Opinion > Star Guests
The most classic rock song
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records
The cover of Led Zeppelin's fourth album, one of the most recognizable album covers of the classic rock era.
By Tim Carroll
The first time I heard it was just before Christmas in 1971. I was at a friend's house and her older brother had brought the album home. He had already played it through several times, but he wanted us to hear one song in particular -- "Stairway to Heaven."
The band Led Zeppelin was all over FM radio in 1971, and my group of friends was more than familiar with their first three albums. "Stairway to Heaven" and the untitled fourth album -- referred to as Led Zeppelin IV -- did not change my life or even my opinion of Led Zeppelin, but I knew it was one of the best rock songs I had ever heard.
Apparently I was not alone. The song was voted No. 3 by VH1 on the list of 100 Greatest Rock Songs and was ranked No. 31 on Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In celebration of the song's 20th anniversary, Esquire Magazine published these facts which show how big the song became.
As of Jan. 7, 1991, the "Led Zeppelin IV" album had been certified platinum times 10 (10 million copies sold). Also, "Stairway to Heaven" remains the biggest-selling sheet music in the history of rock. An average hit sells 10,000 to 15,000 copies. "Stairway to Heaven" has sold more than one million copies of sheet music.
The Esquire article offers a rough guess as to how many times it was played between 1971 and 1991. They figured that "the song was played five times a day on each AOR station in America during its first three months of existence; twice a day for the next nine months; once a day for the next four years; and two to three times a week for the next fifteen years."
By 2001, the song had been played more than 3 million times on the radio, according to radio industry sources.
The song was so popular in the mid-1970s that it became uncool among the college crowd to like it. I tuned it out for many years but eventually bought the CD reissue and grew fond of it all over again -- even without the scratches.
It's certainly not the lyrics that made it popular. Even die-hard Zeppelin fans are challenged to find meaning in lines like "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed now; it's just a spring clean for the May queen."
Musically, it may not be the greatest rock song of all time, and a lot of music has come and gone in 41 years. But baby boomers and their teenage kids still download the song and play air guitar to the climactic guitar solo. I sat in a parking lot once forcing my then-11-year-old son to wait for "Stairway" to end before I turned the car off. It just wouldn't be right to cut this song off, I explained.
Guitarist Jimmy Page grew tired of the song and publicly announced he would no longer perform it live. With a few exceptions he has held to that but the song continues to make best and worst lists. The song has served as the theme for thousands of proms and been performed at both weddings and funerals. It's become more of a phenomenon than a popular song.
That's why I am a little embarrassed to say I still listen to Led Zeppelin IV often and might be found in the Kroger parking lot strumming my air guitar as Robert Plant reminds us that she is still "buying a stairway to heaven."