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Music

The classic Led Zeppelin song that Robert Plant dismissed as “pompous”

Critics of Led Zeppelin throw up hatchets like ‘overblown’, ‘inflated’ and ‘the musical equivalent of Warhammer’. Truth be told, whether you love them or loathe them, there are certainly some elements of those critiques in the welter of their sound. For all the amazing rudiments that conquer these detractions like the Fellowship over the Goblins of Moria, even frontman Robert Plant is in agreement that sometimes things get a little bit too close to the guileless dream of a highfalutin neckbeard. 

Pete Townshend of The Who once angrily slandered: “It doesn’t sound like The Who from those early heavy metal years. We sort of invented heavy metal with (our first live album) Live at Leeds (1970). We were copied by so many bands, principally by Led Zeppelin, you know heavy drums, heavy bass, heavy lead guitar.”

Harshly concluding: “I don’t like a single thing that they have done, I hate the fact that I’m ever even slightly compared to them. I just never ever liked them. It’s a real problem to me cause as people, I think they are really, really great guys. Just never liked the band.”

As scathing as that may seem, it would seem that on one particular track, Plant finds himself somewhat peculiarly in agreement. Yes, Plant simply hates ‘Stairway to Heaven’. It has become the forbidden riff that is banned from guitar shops, but Plant was ahead of the curve in bashing the anthem that many consider to be the band’s opus. 

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In 1988, Plant told Q that he understood the criticisms: “If you absolutely hated ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ no one can blame you for that because it was so pompous.” While upon release, he spoke of the lyrics in an abstract sense stating, “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics,” in time he would comment, “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.”

This is the main source of his gripe with the track. In 2018 he clarified his distaste stating: It belongs to a particular time. If I had been involved in the instrumentation I would feel that it’s a magnificent piece of music that has its own character and personality. It even speeds up in a similar way to some pieces of more highbrow music.” 

Nevertheless, that’s not quite rock ‘n’ roll, thus he added: “But my contribution was to write lyrics and to sing a song about fate and something very British, almost abstract, but coming out of the mind of a 23-year-old guy. It landed in the years of the era of 23-year-old guys.”

While that might sound as though beyond the sour taste that the “pompous” song leaves in his mouth there is a begrudging respect, once incident makes his dislike seem a little bit closer to hatred because in 2002 he actually donated $10,000 to a radio station for it to stop playing the track.

“KBOO had this amazing music,” the former Led Zeppelin singer told NPR in 2002. “It was kind of a mixture of sad outtakes of doo-wop and a very droll DJ, who sounded like somebody from Marin County in 1967. I thought, ‘This is great. I gotta pull over and listen to this.’”

“The guy came on saying they were looking for sponsorships,” Plant added. “You know, ‘Please send in $10’ (or $15 or whatever), and if people did that, KBOO would promise never to play ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ So I called him up and pledged my money. I was one of the KBOO sponsors.”

Fortunately, the song has well and truly repaid that $10,000 donation and then some. Thus, he might find the whole thing a bit OTT, but when he’s on a Bahaman beach with the wind through his lion locks, he probably whistles the solo with a shit-eating grin and drops his hat in the direction of Jimmy Page, wherever the riff master may be.  

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