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Music

How Led Zeppelin committed a "cardinal sin" on 'Stairway to Heaven'

‘The Forbidden Riff’, ‘The Forbidden Song’, Led Zeppelin’s best-known effort, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, is one of the most controversial tracks of all time. Whether that be down to the WASP claims of satanic backmasking, allegations of musical thievery, or because it is overplayed, it remains a peculiar number in the sense that it is both hallowed and hated. Never before has there been a song so revered and despised in equal measure. 

One of the most overplayed songs of all time, on the radio, in media and by budding guitarists worldwide, this has led to the song cultivating a similar sort of stature as ‘Wonderwall‘. The only real difference between the two songs is that Zeppelin’s has far more pulp, and in terms of musicality, it trumps Oasis’ most famous effort in every way. 

It wouldn’t be proper to reduce one of Led Zeppelin’s most iconic songs to the definitively terrible category, as it actually did a lot for the development of rock music. You could even argue, albeit at a push, that it helped to influence the development of the post-rock genre. 

It took a great degree of musical tact to pen such a gargantuan track, and ‘Stairway’ remains one of the most obvious signifiers of the individual talent of each of the band’s four members. Frontman Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist John Paul Jones and the late drummer, John Bonham, all provide stellar takes on the 1971 classic. 

Understandably, the song’s mythology has also compounded the celestial musical takes by the band. One part of this is that the song’s composition went against the grain for the band and saw them dip their toes into the deviant class. Jimmy Page, who wrote the song with Robert Plant, has attempted to explain the writing of the song many times over the years.

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A meandering piece that explodes in a crescendo, the band threw the rule book out the window when writing it. Prior to being in Zeppelin, Page and Jones were two of London’s most sought-after session musicians, and when it came to recording ‘Stairway’, they violated one of the golden rules of trained musicians. 

Notably, towards the end of the song, it speeds up after Plant screams: “And as we wind on down the road”. The decision to speed up was made purposefully by the band. In Mick Wall’s biography, When Giants Walked the Earth, Page explained how the band broke the golden rule. 

“When I did studio work, and when John Paul Jones did studio work, the rule was always you don’t speed up,” he said. “That was the cardinal sin, to speed up.”

However, when recording Led Zeppelin IV, the band were at the peak of their powers and saw fit to do things as they wished. “I thought, ‘Right, we’ll do something that speeds up,'” Page recalled. “But that, seriously, was another thing we always did in Zeppelin. If it started to move in tempo, don’t worry. It’s finding its own tempo. Don’t worry, just all stay together.”

There’s a lesson in this for all budding musicians. The rulebook is their as a guide, not as a dictator. All truly great musicians over the years have rewritten the rules in favour of creating something pioneering. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, they all did it. 

Listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ below.