the debut of "stairway to heaven" -- 6/27/17

Today's selection -- from Never a Dull Moment by David Hepworth. The rock and roll band Led Zeppelin was already the highest-grossing band in the world when they debuted the song "Stairway to Heaven," which was to become a mega-hit and a signature anthem of the band. At first, audiences were bored by the song:

"[The March 1971 Led Zeppelin] tour entered the burgeoning lore of the band ... as the 'Back to the Clubs' tour. Announcing the plan ..., guitarist and group leader Jimmy Page explained, 'The audiences were becoming big­ger and bigger but moving further and further away.' He said this tour was an attempt to say thank-you to the clubs that had helped the band in its early days and to enable them to play in cities that didn't have large venues. Tickets and fees would be pegged at the level they would have been in the past. Thus the tour took Led Zep­pelin, who were at the time the biggest-grossing, most popular band in the world, to such venues as the Nottingham Boat Club, Newcas­tle's Mayfair Ballroom, and the Belfry in Sutton Coldfield. ... It resulted in small venues being swamped by the demand and made no financial sense. ...

Robert Plant & Jimmy Page
Old Union Recectory, Southampton

"Led Zeppelin had glimpsed the scale of the demand for their live shows in the United States in the previous year, and they knew that when they went there later in 1971 they would be playing for crowds five times the size of the big­gest crowd in Britain. ...

"Meanwhile back in the [first stop on the tour, Belfast's] Ulster Hall, which had a capacity of less than two thousand, the [magazine] Melody Maker's Chris Welch reported that the emcee who was working on behalf of the hall still addressed the audience as 'boys and girls' and was asking them to leave when the band came back for an encore. This wasn't unusual. Nobody had yet worked out how they were supposed to behave at a big rock con­cert. Tickets were just over a dollar, less than a pound. Chris Welch, who had flown out to cover this big moment, spoke to one young fan who had previously thought Led Zeppelin were American and had laid eyes on them only once before in one picture she had on her wall. He also noted that among the new songs that the band played that night was one called 'Stairway to Heaven.' Because this was the Melody Maker, he felt duty-bound to tell his readers that on this tune Jimmy played his twin-necked guitar, giving him a six-and a twelve-string sound on the same instrument. 'An excellent ballad, it displayed [lead singer] Robert [Plant]'s developing lyricism,' he added, approvingly.

"Recalling that night many years later, bassist John Paul Jones said that during 'Stairway to Heaven' the audience were bored to tears waiting for something they knew. It certainly took a while for the song to be greeted with any apparent enthusiasm. At first it was received by audiences with polite puzzlement, its early passages seeming to belong on their previous record Led Zeppelin III. Nobody at the time suggested it owed anything to 'Taurus,' from the Amer­ican band Spirit. After a while it started to get more reaction, and [Zeppelin manager] Peter Grant, doing what great managers always do, which is watch the audience during the show, realized that it was hitting home and therefore made one of the very few artistic suggestions he ever made to the band: When the song is finished and the last chords have died away, don't immediately start tuning up for the next one. Don't go out of character. Hold the moment. Milk the drama. Maintain the mood. Grant had spent some time as a wrestler. He knew about hokum, which at the time very few rock bands did."



David Hepworth


Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year That Rock Exploded


Henry Holt and Co.


Copyright 2016 by David Hepworth


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