Understanding Stairway to Heaven

The Definitive Interpretation of Rock's Definitive Bombast

Click this link to skip to the interpretation of the lyrics to Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven.

Classic Rock Leading to Decay?

Concerned parent illustration by Kyle Menzies

In recent years "concerned parent" groups have cropped up, intent on silencing music's raunchier players. Bickering between the defenders of morality and the defenders of expression continues unabated. Bowing to pressure record companies began policing their own material, attaching warning labels to product lest the odd Limp Bizkit or Emimem consumer was expecting a walk in the park.

But why the fuss? Foul-mouthed singers and blatent lyrics come and go, they're as old as music itself. Nasty material has never gotten a foothold among mainstream "classic" tastes anyway.

Or so we thought.

We turned a critical ear towards the lyrics of rock's classic songs and our findings were disconcerting. A troubling discovery was that the truest paean of decadence and turmoil was the grand old man of rock songs, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." After our research behind the song's lyrics, as well as some well-reasoned speculation as to the song's meaning, we concluded that there is need for concern, if not moral outrage over what is being sung to us.

As has been the case in every such survey of its kind since 1972 "Stairway to Heaven" was the number one song of every annual Top 1000 song list. Clearly, a lot of people think this is a very important song. When word leaked out that we were investigating the Zeppelin classic, a hard core group of fans fired angry letters and threats at us.

While we would never condone censorship, we cannot turn a blind eye at Stairway to Heaven's potential corruptive influence. Just how many of us have been pushed off our truer course after repeated listenings of the Zep tour de force? The effect could be subtle and harmless. A twelve year-old hears the song, then nicks a candy bar from a shop. However, the other extreme is chilling – one moment a swaying roomful of suburban Stairway fans are enjoying themselves, the next they're out tormenting senior citizens at a nearby mall.

It's time for the advocates of free speech to get off their high horses. Everyone should stop shouting and just listen. Have they considered the effect "Hey hey Mama said the way you move, etc." could have if you hear it enough?

It's too late for many of us, but let's respect posterity. If necessary, padlock your old vinyl collection. Kids should have the facts of life explained to them first. So when they finally hear, "When you squeeze my lemon babe, the juice runs down my leg," they can say, "I'm hip, this stuff is naughty."

The Band, 1971

Led Zeppelin were a helluva band. Truly. The concerts they put on in their early days reportedly left audiences weakened. Not only did they do super-charged renditions of their own material, they tossed in thunderous rock'n'blues boogies to round out their sets (as witnessed on the recent BBC Sessions release). Tour by tour, even night by night they came up with a new plan to thrill concert-goers. Stadium shows today are all calculated overkill. Zep shows by comparison were stripped down and sinewy. Just four underweight English lads, badly in need of dental work: Robert "Percy" Plant, John Paul "Jonesy" Jones, John "Bonzo" Bonham, and James Patrick "Jimmy" Page. They turned up the temperature of music, and a lot of white kids got hooked.

Behind the glorious image, however, lifestyles slowly went awry. Months passed where it was said "Led turned into gold." The money flow let band members indulge themselves. Record and tour profits paid for a lot of vintage autos and open bar whoop-em-ups. But the most conspicuous purchase of all was a castle in Lelawcge-an-bryn, Wales, which guitarist Page bought.

The castle and the surrounding county, a supply of Zeppelin groupies, and a team of apprentice carpenters provided the ambience in which Robert Plant penned "Stairway to Heaven" in the spring of 1971. It was a time of confusion and introspection for the young crooner, not helped by the giggles of girls, and the whacking of hammers.

And now, the interpretation of the lyrics…

Stairway to Heaven

R. Plant & J. Page
© 1971 Superhype Music Inc.

There's a lady1 who's sure all that
glitters is gold2.

And she's buying a stairway
to heaven3.

And when she gets there she knows
if the stores are closed.

With a word4 she can get
what she came for.

There's a sign on the wall
but she wants to be sure.

Cause you know sometimes
words have two meanings5.

In a tree by the brook
there's a songbird

who sings sometimes6.

All of our thoughts are misgiven.

There's a feeling I get when
I look to the west.

And my spirit is crying for leaving.

In my thoughts I have seen
rings of smoke

through the trees7.

And the voices of those who
stand looking.

And it's whispered that soon
if we all call the tune.

Then the piper will lead us to reason.

And a new day will dawn
for those who stand long8.

And the forests will echo
with laughter.

And it makes me wonder9.

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow
don't be alarmed now10.

It's just a spring clean for
the May-Queen.

Yes there are two paths
you can go by.

But in the long run.

There's still time to change
the road you're on11.

Your head is humming and
it won't go- in case you don't know12.

The piper's calling you to join him13.

Dear lady can you hear
the wind blow.

And did you know

your stairway lies on the
whispering wind14.

And as we wind on down the road.

Our shadows taller than our soul.

There walks a lady we all know.

Who shines white light
and wants to show.

How everything still turns gold15.

And if you listen very hard

the tune will come to you at last.

When all are one and one is all16.

To be a rock17 and not to roll.

And she's buying18 a stairway
to heaven.

The Lyrics Interpreted

By Michael Klassen

1. Erma Rees-Gwynn, a Welsh divorcee intent on starting her own carpenter contracting business. She was recommended (some say as a joke) by the castle's previous owner, actor Richard Harris, who fled to the Bahamas to avoid the taxman.

2. This is a bit of Plant's irony. In other words if it didn't glitter, it probably wasn't worth much. Erma and her assistants reportedly broke and scratched a lot of valuables carrying lumber through the residence.

3. This means "building" a stairway to heaven, or, more likely, buying the materials for the stairway. Erma was contracted to build a deck in back of Page's castle, three stories high. The plans were for a 2nd floor landing, and steps leading up from the back vegetable patch. Plant once described Lelawcge-an-bryn as "heaven." The staircase when completed would be a stairway to view heaven if you climbed up it, or going down, a stairway to carrots and peas.

4."Foreclosure." The small Welsh town in the district had only one hardware store in the area, and the owner was on a picnic with his family. Erma complained to Jimmy about not being able to get screw nails. So Jimmy called a couple of local aldermen he had in his back pocket, so they could get the damn store open. The store owner soon received the politicians' threats, and cut short his picnic.

5. In order the secure the landing at the second floor, Erma's crew had to enter Jimmy's so-called "Guitar Room." The sign on the wall said "Keep the Fuck Out – Everyone!" These words don't have two meanings, do they? Well, Erma let herself in anyway. In fact, only two double-necked Gibsons could be found in the room, out of Page's reputed collection of 75 guitars. No, this was his Occult Room, full of red satin furnishings and things with horns on them.

6. Reportedly Jimmy was out on his property, singing in his favorite tree, when he saw Erma's helper hanging out the Guitar Room's window. His berserk ranting ("misgiven thoughts") could be heard in the next county.

7. West of Page's property, beyond a neighbour's forested grove, there was a coal-burning power plant. Apparently the tons of sulphur-rich deposits pouring from its stacks disheartened Plant. One day Percy got pretty inebriated, and schemed that they should all protest until the plant shut down. Why not get all the girls, the other lads, and large-fisted manager Peter Grant out blocking their gate? "Great idea," one of the girls responded, "but how are we going to keep the stereo going, or even have hot baths without power?" This comment silenced Plant's protest.

8. Jonesy was the true all round musician of the group. Before Led Zeppelin the bassist/keyboardist extraordinaire wrote and arranged some of Lulu's best work, including "To Sir With Love." Whilst up at Page's castle he tried to form a little choir he wished to call the Zeppettes. Singing careers could've meant a "new day" for the girls, but none could carry a tune. The neighbours watched them rehearse in vain, hence the laughter echoing in the forest.

9. It's likely Plant spend as much time wondering about things as it took for him to write this line.

10. It's said a lot of clothes were found in strange places after their infamous Victorian dress-up parties.

11. The "May-Queen" was Maytag's laundromat-sized washer/dryer combo ordered in to handle hotel-sized loads of laundry being done at Page's castle. Jimmy was promised a money-back warranty on the set if he wasn't satisfied. The "two paths" were whether to keep them or return. The warranty gave him time to change the road he was on, you see.

12. This was one of the worst hangovers Plant had ever felt.

13. Jonesy was going back to London and asked Plant to come along.

14. Actually, your stairway, and the whole damned sundeck laid on the ground. A spring torrent ripped through Great Britain that year, and destroyed Erma's shoddy work.

15. Jonesy and Plant hit the road in John Paul's Stutz Bearcat. By coincidence, they came across Erma waving a flashlight, trying to hitch out of Lelawcge-an-bryn County. After the sundeck fiasco she gave up on carpentry, and was leaving for a cousin's residence in King's Cross. "Everything still turns to gold," she promised, boasting ten thousand pounds profit on the Page job alone.

16. A sarcastic bit of advice from Percy to the Zeppettes: just keep practicing, girls.

17. Plant decided to be a rock, if not a lump of clay, and stay home with his wife and family until the next tour.

18. Last heard from, Erma was in the Bahamas. "And she's buying a ticket to Nassau."

Originally published in 1990 with the title, "Son, We Need to Talk: The Truth About Classic Rock"