The Day “Stairway to Heaven” Died

Writers, wrongly or rightly, wish they were able to compose songs. The highest goal of a writer is to make someone feel at all what they might during the meanest moment of the worst song. Capturing music in written form is difficult. But it is possible, as long as you don’t forget that to get off the ground, you need to flap your wings pretty hard.

On October 8, 2012, “Little Black Submarines” was released by The Black Keys. Entertainment Weekly called it an “edge of sanity epic”, and the song did very well on the charts. That is also the day that “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin became redundant. It had to happen sooner or later. Someone had to replace that 8-minute opus with something a bit more immediate but just as big, with something that also strives for an impossible reality but in about half the run-time. And that’s what The Black Keys did. They re-wrote “Stairway to Heaven”, knowingly or unknowingly, and consigned the Zeppelin classic to the history books as a result.

We could argue plagiarism, but what isn’t copied anymore? I like to fantasize about inspiration, but the reality is that I get a good jolt in the appropriate creative direction anytime I watch a good movie, read someone else’s novel or short story… or hear a song that I would dearly like to replicate in written form. As The Black Keys say: “Oh can it be? The voices calling me. They get lost, and out of time. I should’ve seen a glow, but everybody knows, that a broken heart is blind.” In fact, Zeppelin would agree with me, I think: “And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last. When all are one and one is all, to be a rock and not to roll.” That’s right: they invited replication, and 41 years after “Stairway to Heaven” was released, someone finally managed it.

And really, am I buying a stairway to heaven or even thinking about it? In this day of crumbling church attendance and redefinition of religious devotion, what does it mean to have accumulated enough wealth and yet have that epiphany that all the money is not going to get you a spiritual slam dunk? It’s not like there are ample comfortable people out there anymore, as we split the rich and the poor further and further. I should be so lucky as to aspire to a new pair of shoes now, let alone a one-way ticket to a perfect eternity. Led Zeppelin wrote about a time that has expired, and as a result, so has their great song.

But Little Black Submarines has it right. It is the slow build-up that we need, and then the drop – the long, bottomless drop that is typically reserved for the meanest dub-step. The song explodes, as perhaps I would like to do, and lays it out there with a force and immediacy that doesn’t dream – it simply tells us how it is. And that’s what we need – to remember how it is, because the church isn’t going to do it, and neither are our politicians. In this day and age, music is more important than ever, and so we turn to our artists to explain the world to us. Or at least to remind us of it. For example: “Treasure maps, fallen trees. Operator, please call me back when it’s time. Stolen friends and disease, operator please. Patch me back to my mind.”

Indeed, patch me back to my mind. Forty years after the much-proclaimed greatest rock song of all time was released, we are back to trying to find our own minds, occasionally even aware that we might have misplaced them. And if we forget, turn up the volume. Blow up the speakers. And scream the words until you taste and then embrace your own inner madness. The Black Keys have given us the anthem for our times. They have given us a self-portrait that creeps up on you (as self-awareness usually does) and then crashes in that edge of sanity epic that finally fills the gaps. I don’t think we can ask for more than that from our artists.

And so back to the writing. You know, it makes me wonder, why I write fiction, but I’m reminded of the answer every time I hear a song that blows my mind and then fills me with the desire to make anyone anywhere feel a tenth of what I’m feeling in that moment. This is desire. And need. And it starts from earthly delights rather than heavenly aspirations; it’s built from the solid ground on which I tread, not the puffy clouds of a hoped-for ascent. Cheers! The piper may be calling us to join him, but a broken heart… Well, a broken heart is blind.

If anyone wants to hear a modern version of Stairway to Heaven that has some serious chops, try this (that’s Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart!):

 

109 thoughts on “The Day “Stairway to Heaven” Died

  1. There walks a lady we all know
    Who shines white light and wants to show
    How everything still turns to gold.
    And if you listen very hard
    The tune will come to you at last.
    When all are one and one is all
    To be a rock and not to roll.

    It ain’t dead it just has a new little brother 🙂

  2. “…don’t forget that to get off the ground, you need to flap your wings pretty hard” So true.
    I suppose we all have to take inspiration wherever we can find it so we can hopefully keep connecting on a deeper level with others.

    I’ve heard Stairway to Heaven a billion times, but never the Black Keys song. Interesting.
    And that Heart version! Blew me away the first time I heard it.

    • Give LBS a shot, let me know what you think. Loved the Heart version of STH, I’ve always loved Heart and kind of miss their music.

      Inspiration’s funny. I often think it’s false to take it from music, because then you are using someone else’s voice, but then I smarten up and just write. It comes from somewhere, it comes from no where, but as long as it comes, it’s all good.

  3. Nice Trent. Great song, it grows on you. You know, when I find my self philosphizing, I sometimes wonder if my change in world vew is because the world is changing or I am changing. The extremes are easy to determine but where it is a mix of the two, it all appears grey to me – no way to separate the them. The switch from Smoke on the water to Little black Submarine feels like one of these paradoxes. Whatcha thnk?

    • As I grow older, I feel my worldview being fixed in odd ways, no matter how I resist it. There are things that a few years ago would have felt fresh and exhilarating but that now feel odd, unimportant, and seem to be slipping progressively further into being threatening in some way (though I’m never exactly sure how). I guess it is all grey, music through the intangibles (or made of the intangibles, as it were). I haven’t thought about Smoke on the Water in a long time, or heard it; I did hear Hush on the radio the other day, though, and it gave me a thrill. I used to love Stairway… now if it comes on the radio (rare), I flip to something else; it’s a song reserved for a certain time and place only, unacceptable in any other context for me. Little Black Submarines, though… that makes me think I’m not completely lost in the past (though for the most part, I really kind of am – I just listened to The Wall!).

  4. The Black Keys are brilliant, and Little Black Submarines truly delivers. But… nothing will ever push Stairway to Heaven into retirement for me. At 48 years old, Led Zeppelin and STH are forever etched into the memories of my tween years.

    Junior high dances…8 minutes of uninterrupted snogging under the watchful eye of the teachers and volunteers… Yearbook signatures quoting snippets of lyrics… Smoking my first joint and pondering the poetry within the music… Experiencing Song Remains the Same at the Danforth Music Hall the first of 5 times.

    Nope. No retirement party for Stairway to Heaven just yet for me.

    • Nancy! The school dance was EXACTLY what I wanted to comment on when I read this post. The two are forever tied in my mind.

      Trent… I have not heard of this song, I suppose I’ve been under a rock, but will definitely check it out when I can listen to it loud. Thank you!

    • I understand. I remember STH back in the dance days, too. Maybe I just don’t want to visit those days again… could be I like the thought that other people younger than me are eating up newer songs, and maybe I could do that too… I know, should act my age.

      Snogging in the gym… those were the days, weren’t they. If there’s any older song I will never retire, it’s Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane. The epic of the epics in my mind.

  5. What Nancy said. Stairway will always be the last song of the night at the school dance for me and all the warm memories and emotions that it stirs up.
    Thanks for making me go back and give it a more serious listen, the Black Keys deserve their props for this one. Though it does have classic written all over it, let’s have this conversation again in 20 years.

    • Agreed – those are memories, aren’t they. Somewhere the kids are mixing up their own to their own songs – could be I just like feeling that I could still be a part of that. Talk about living in the past… but I never did really grow up, or at least do so well.

      20 years from now… deal!

  6. Great post, Trent, but I think it’s a bit premature to be saying a eulogy for Stairway to Heaven. I had not heard this Black Keys song before. And it does sound like a knock off of the Led Zeppelin classic, albeit a good one. I like it. But does it knock the best rock song ever sung off its well deserved pedestal? I, for one, don’t think so.

    Thanks for sharing the Heart version. I’d never heard (or seen) that before, either.

    • I agree with the Doobster. I hear the Zeppelin influence in this Black Keys thingy, but Stairway to Heaven is without question the greatest rock epic of all time. Is it dated? Yes. Just like Bridge Over Troubled Water is dated. So is Saving Private Ryan, but it still makes me weep like a little girl. Stairway is the alpha and omega. Others come close, but close is a relative term, like the Earth is close to other stars. Now, if you were to say Rock is dead, I would agree. Rock is all but dead, and this time it’s for real. But Stairway is not quite dead yet. On my short list of posts I would like to write but probably won’t is my five epic rock songs post. I’m having trouble coming up with five (I only have four, and I’m sure I would get flamed for two of them). If I were to write it, Stairway would be my number one, no doubt.

      That Heart version kicks ass though. I’ve watched that many times, usually with a good tank of drink in me.

      • Well I don’t know if it’s without question the greatest rock epic of all time… I think there are other contenders for that. As for rock… yes, I think it’s dead. It got its hand blown off in the early nineties when grunge came along, then started depleting itself as hip-hop rose. Now we’re into purpose-built songs developed for tweens… what’s the last rock classic you can remember? The Foo Fighters? Nickelback? I think it’s all over. Amazingly, there is still a fierceness to music despite the lack of rock trappings, just comes in different forms now. I miss the 80’s music; but I don’t miss rock.

        Looking forward to your five epic songs post… curious to hear what the other three defined ones might be.

    • I’ll do you one better, Doobster, and submit that the greatest rock song of all time is Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana or maybe How Soon is Now by The Smiths. Or Neil Young’s Like a Hurricane.

      Glad you liked the Heart version. I always loved Heart, hadn’t heard a thing from them until I saw that video.

      • Okay, here’s where I show my age. While I’ve heard of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, I am not familiar with that band’s music or that song. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard of The Smiths. But Neil Young…oh yeah. And Like a Hurricane is definitely a great song. On par with Stairway to Heaven? I’m not there yet.

        • You might want to youtube it… many consider Cobain to be a modern genius. He wrote that song while destitute and desperately in need of… something. I was in uni when it came out, and the first time I heard it at the pub, I jumped up on a table so that I could better hear the lyrics… which are more or less incomprehensible. Everyone lost their head and the dj played it like ten times that night. Felt like a special time.

          The Smiths are a classic band from the 80’s mostly… How Soon is Now routinely topped the list of the greatest alternative songs of all time for many many years… until Nirvana came along.

  7. I’m a bit surprised at all those arguing that STH will never be replaced… While I may not agree that this Black Keys song is the one to knock it from its perch, I do think it will get knocked … eventually. As all things change, so too will that. I think what these commentors are failing to take into account is the vast audience outside their own memory and generation. For those who are tweens now, STH is nothing but an old, long, song that their parents listen to occasionally… if they even allow their parents to control the music in the cars anymore, or if they can even hear anything beyond the earbuds, blasting whatever the newest pop sensation is, shoved halfway into their skulls. STH will be replaced eventually, because it will be pushed to the periphery of the world’s listening public. Never forgotten, but only taken out and dusted off at rare times, or on those radio stations dedicated to the golden oldies…

    • “STH will be replaced eventually, because it will be pushed to the periphery of the world’s listening public. Never forgotten, but only taken out and dusted off at rare times, or on those radio stations dedicated to the golden oldies…” And if that happens, and it may, something very special will have been lost.

      • I imagine people in the 70’s felt the same way about the music of the 30’s, but that didn’t stop it from fading away for the most part… a shame, yes, but possibly inevitable? As Amy said in here, music evolves. So do we (well, some of us anyway…).

    • I’m a might bit surprised too… it is a forty-year-old song. In 1971, possibly there were people pining for forty-year-old songs too, but I don’t know who they were and what those songs might have been… okay, I profess a fairly big ignorance on the topic.

      I think LBS is as close as it’s got… but I agree, STH will be pushed aside sooner or later. It sort of already has, it doesn’t seem to have much cache with the younger generation the way, say, that Pink Floyd still seems to. Could be I’m being negative, but my kids are never going to pine for STH no matter how many times I play it for them… they think it’s boring. They also never hung around gymnasiums slow dancing and snogging (as Nancy said) to that tune, so the nostalgia factor is gone. I don’t trust nostalgia; I love it, I’ll drink to it, I’ll even drink it, but I don’t trust it.

      • The Little Prince has an album of Led Zeppelin songs transformed into lullabies, and STH is one of them… so, I’m working on him from a very young age. Though, I came to Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on my own… my dad went to one of their concerts in his day, but they were never one of his favorites. So, the music still spoke to me own it’s own without familial influence, so perhaps it still has a bit of that magic left… perhaps that is why it has hung on so relevantly for 40 years? I’m not sure.
        I do know that while her kids were listening to the Beatles, my grandma was still playing her Tommy Dorsey 78’s (I have them now, and play them from time to time). Was that a 40 year span? I think it is pretty close to that. So, yes, the time seems right for STH to be replaced. What is the next evolution? Is it the Black Keys? Is it still waiting to be discovered. Only time will tell.
        Though, perhaps we will never know, because we’ve already found our top song(s) and so we’ve stopped listening to the music the way we did as children? I guess your post is an argument against that, but all the comments seem to agree with that logic…

        • Wow… that is cool. Your kid is lucky to have a father who introduces music like this. I suppose there must be magic in things that last that long… something timeless that still speaks to people. I’m tempted to bring Star Wars into the equation, because I’m blown away that something made that long ago is more popular than ever.

          The next evolution, who knows? I find great music all the time, in the bowels of iTunes. That genius function on there pulls out music that I would never have heard otherwise, some of it so obscure that it’s criminal that it’s not heard. Heck, that’s how I ran into Zero 7… ever heard them? They are amazing, and not entirely obscure, but also not very popular.

          • I have heard zero 7…
            And I probably don’t spend enough time with genius, I’m too comfortable with the music I already know and love.
            Some days I just put on Springsteen’s entire collection and let it run out… no time for new music then.

            • I love “In the Waiting Line” so much as a piece of music… I find it mesmerizing, haunting, so listenable over and over that I can’t barely believe it exists. I get comfortable with my music too, but then I get so anxious for new stuff and seek it out, and binge on downloads until I’m satisfied. As for the Boss… he is always a favorite, always will be.

    • The opening riff to STH was ripped off? Didn’t know that. Not totally surprised, hard to create something totally original this day and age. Glad you liked LBS. Still haven’t figured out the title…

      • I heard that in an XM discussion a few years ago. There was a successful lawsuit by a band who opened for LZ. They had a recording of a song with that opening bit that predated any know performances of STH by 2 years and the studio versionby 1. Don’t know the name of the band
        Time warp. The band was called Spirit and they toured together. Google STH and plagarism.

        • Oh boy… reminds me for some reason about Life of Pi, which I thought was a fairly good book… then I heard that the author almost entirely lifted it off a spanish novel or something.

  8. Well written! As in, this blew my mind. I love Little Black Submarine. And it’s true, sometimes I feel like a writer who can only write half-assed stories and the pitiful part of my sanity wants to give up and curl up in a ball. Then you hear a song that stirs you, a movie that leaves you with chills and you remember why it is that you write. Maybe somebody will be driven mad or be led to cry after reading one of our stories.

    Hm, I think that both Stairway to Heaven and Little Black Submarine are art in the form of music, but it’s true that Zepplin’s song speaks of a generation that is long gone now.

  9. Trent, I’ve heard that Black Keys song but had never made the correlation to “Stairway to Heaven.” If it was intended to mimic that song, well, you know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Maybe it will be a song for a new generation, but it will never replace one of the most iconic rock songs ever! Never! Not that anything ever needs to be replaced. Music just evolves. That was so cool watching Heart and the whole chorus. Wow! And so cool to watch the band’s reactions.Thanks for that. I got teary eyed. I’m so weepy lately!

    • You too Amy? Wow, I figured someone would agree with me, but the vast majority are still in love with STH. I agree with you, music doesn’t need to be replaced; as you say, it’s a type of evolution, different voices suited to the times and the people who are living them through the making of the music or the listening. My personal favorite band of the moment is The War on Drugs… and they honestly hearken back to a style of music that is old but still moves me.

      Glad you enjoyed the Heart video, watching LZ’s reaction in the crowd was amazing.

  10. The Black Keys song is great, but to say it’s good enough to topple Stairway? I dunno. But I do see what you’re saying about the lyrics being more in tune with the times.

  11. Stairway is pretty low-hanging fruit. We’ve been picking on it for about twenty years now. Perhaps, deservedly so. Mike Myers skewered it’s over-use in Wayne’s World. The Black Keys aren’t doing anything that Zep, themselves, didn’t perfect many years ago. I heard radio’s Howard Stern play some old blues records that were later replicated, practically note for note, on the first few Zep albums. They were eventually sued and forced–forced–to share songwriting credits. They didn’t invent lemon juice running down their legs. Does that lessen the enjoyment. Na. I couldn’t listen to it for many years because of my aforementioned over-use. But now,with some distance, it’s a nice memory.

    “You know, it makes me wonder…”

    Ha. I saw what you did there. Clever boy.

  12. I love STH and always will. My memories live in a jukebox where they and the songs will always be a nickle away. That said, I am open to any and all new music and if there’s a memory making event happening when I hear something (for the 1st or 50th time, doesn’t matter), then that goes into the juke. Now…about Rock being dead. You really think so? I don’t think it’s dead…here’s what I think. My theory about music/songs (of any genre really) that live well beyond their life expectancy, were more often than not, born TO someone or OF something that a vast majority of the time can relate to. Think the 50s, 60s, 70s….or even earlier with the 20s. Each a revolutionary decade in some sense yes? With that in mind…what potential rockers out there are going to change a generation, create memories that last decades, with rock songs extolling climate change, 2 year olds with IPhones, cyber crime? Perhaps a brave few will try to wake up some folk with a hard rock knock to the head about cop killers and killer cops, or terrorism leading to war and war leading to terrorism…but I see those subjects more likely to rip into rap than roll a stone. ya know? Anyway…perhaps I’m way off…but as a child of the 60s…I’ve witnessed the changes the best music can initiate…and while there’s some damned fine music out there…I just haven’t heard anything lately that’s made it into my jukebox. But I’m ever hopeful

    • I hear you, SB. I have underestimated the love for STH, and am a little shocked that so few people knew about The Black Keys… they have some good tunes. Is rock dead? I really think the classical version of rock is gone. Everything is fused now, and it’s hard to find new guitar-driven straight-ahead rock music out there… the Foo Fighters are still around, I guess, but who else is out there? We have slews of alternative music, but it’s not rock in the classical sense. I mentioned in here that The War on Drugs seems to be occupying a rock space… same with the Black Keys actually. but there aren’t many out there. To be clear, there is tons of good new music out there, but very little that resembles rock and roll the way i remember it.

      • Yes, rock is dead. I’m sorry but it’s true. Everything runs its course. Horse racing was once the most popular sport in America. Then it was boxing. In the 40’s jazz was the most popular music, Now, it’s relegated to a few public radio stations. Here in New York, The Metropolitan Opera is going broke because there are no new members. You look at pics of the audience and it looks like a wealthy geriatric convention. Everything has its time. Rock is dying.

        • I have to agree with you. I think there are other offshoots that have come along. I’m listening to Spoon right now; know them? They’re a weird blend of rock and… something else. I suppose it all builds on itself, even back to the 40’s jazz guys, and the influences are a-plenty. But rock is pretty much gone, and other things are going too… hopefully with a view towards greater art to come. I do believe that. I love music today more than I ever did in the 90’s (which was a high point for me).

      • I agree there is a lot of good music out there, and I also agree there’s a distinct lack of the classic Rock and Roll we remember. There’s something to be said for having to claw your way up and out, break rules and break heads…the passion it took to keep fighting against the odds of the time, were played out in their music. There are very few obstacles in the paths of today’s musicians…hell, some don’t pay their dues, they win a contest and hit the top of the charts…the struggle makes for some damned good rock n roll…that’s what I was trying to convey. I think that’s what’s missing. 🙂

        • I think those guys are still out there… now we call them independent. Some bands I love: Swans, The War on Drugs, Panda Bear, Future Islands, Cymbals Eat Guitars, Perfume Genius… there’s so much good music now, and I think rightly that people have broken out of genres, combined them, mashed them up and spit them out in the most colorful ways. I think, despite the fact that rock is largely gone, that this is the heyday of great music, the best time I can ever remember for good stuff. Some of these guys still struggle for it, as they have access to audience so easily… but so does everyone else, so you have to set yourself apart. I still hear the struggle, and that was the best part about rock.

  13. For some reason I was never a fan of “Stairway to Heaven”. I know. Blasphemy! I heard the Heart/Kennedy Centre version when it first showed up on YouTube in 2012. It was the first time I appreciated the song. Now you have introduced me to “Little Black Submarines” by The Black Keys. I don’t know how I missed it. I must be living in a cave. It does speak to me and I do feel it. The likeness to STH is muted just enough for me to really appreciate it. Music helps me a lot when it comes to writing and when taking on tasks I don’t enjoy as much. It can get in your pores and come out in all kinds of creative ways. I thank you for introducing me to this. Happy New Year, Trent. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed your company this year.Thank you.

  14. I think I missed the STH boat. I know the song. I like the song. But I don’t relate it to a time in my life or become nostalgic about it. For me that would be GNR’s Appetite For Destruction. Yeah, I used to have big bangs with too much Aqua Net hairspray.

    • Now you’re getting at it, Jennifer. The 80’s were a blast for music like GNR. I got heavy into the Smiths back then; got knocked around by Nirvana and Soundgarden and the like in the 90’s. My head still hurts from moshing.

    • How Soon is Now is a graduating high school song for me… I played that song endlessly in my last summer before uni. I hated every other song on Hatful of Hollow, but How Soon is Now just blew me away, still does. So much angst and pain in that tune, plus those shimmering sounds in the background. Personal favorite song of mine.

  15. well, bein’s how I spent many a night tripping to LZ, I guess you could say I related well! teeheehee it is and always will be a super great… at the time, it was amazing. Still have the album… yep vinyl! Heart did a pretty good job, had the guys tearing up! the other version was funny… but I’ll always be old school!! thanks for the trippin’ down memory lane!

  16. Forgive me I haven’t read the post yet (I will) but I did want to make sure you have heard “Take Me to Church” by Hozier. It is just such a powerful song, I really like it, and for some reason it brings you to mind. I have wanted to mention this to you.

    • I have heard it… I remember the first time I heard it, I just stopped. I do that with music sometimes, just stop to the exclusion of everything else. As I said in this post, I want to write to a feeling that music brings to me, whatever that thing is. Maybe one day I’ll get there. I do love Take Me to Church, I think it’s a classic already. If you ever see the official video, it adds to the impact of the song.

  17. aarrrggggghhh i am speechless, i actually liked the black keys, liked i say liked, now i have been turned oh my poor ears, my poor burning pained ears, how could they? why in all the dieties i can think of names why?, you see i was bred on led zep, i was born into it and fed it and it nurtured my childhood mind, it grew with me as a teen and saw me through those difficult first years of adulthood and then those more difficult years of parenting, always led zep was there to take me away, soothe me and make me whole again, so how on earth these , these, oh i have no words, no words…………..i still like fever though a bit, and gold on the ceiling thats alright but after that no nothing i shall not speak of them nor litter my ear space with them….heathens they are…… scary post trentle scary………..^_^

    • Sorry Kizzy, we got to let go of the old stuff sooner or later… Black Keys went and out-Zeppelin’d Zeppelin. It had to happen eventually! Of course, I am really a heathen – and quite proud of it!

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