How Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” Recreates the Epic Hero’s Journey Described by Joseph Campbell

Wayne’s World kind of ruined “Stair­way to Heav­en” for me. Yes, it’s been 27 years, but I still can’t help but think of Wayne turn­ing to the cam­era with his ston­er grin, say­ing “Denied!” when the gui­tar store clerk points out a “No Stair­way to Heav­en” sign. It was not a song I took par­tic­u­lar­ly seri­ous­ly, but I respect­ed the fact that it took itself so seri­ous­ly… and thread­ed my way out of the room if some­one picked up a gui­tar, earnest­ly cocked an ear, and played those gen­tle open­ing notes.

Now I gig­gle even when I hear the mag­is­te­r­i­al orig­i­nal intro. This is not the fault of Zep­pelin but of the many who approach the Zep­pelin tem­ple of rock grandios­i­ty unpre­pared, attempt­ing riffs that only Jim­my Page could pull off with author­i­ty. At least the joke gave us a way to talk about the phe­nom­e­non: in less­er hands than Led Zeppelin’s “Stair­way” can sound… well, a bit ridicu­lous (with apolo­gies to Dol­ly Par­ton.) Although accused (and acquit­ted) of rip­ping off the open­ing notes to Spirit’s instru­men­tal “Tau­rus,” the song is all Zep­pelin in every pos­si­ble way.

“Stair­way” is a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­pler pack of the band’s sig­na­ture moves: mix­ing folk rock and heavy met­al with a Delta blues heart; explod­ing in thun­der­heads of John Bon­ham drum fills and a world-famous Page solo; Plant scream­ing cryp­tic lyrics that vague­ly ref­er­ence Tarot, Tolkien, Eng­lish folk tra­di­tions and “a bus­tle in your hedgerow”; John Paul Jones’ wild­ly under­rat­ed mul­ti-instru­men­tal genius; bizarre charges of Satan­ic mes­sages encod­ed back­wards in the record…. (bring­ing to mind anoth­er Wayne’s World actor’s char­ac­ter.)

“Stair­way… crys­tal­lized the essence of the band,” said Page lat­er. “It had every­thing there and showed us at our best. It was a mile­stone.” It set a very high bar for big, emo­tion­al rock songs. “All epic anthems must mea­sure them­selves against ‘Stair­way to Heav­en,’” writes Rolling Stone. It is “epic in every sense of the word,” says the Poly­phon­ic video at the top, includ­ing the lit­er­ary sense. It can “make you feel like you’re part of a dif­fer­ent time, part of a dif­fer­ent world. It can make you feel like you’re part of a sto­ry.”

That sto­ry? “One of the great­est nar­ra­tive struc­tures in human his­to­ry,” the Hero’s Jour­ney, as so famous­ly elab­o­rat­ed by Joseph Camp­bell in The Hero With a Thou­sand Faces—an arche­typ­al mytho­log­i­cal arc that has “per­me­at­ed sto­ries for as long as humans have told them.” Not only do Robert Plant’s mys­ti­cal lyrics reflect this ancient nar­ra­tive, but the song’s com­po­si­tion also enacts it, build­ing stage by stage, from ques­tion­ing to quest­ing to bat­tling to return­ing with the wis­dom of how “to be a rock and not to roll.”

The song’s almost clas­si­cal struc­ture is, of course, no acci­dent, but it is also no indi­vid­ual achieve­ment. Hear the sto­ry of its com­po­si­tion, and why it has been so influ­en­tial, despite the jokes at the expense of those it influ­enced, in the Poly­phon­ic video at the top and straight from Jim­my Page him­self in the inter­view above.

Out of all of Zeppelin’s many epic jour­neys, “Stair­way” best rep­re­sents “the rea­son,” as cul­tur­al crit­ic Steven Hyden writes, “why that band endures… the mythol­o­gy, that Joseph Camp­bell idea of an epic jour­ney into the wild that Zeppelin’s music rep­re­sents, the sense that when you lis­ten to this band, you feel like you’re plug­ging into some­thing big­ger and more pro­found than a band.” Or that the band is open­ing a door­way to some­thing big­ger and more pro­found than them­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

48 Hours of Joseph Camp­bell Lec­tures Free Online: The Pow­er of Myth & Sto­ry­telling

Decon­struct­ing Led Zeppelin’s Clas­sic Song ‘Ram­ble On’ Track by Track: Gui­tars, Bass, Drums & Vocals

Jim­my Page Describes the Cre­ation of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lot­ta Love”

What Makes John Bon­ham Such a Good Drum­mer? A New Video Essay Breaks Down His Inim­itable Style

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Pete Simon says:

    On the lighter side, from a pub­lic radio vet­er­an: When­ev­er I hear Robert Plant inter­viewed about this song he’s always pok­ing fun at it. I heard him once make fun of his own lyrics as a bunch of jib­ber­ish, and in a clas­sic pub­lic radio fundrais­ing clip he recalls a time he was dri­ving in Ore­gon (with­in sig­nal range of KBOO, Port­land) when they were in the throes of a fund dri­ve. He heard one of the announc­ers say “and on this sta­tion you will NEVER hear “Stair­way to Heav­en”. Robert Plant said he laughed like crazy and called the sta­tion to pledge mon­ey. .……

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