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Stairway to Heaven - Fifty Years Later

By: Jordan McKay

On November 8th, 1971, Led Zeppelin released a fourth studio album that would transform them from simple rock stars to a household name for decades to come. As Stairway to Heaven approaches fifty-years-old it is only fitting to revisit the good, the bad, and the ugly of its effects on pop culture and Canadian music.

In 2012 Jimmy Page told Rolling Stone Magazine that the song “crystallized the essence of the band. […] every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time. We did it with ‘Stairway.’”

The Lyrics

The meaning of Stairway to Heaven has been heavily debated since the song was first released. In a 2018 interview with Dan Rather, Robert Plant stated, “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.”

These ‘abstract’ lyrics have resulted in the song's widely debated meaning differing from listener to listener. From those who had never listened to the song carefully, the most popular theory to come from the lyrics’ vagueness concerns drugs and drug use.

The Controversies - Old and New

For many parents in the 80s and early 90s, the ‘clear’ references to drugs were cause for concern. In an article published by the Seattle Times in 1991, journalist Michael Gladwell discussed the parental anxiety surrounding the song. The report refused to take a stance on the issue. Still, it sparked debate about the appropriateness of rock music for young audiences - a debate that never entirely ceased.

Years later, the song faced controversy as the band Spirit claimed ownership of the iconic opening guitar riff that made Stairway to Heaven famous. A trustee of the lead singer’s estate raised the claims in 2014. The six-year dispute was officially won by Led Zeppelin in October of 2020.

How it Fared in Canada - Past and Present

In June of 1972, Led Zeppelin crashed the Montreal power grid after performing in the Forum. About the show, the Gazette wrote, “they are not only the original group of all the heavies, they are still the best. All their imitators — Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, etc. — aren’t even in the money.”

Their later performances did not receive the same glowing praise from other Canadian critics at the time. Following a show in 1973, the Vancouver Sun wrote, “Their concert was terrible, unbelievably inept for the top draw in contemporary rock.” It was revealed in a later publication that Plant had indirectly taken LSD during the show.

Led Zeppelin’s legacy still lives on in Canada through young Canadians such as twenty-one-year-old Daxten Gauthier. “My parents were really into 70s rock music, so we grew up listening to bands like Led Zeppelin,” says Gauthier, a long-time fan and guitar player. “The opening riff of [Stairway] was the first thing I learned to play.”

Stairway to Heaven was not initially released as a single and, as such, never indeed featured on the Canadian charts; however, the song sticks with music lovers both in Canada and across the globe.

A first year journalism student, Jordan is passionate about Human Rights and has a lot of opinions. Her articles often use a mix of hard facts, interviews, and opinion on controversial topics. Opinion pieces are her favorite and most written but news and pop culture based articles do pop up occasionally.

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