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The 100 Greatest Songs of the Rock Era: #97: Stairway to Heaven


Led Zeppelin from Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

“Masses of teenage boys from the seventies are en route to picket your house because of this low ranking,” Peggy said.

“You know, the funny thing is that it probably wouldn’t have made my top hundred at all if not for the Kennedy Center performance,” I said, referring to the tribute by the Wilson sisters, Jason Bonham, and an all-star backup band when Led Zeppelin were given a Kennedy Honor. “I’d just heard it so many times that I couldn’t listen to it anymore. That performance reminded me how stirring the song can be. And it was kind of cool to see Robert Plant wiping his eyes while he watched it.”

“Yeah, that got to me, too. So this is an interesting thing to think about when considering a pop song’s greatness. It not only has to stand the test of time, but also the test of being played endlessly.”

“I think that’s a legitimate litmus test. You know, I tell my kids all the time that they need to factor what the world was like before a piece of work came out when you think about its greatness. The first Saturday Night Live looks creaky now, but it changed television forever. The Left Hand of Darkness might seem didactic at this point, but science fiction was never the same after it. But I think it’s also fair to factor in a fatigue effect. That’s probably exclusive to music. I mean, how many times are you ever going to watch Casablanca, right? But with songs, if you hear it thousands of times and get to the point where you hit “skip” after the first few bars, I think that says something.”

“And you got there with ‘Stairway?’”

“Most of the way there. I just needed some distance. Now, if it comes up on my phone, I’m glad to hear it.”

“It really is an amazing composition.”

“No argument. Gorgeous introduction.”

“Which Page didn’t write.”

“I know, 'Taurus.’ Then the bridge into the final section is about as symphonic as rock music gets without a symphony.”

“And then the killer solo and Plant’s wailing.”

“And the fact that rock songs didn’t sound like this in 1971.”

“That too. Are you sure ninety-eight is the right spot for this one?”

I rolled my eyes, even though we were talking on the phone and Peggy couldn’t see me doing so. “If I told you how many times I went over this list and the personal criteria I put in place to compile it, you’d call the Nerd Police on me.”

“I’ve already reported you. I’m just saying that when I told Stevie about your list, one of the first things he said was, ‘Well, “Stairway” has to be in the top ten.’”

“Now you know why Stevie and I never got along.”

“There are different reasons why Stevie and you never got along.”

I let that rest between us for a few seconds.

“I think we should talk about Robert Plant’s hair instead,” I said.

“Yeah, probably.”

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