning labels on records with backmasking. In April 1982, the Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee in California held a hearing on the topic, during which they played Stairway to Heaven backward.

It’s All “Very Sad”

During the hearing, a self-described “neuroscientific researcher” by the name of William Yarroll claimed that backward messages could actually be deciphered by the human brain. Aside from Plant’s quote above, Led Zeppelin has, for the most part, ignored such claims.

Robert Plant from his back at a concert 1969

Photo by Peter Tarnoff/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

In response to the claims, Swan Song Records issued their own statement: “Our turntables only play in one direction: forwards.” Zep’s audio engineer Eddie Kramer referred to the allegations as “totally and utterly ridiculous. Why would they want to spend so much studio time doing something so dumb?” We know what Plant had to say about it; he thought it was all “very sad.”