Chances are, if you’ve been in the music industry for the majority of your life that some songs will stick with you, close to your heart and others, well, they’ll follow you around like a bad smell. For the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant, he has struggled with both, sometimes within the same track. That’s because the song Robert Plant hates from the band’s back catalogue is quite possibly their most adored hit.
So “hate” may be a bit strong. It’s not like Jimmy Page’s least-liked songs’ Livin’ Loving Maid (She’s Just a Woman)’ and ‘All My Love’, which he described as “not us” and refused to play live. This song was consistently played at Led Zeppelin shows; in fact, for many, it was the main attraction. Of course, we’re talking about one of the most famous tracks in the world, Zeppelin’s masterpiece ‘Stairway To Heaven’. For Plant, the song is no longer a transcendent moment of rock ‘n’ roll purity but a trip and fall down the spiralling staircase to hell.
Plant has never been afraid to offer up criticisms of Led Zeppelin. Despite their place at the head of the rock table, Plant is still more than happy to pick holes in their output, especially the early stuff. Opening up about their music back in the day, Plant recalled: “[I] realised that tough, manly approach to singing I’d begun on [1966 track] ‘You Better Run’ wasn’t really what it was all about at all. Songs like [Zeppelin’s] ‘Babe I’m Going to Leave You’… I find my vocals on there horrific now. I really should have shut the f*** up!” Still, it’s a big jump from this to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
The song is widely revered as one of the greatest rock songs in history, and it feels strange that its singer doesn’t like it. But it’s happened many times before. More often than not, a band’s greatest track can be oversaturated and over popularised to the point where even the band no longer want to play it. Look at Kurt Cobain’s dislike for Nirvana’s Gen X anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’; he felt the song’s shine meant the rest of his work would always be overshadowed, despite having “more to say” in them. Likewise, Thom Yorke and Radiohead despise their song ‘Creep’ with the effort now acting as a de facto qualifying question as to your legitimacy as a diehard fan. The same can be said for Robert Plant.
Plant has become tired of performing the track and rarely to never does. “I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1988. It’s not an opinion that has changed much over the years either. Later, the singer called the track “that bloody wedding song” and even went as far as to donate $1,000 to a radio show benefit when it said it would never play the song again if it reached its donation target.
The song is, in fact, one of Page’s favourites; speaking to Rolling Stone, he said of the track: “To me, I thought ‘Stairway’ crystallised the essence of the band. It had everything there and showed the band at its best… as a band, as a unit. Not talking about solos or anything, it had everything there. We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did it with ‘Stairway.'”
Whether or not you love ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or think it, like Robert Plant, as being played out, it’s hard to ignore the quality at hand. The question of whether Plant likes the song isn’t up for debate — he doesn’t. But we’d bet that, thanks to the song’s healing lyrics, he can find moments of pure brilliance within it still.