This story is part of the book:Mama Mia Let Me Go! A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music
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There are songs that, once you’ve listened to them, fade away without having any impact. Then, there are others that transcend music, achieving poetic status and enduring for eternity.
You are watching: To be a rock and not to roll
Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin’s immortal masterpiece, is the latter. Its lyrics are rich with cryptic references to allegories and mysticism, offering far more than the simplistic satanism that many detractors argue is its main theme.Robert Plant wrote the lyrics of course, and he has repeatedly said that he drew inspiration from the works of the Scottish writer Lewis Spence, notably from his bookMagic Arts in Celtic Britain. And it is that Celtic esotericism and spirituality that truly comes through in the lyrics – no more, no less.
The narrative begins with one of the most famous arpeggios in the history of music:
There’s a lady who’s sureAll that glitters is goldAnd she’s buying a stairway to heaven
Who is this ambiguous female figure? Fans of occultist theories have argued that this is a metaphor for an initiation into a new type of Pagan religion; an obscure, unknown belief. But this notion has an easy counter in the many references to Christianity in the song as a whole. According to some, the lady is the Virgin Mary, and Led Zeppelin seem to tacitly confirm this, mentioning the May Queen later in the song, May being traditionally the month dedicated to Mary.
But let’s avoid entering into this kind of debate and read the lyrics for what they really represent. When you take the lyrics at face value, you can see that the woman is nothing more than an allegory of a greedy, materialistic, arrogant society that believes that everything, including a path to heaven, can be acquired with money alone.
Moving on, Jimmy Page’s guitar and John Paul Jones’ keyboards embrace us with their ethereal melodies.
There’s a feeling I getWhen I look to the WestAnd my spirit is crying for leaving
The West is a clear reference to the idea of purity in the Wild West, which was no longer wild in those days by any means, but is still a representation of adventure, mystery and charm. In essence, it is the place where we can remove ourselves from the materialism of contemporary society and turn our attention to the unknown, to the stranger. Robert Plant wanted to guide us on a sort of spiritual journey, to help improve ourselves and the people around us. And those who hesitate and are watchful (“Those who stand looking”), could be those with a conservative outlook, who disapprove of this kind of spiritual journey because they are imprisoned in societal materialism, unable to look forward.But, just when we least expect it, we will be called to live in peace and harmony, at one with nature and each other (“And it’s whispered that soon, If we all call the tune / Then the piper will lead us to reason”).
It is now that we arrive at the famous verse which, if listened in to reverse, supposedly contains a disturbing invocation of Satan. Instead of giving this notion any more airtime though, let’s leave the rebuttal to Plant himself: “To me it’s very sad, because ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music.” This really should be enough to put the idea to bed once and for all.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerowDon’t be alarmed nowIt’s just a spring-clean for the May Queen
This is the reference to May Queen that we mentioned earlier. The bustle in the hedgerow represents our mind, confused by the possibility of this spiritual path, or perhaps simply unprepared for it. But if it’s true that you can find many ways to change yourself, then it is also true that you always have the opportunity to hange your mind and take another path. There are no destinies that have already been written; we are all free to make our decisions with full autonomy.
Moving forward with the lyrics, we arrive at the last verse before the iconic Jimmy Page solo:
Your head is humming and it won’t goIn case you don’t knowThe piper’s calling you to join him
It is here when we finally get the call. Our minds are still confused, but the sweet melody of the piper is resounding in our heads, leading us towards spiritual perfection. The message is then addressed to the lady mentioned at the beginning of the song: the winds are changing and it’s time that everyone realises that humanity can really aspire to something better. At the bottom, the rough stairway to heaven, made of something tangible, is nevertheless floating in the air(“your stairway lies on the whispering wind”). It’s a path, but it’s fragile like any other – perhaps even more so, because it represents the spiritual, not the physical.
The lyrics then give way to Jimmy Page’s magnificent guitar, which unleashes a riff, powerful yet dreamy at the same time. It is considered by many the most beautiful solo of all time, but it isn’t the last word; the song still has something to say in the form of one last appeal to listeners:
And if you listen very hardThe tune will come to you at lastWhen all are one and one is allTo be a rock and not to roll
The last verse is a synthesis of the message contained in the lyrics as a whole: no matter how great our faults or our dark sides are, we will always have the chance to listen to and understand both those around us and ourselves. Materialism and individualism will be always present, ready to tempt us, presenting their way as the simplest and easiest one to follow, but the choice relies on us andour intentions to unite mankind. This is the only way to find harmony, to be united and “not to roll”, overwhelmed by a life imposed by stereotypes.
Here it is, therefore; our stairway to heaven: our goal in life, according to Led Zeppelin, must be to discover the power of the community, the need to live together, in harmony with our souls and with nature. Only in this way can we we really improve ourselves and others, escaping the real evil of society, framed in its materialism, selfishness and disinterest towards others (“When all are one and one is all / To be a rock and not to roll”).
Stairway to Heaven, in conclusion, is everything but a perverse ode to evil and darkness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, a splendid message of solidarity, brotherhood and equality. Together, we can really change the world around us.To be a rock and not to roll. Maybe it’s just an illusion. Perhaps we will never be able to really get together and do something concrete to make our lives better. But the message is there, and that’s what Led Zeppelin wanted from us.
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Below, you can listen to a beautiful version ofStairway to Heavenas interpreted by Ann and Nancy Wilson, for a tribute at the Kennedy Centre in 2012.