It’s not uncommon for musicians to outgrow their songs. Often, great tracks reflect a very specific time in the composer’s life, and it is their attempt to capture that fleeting moment that gives the song such an indefinable quality. But things change, and people grow. As a result, it can often be a little cringe-inducing for the songwriter to look back on the artistic decisions they chose to make at that particular time. Perhaps that’s why so many artists fall out of love with their biggest hits. This was certainly the case for Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, who, in a notable interview, opened up about a classic Led Zeppelin song that he can no longer relate to.
Describing the track, Plant said: “Lyrically, now, I can’t relate to it, because it was so long ago…I would have no intention ever to write along those abstract lines anymore. I look at it and I tip my hat to it, and I think there are parts of it that are incredible. The way that Jimmy [Page] took the music through, and the way that the drums reached almost climaxed and then continued… It’s a very beautiful piece. But lyrically, now, and even vocally, I go, ‘I’m not sure about that.'”
Abstract lyrics? Climactic drums? If you’re thinking the song Plant is describing sounds suspiciously like Led Zeppelin’s sprawling 1971 epic ‘Stairway To Heaven’ then you’d be right. The band started recording the classic track in 1970 at Basing Street Studios in London, but the abstract lyrics Plant describes weren’t completed until a studio session for Led Zeppelin IV held at Headley Grange, Hampshire, in 1971.
The track – written when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales – is an ode to all things ancient and elemental. Even the writing process itself seemed to reflect the slow movement of the rural Welsh landscape. As Jimmy Page once recalled, the song was written, “Over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Yr-Aur one night.”
Page seized on this moment of inspiration and recorded the initial idea for ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on one of the cassette recorders he always kept close by. Shortly after, Page came to Robert Plant and asked him to start work on some lyrics. His first attempt was similarly spontaneous, with Plant writing in a stream-of-consciousness style. Page claimed that “a huge percentage of the lyrics were written there and then”.
Although Plant finds his original lyrics a little difficult to relate to these days, the song still contains some phenomenal performances by the likes of Page, Plant Bonham and Jones. Even Plant – as self-deprecating as he is – had to accept that: “Of course, it was a good song,” he said.
Adding: “The construction of the song, the actual musical construction is very, very good. It’s one of those moments that really can stand without a vocal – and, in fact, it will stand again without a vocal, I’m sure, because it’s a fine, fine piece of music.”