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Why Is Stairway To Heaven the Forbidden Riff?

Can a song be so ultimately awesome and addictive that it ends up being annoying? Well, apparently, there are enough cases to prove it.

The 1971 Led Zeppelin super hit Stairway To Heaven is one of the most popular examples.

Composed by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, guitarist and vocalist of this British band for their untitled fourth album (aka Led Zeppelin IV), this song has been labeled as one of the most iconic rock songs of all time and leads us to ask:

Why is Stairway To Heaven the Forbidden Riff?

So Why is Stairway To Heaven the Forbidden Riff?

I remember listening to the song for the first time when I was a kid and feeling so intrigued by that sound and then so confused trying to understand those lyrics…(. What’s going on with that lady who’s sure that glitter is gold…)

That was probably the first Led Zeppelin song I heard, and since then, I love the band.

I can’t think about classic rock without thinking about Houses of the Holly or Presence or Led Zeppelin IV. Those guys were truly masters of their craft. And Stairway to Heaven is not the exception.  

Here are some interesting facts about it:  

  • It is the biggest-selling sheet music in the history of rock, with over one million copies sold.
  • Placed at number 31 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest Songs of all time. 
  • Most requested song in the US FM Radio in the 70s.
  • Page’s solo was called “the greatest guitar solo of all time” by Guitar World.

Okay, back to our title, what the heck is a forbidden riff, and why is Led Zeppelin’s one of the top forbidden riffs?

First, some basic definition, a guitar riff is that short and most of the time repeatable idea in a song, it can be played either only once or multiple times throughout a song.

It is basically that guitar melody that stays with you after you listen to a song. Especially with the popularization of Rock, riffs became very popular, and actually, many rock songs have been built around them.

Why is Stairway To Heaven the Forbidden Riff?

So, of course, anyone who wants to be the next Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix, Ritchie Blackmore, and so on goes to their favorite guitar store and tries to play “that riff.”

If you think about being a store salesman or another customer and having to hear the same riff over and over and over again, it can make you nuts! 

Here is when the concept of “forbidden riff” comes from. 

This doesn’t mean that certain song riffs are banned; it is just that nobody wants to listen to them all the time in every single store. 

Stairway to Heaven’s riff is almost always at the top of all the Forbidden Riffs lists that you can find on the internet.

Of course, in part because of its huge popularity but also because of the multiple stories that surround this almost mythical song.

Forbidden guitar riffs

Other riffs that are in this list are Sweet Home Alabama (in my personal opinion even more played than the Led Zeppelin one), Smoke on the Water (that Deep Purple Classic that everybody wants to play), Enter Sandman (also called a one riff song by Lars Ulrich), I Can’t Get No Satisfaction (even my 4 yr old had stuck in his mind for weeks) and Sweet Child O’ Mine (a common store disruption).  

Which other comes to your mind?

No Stairway, Denied!

It all started with this scene of the legendary 1992 comedy Wayne’s World, where Wayne (Mike Myers) starts playing the infamous riff that sounds nothing like Stairway to Heaven, and the guy from the store stops him pointing at the sign:” NO Stairway to Heaven.” 

With ‘Stairway to Heaven’ we were told that we could only use two notes before we’d have to pay $100,000, so to sell that he’s gonna play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in two notes is pretty difficult, I don’t know this to be absolutely true, but somebody told me that in the first version of the movie we play too many notes. So they had to go back in and edit a note or two out.

Penelope Spheeris

Now the question is, was the sign an idea invented by the people in the movie, or was it actually inspired by a real situation and a real sign that perhaps Myers or Carvey saw somewhere?

We don’t know the answer; the truth is that you can find “No Stairway to Heaven” signs pretty much anywhere online, and what used to be an inside joke is now a meme.

1982 Stairway to “Hell”?

After being the most popular rock song in the 70s, the 80s started with controversy for this song. A prominent Baptist Minister called Michael Mills claimed that

“Stairway to Heaven” had subliminal backward messages. “In April 1982, the California State Assembly played a backward tape of the song in a public session.

Some members of the committee claimed they heard the words, “I live for Satan.” Led Zeppelin was duly denounced as agents of Satan who were luring millions of teenagers into damnation as unwitting disciples of the Antichrist.”

Crazy enough, this actually happened in 1982!!  

Stairway to Hell

Of course, if you listen to the reverse track, you will hear some gibberish that your brain can associate with certain words, but not even close enough to accuse the band members of Satanism. Anyway, the Anti – Rock crusaders from the eighties found in this song a perfect example of backmasked evil messages. 

And this, of course, summed up for the creation of the myth behind the song.

Sometimes Words Have Two Meanings

Then you have those lyrics. Page, the mastermind behind Led Zeppelin, always had a fascination for the occult, especially for the work of Aleister Crowley, author and magician. You can notice some of these influences in the whole body of work of LZ. But he wasn’t the only one in the band interested in having profound meanings in their music.  

Plant, the author of the lyrics, gives probably the best explanation we can find now, with his testimony in 2016 for the trial to determine if the song was plagiarizing a 1968 song from the band Spirit, from which we will talk about later:

One evening, Jimmy Page and I sat by the fire going over bits and pieces,” He testified that he had been working on a couplet of “the natural, old, almost unspoken” culture of the Welsh countryside. “It seemed like a good fit for the song. With that, the rest of the lyrics started “rolling pretty fast.

Robert Plant

When they asked him about the couplet, he sang the first part of the lyrics:

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven. When she gets there, she knows If the stores are all closed, with a word, she can get what she came for.

Robert Plant

So what does exactly the lyrics mean?

We don’t know for sure, but they certainly talk about duality, the inevitability of death, or perhaps greed as well. They keep calling the attention of many not only because of the words but for the way Plant delivers them in such a powerful and convincing way. 

The ties with the occult and the unknown are also highlighted by Tenacious D in their “Tribute” song, where they call it “The Greatest Song In The World” while encountering the Devil down the road. Half joke, half-serious, this little anecdote also adds to the story behind the Forbidden Riff.

What Was That Lady Actually Buying?

Some people claim that the lyrics are also talking about drugs. Which it doesn’t sound too far from the truth when Page himself described their backstage life as an alcohol-fueled “stag party.” The 60s or 70s was actually the rule for most of the stars of the day.

In an article from the NY Times of 1991, it is said that according to social scientists, there is a clear reference to drug use in the first part of the lyrics: Acapulco gold. So now we know why she is sure that the glitter is gold, and if the stores are all closed, she will still find it.

Source

Going To Court

More than 40 years after the song was released, it continues to generate controversy. In 2014 LZ was sued by the band Spirit for copyright infringement. 

A trustee for Randy Wolfe (writer of Taurus) sued Page and Plant, accusing them of stealing the “forbidden Riff” from his song Taurus, a 1968 song written by Wolfe for the band Spirit.  

Take a listen to the song here:

Although there’s a clear similarity in a short amount of the intro, it is difficult to assure that Page actually copied directly from them. The progression is indeed widespread in music.

Even Page said it in the Court allegations: “During the trial in 2016, Jimmy Page admitted that his song and Spirit’s “Taurus,” are very similar because that chord sequence has been around forever.”

Source

The main claim of Spirit is that both bands shared several concert dates and that Led Zeppelin actually included one of their guitar riffs from their song “Fresh Garbage” in a medley that they used to play during their 1969 tour.

But Plant said in Court that they never saw Spirit playing live and that Page learned the riff for Fresh Garbage from a Columbia Compilation that Plant brought to the band. 

If both songs have similar chord progressions and a descending chromatic scale, those same elements have been in music for centuries. Page even said at court that “Stairway to Heaven was reminiscent of the Mary Poppins song Chin Chin Cher-ee from 1964” 

Finally, Led Zeppelin won the case in 2016, but the counterpart appealed, and the case was revived in 2018. 

However, Led Zeppelin had other allegations of claims about copyrights like the one with Baby I’m gonna leave you, who the band mistakenly credited as traditional when it was actually written by the American folk singer Anne Bredon.

Just until the eighties, they split royalties with her, and she was listed as a co-author. There is also a case with “Dazed and Confused,” which was settled out of court in 2012 with the songwriter Jake Holmes. 

The Rolling Stones actually cites 10 different examples, which makes the case a complex one.

Led Zeppelin’s 10 Boldest Rip-Offs

Robert Became Tired Of It.

With all the controversy, the legend around the song, and the great success on radio, Robert Plant, throughout the years, has avoided singing it. Already in 1988, he stated that the song didn’t hold up and he wouldn’t perform it on tour. He just feels that is not for him anymore. He wouldn’t perform it again until the band’s reunion in 2007.

Robert plant

FAQ

When was Stairway To Heaven released?

Stairway To Heaven was released way back in 1971.

How long is Stairway To Heaven?

The original recording of Stairway To Heaven is 8:02 in length.

If you fancy having a go at playing this epic song yourself, here’s a fantastic tutorial video:

Final Thoughts

We don’t know for sure the main reason for this song to be part of the forbidden riffs list, but one thing is certain, this is not only a great song but a song with a lot of history and myths that surround it. 

It was a hugely popular song for many years, and it still is because it is part of our rock culture; any kid who wants to learn how to play guitar will at some point start playing it.

Not that the riff is that easy, it is actually a measuring stick as to how good you are at the instrument. Still, the thing is that because it is so popular, and all the radio stations around the world played it and will play it again and again, and local bands will cover it, and customers will go and play it at the store, a song, played that much might get burned out. And that’s probably the main reason the whole joke about the forbidden riff has been made. 

And that’s probably what also makes it a timeless masterpiece.

 

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