Led Zeppelin: Stairway to Heaven

So our post-1960's non-crappy music series has come to a head and admittedly, I've had a little trouble narrowing down a worthy enough selection to share for the conclusion.  One of the pieces of criteria I selected in this final choice was that it did have to include some vocal work.  Another requirement I felt necessary was that it had to be well-known enough to have either gotten decent radio time in its era, or popular enough to still be on the radio.  I was kinda stumped.  

So, I decided that I would scan the stations regularly this week, hoping for some inspiration to come crashing through the speakers of the 2001 Ford Taurus as it barrel-assed up and down the interstate each morning and afternoon.  

When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you're going to see somebody die.

I have since learned that at any given point during the day there will in fact be two radio stations that will be simultaneously playing "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke.  I actually had to look up the title of the song and accidentally the lyrics.  I'm slightly concerned that I might have damaged my brain beyond repair as a result. 

Uninteresting sidenote: Robin Thicke is in fact the son of TV's Alan Thicke, thus proving that no matter how much of a tasteless idiot you may be, you can get 15 minutes of fame so long as you have a parent who was or is on the B list.  

You were expecting Hannah Montana again.

I digress.  I had all but given up hope of finding a song that fit my criteria.  Everything was either too bland, too overplayed or simply just didn't speak to me. I was driving home late at night.  The lines on the highway whizzed past me at breakneck pace.  The radio was quietly scanning through the FM band in a futile effort to summon forth a gem from the rough, something worthwhile and true.  Then it happened.  

A song I'd heard many times before came over the radio.  It started slow and all the familiar pieces came through and it was meant to be.  It was right, it was good, and it fit everything I had been seeking. It was of course, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven".  

It's hard to pin down the first time I heard this tune.  Obviously, I was born well after it came into existence so it probably was on the radio where I heard it the first time.  A big issue I see in selecting this for Listening Friday is that I can almost guarantee (with the exception of all you fine people from Kazakhstan who seem to really enjoy my blog), everyone reading this blog will have already heard it. So my problem then is to find something unique in the obvious.  So, this may be tricky.

Let's talk about the form.  Rock and Roll (which is what Zep is at heart) is really a genre that is a direct derivative of the blues and jazz in general.  The form of the verses and chorus all draw from the prototypical construction of your standard blues piece.  The concept of improvised soloing over a repeating progression of chords is also a direct influence of Jazz.  The big shift came with instrumentation and turning the drum set upside down in a manner of speaking.  

For the sake of argument, let's focus specifically on the Blues.  When you say Jazz, it's a much larger genre that potentially encompasses close to 100 years of music and artistic influence. When we say Blues, we're talking about a subset of Jazz and one of the earliest forms of traditional Jazz.  In the Blues, you usually have a pattern of three or four chords that occur in a set order over the course of 12 bars.  The drum set and the bass guitar emphasize the tempo and pulse through the use of cymbals and a plodding quarter-note pulse on the bass.  The snare, kick, and tom drums are typically used more for accent and color.  You'd usually have a piano player and/or a guitarist that will "comp" over the rhythm engine built by the bassist and the drummer.  Comping is essentially playing the full or partial chords (of which the bass player establishes the bottom end) along a pattern that is improvised to blend with the drum pattern and/or what the other comping musician is doing.  

Once you have this little motor running, you can add any number of musicians on top in any wide array of instruments.  The beauty of the Blues is that it is highly adaptable and universal, but your typical instrumentation featured a drum kit, a bass (usually upright), a piano, a guitar, and some sort of wind instrument(s).  

As jazz evolved and began picking up mainstream notoriety, we saw a cultural divergence and a spread across the country.  That's really a discussion for another article though. Sticking to how we get to Led Zeppelin from here- Rock evolved out of Jazz as a change in style and instrumentation.  At its heart, you still have the core of the engine room: drums and bass, but with more emphasis on the guitar part and the guitar itself as a virtuosic instrument.  

Zep' came into being around the end of the Beatles.  Rock and Roll was firmly established in the American Psyche in the late 1960's, but the climate had changed.  The country was living through Vietnam and had been growing up in a world that was now teetering on the edge of existence and nuclear holocaust.  From my 30 year old perspective, I kinda look at the 60's as though the US might have been in high school and college and the 70's would be that timeframe in your late 20's where you're actually growing up and figuring out just how harsh and cruel a place the world can sometimes be.  

The Beatles felt the shift through their own growing pains, but the world was ready for something newer and with more grit and grime.  Led Zeppelin became that, positioned right between the end of the last bits of direct Blues-influenced Rock and Roll, but before the Progressive Rock generation they inspired. Led Zeppelin taught us that Rock didn't have to fit into the cookie cutter mold, that it could be more than just a riff and changes.  

By their fourth album, they were ready to produce their magnum opus.  "Stairway to Heaven" is to me the bridge that takes us from the bouncy, rollicking fun of the 60's rock and leads us into the lengthy, symphonic ballads of 70's rock and lays the foundation for the grit of the punk rock in the 80's and eventually the loose thrash of 90's grunge and alternative.  Then came 2000...

"But don't worry!" said Canada, "We've got this new young chap named Justin!"

Examining the actual form of the piece in detail it's a fairly complex piece of music relative to it's closest ancestors.  It begins with a simple finger-picked introduction on acoustic guitar and accompanied by recorders in a Renaissance-reflective style.  It stays in this subtle, quietly building A section for a time and eventually reprises the same theme, but with heavier instrumentation.  After the repeat of the A section we hear a new theme in a transitional role which takes us to a newer faster tempo and a blisteringly iconic solo by Jimmy Page.  As the solo concludes we're encouraged to reflect on the actual meaning behind the lyrics in a full-bore rock-laden B section.  The "lady" we're told of is one of high standards and even higher taste. The message I get from this song is one of hope, that there is more to life than just building wealth and getting ahead.  There is a deeper meaning and the futility of buying a stairway to heaven is representative of our inward temptation to look for the simple, all-in solutions to the problems in our lives.  

It could also be that they were all really drunk and it sounded cool.  However, looking at how Bonham met his end, I kinda doubt that it would be that shallow.  We all have our demons that drive us to the easy road, our own golden stairways.  

Either way, there is something there, within this song, that makes it able to withstand the test of time and still be influential and well-cited 40 years later.  Listening back to it now with better ears, the fact that it goes beyond the cookie cutter mold of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-bored is a huge bonus point, let alone the fact that you can just hear in the lyrics as Plant and Page sing their hearts out, that this means something more to them than just another track.  

This was their legacy.  

Homework: Read the lyrics as you listen to this song.  Write a short story/passage about the "lady".  

See you next Friday.