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The Gray Area: A review of “Stairway to Heaven”



Live albums contain either whole or pieces of concerts that are reformatted and sold as complete albums for home consumption. Live albums have existed for quite some time. I went digging through my music library for my favorite live album. The result? Led Zeppelin’s “The Song Remains the Same Live at MSG 1973.” It is an indisputable fact that Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Jimmy Page on guitar, Robert Plant on vocals, John Bonham on drums and John Paul Jones on bass combined to form the pinnacle of rock music. Commercially, they are one of the bestselling bands of all time with their studio album Led Zeppelin IV certified at 23x Platinum by the RIAA for selling 23 million copies in the United States alone.

The live album is a patchwork of recordings made over a three concert engagement at Madison Square Garden in July 1973. After being released several times – even once as a movie with footage from the concert – the album reached its final form in September 2018 when Jimmy Page remastered the recordings.

The depth of this album is absurd. From the opening track “Rock and Roll” to the 30 minute rendition of “Dazed and Confused” and the 14 minute “Whole Lotta Love” closer, Page’s guitar rips, Bonham’s cymbals crash, Plant’s vocals pierce and Jones’ bass punches. It would take a full dissertation to give adequate thought to the entire concert and album, so instead, I will restrict my focus to the one song on the album that any person with ears has heard — “Stairway to Heaven,” a rendition that is a whole other beast.

Plant opens the ballad by casually reminding the crowd that he thinks “this is a song of hope” while Page gently plucks the 12 strings on his Gibson EDS-1275 double neck guitar. It is a calm and collected song to this point; the gentle mood of Page’s guitar is highlighted by Jones’ careful piano notes. Critically, Bonham lays off the kit completely to give space to the ethereal composition. The introduction of the song creates an open and wide space in one’s imagination.

After two minutes, Page quickens the pace. The force of his guitar gets a bit heavier, though, again, he is careful not to overpower the vocals and the receding piano. Where Plant sets accents on some lyrics, Page matches the tone with his 12 strings. The tempo of the song grants Plant the opportunity to inlay improvised lyrics between planned verses, like when he casually asks the crowd, “does anyone remember laughter?” four minutes into the song.

On the studio album version, most people notice the song’s transition from folk music to rock and roll when Bonham comes in with the percussion and Plant memorably sings “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow / Don’t be alarmed now.” Now, the direction of the song changes; where the song was wide and open before, here it has tightened to a sharp point. Something is building, and Page is getting ready to release it. And then, Plant braces us with his words “Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow.” Page lets us know exactly what that wind is and how hard it is about to blow. From here on out Page makes a one-man assault on the guitar that results in the greatest solo in the history of stringed instruments. Please, slam that volume selector all the way up.

From 6:08 to 6:33, he builds the solo on the top 12 strings of his double neck guitar. He is thoughtful and unhurried. His sound is clear and the motion is upward both sonically, as the notes build higher, and visually, because at this point he physically brings the entire neck of his guitar vertical to his cheek.

And then there is magic. At the precise moment of 6:35, Jimmy Page holds his note while he changes the output on the guitar from the 12 string neck to the traditional 6 string one. At this precise moment there is an audible gap in the sound which takes the form of a quick, but somehow warm, pop, and the song takes a most deliberate turn to an unforgettable rock masterpiece.

Highs hit unexpected lows, speed meets unanticipated delay, and red-hot power gives way to necessary relief. There is one certainty, though. This improvisation is not on the studio album. No, this genius is live and in the flesh — it something which cannot be bottled in the recording booth of a lonely studio. This is human energy that comes only through the heat of a thirty thousand person crowd channeled through a genius with insanely loud amplifiers.

Of course, the final verse wraps up the song perfectly with force and beauty. The song that began with a whimper ends with a bang powerful enough to bring down the Hindenburg.

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  • K

    KJApr 30, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Well done! Stairway to Heaven affects me at an elemental level.