If you are interested in guitars and spend enough time online it is inevitable that you will see someone talking about how Stairway to Heaven is a forbidden song, more specifically, that playing the main riff is forbidden in guitar stores.
The idea of such a classic riff being forbidden may sound absurd at first, and if you feel particularly confused by this it could be that you are just a little too young to have watched Wayne’s World.
The origin of “No Stairway to Heaven”
What does that have to do with anything? You might ask. Well, the 1992 movie has an iconic scene in which the protagonist, Wayne, goes into a guitar shop to test his dream guitar. As soon as he starts playing the Stairway to Heaven riff, an employee of the store stops him and points to a sign that says “No Stairway to Heaven”.
Over the years, the joke born out of that scene continued being repeated by people in the guitar community, and with the internet this only became even more popular among guitarists. Many of which have never even heard of the movie, and assumed the song was actually forbidden.
Of course, the joke wasn’t made at random, there is a reason why Stairway to Heaven was the choice of forbidden song. The classic Led Zeppelin song is a favorite amongst guitarists, especially beginners who want to show off their skills by playing the song. This has made it so the main riff for Stairway to Heaven has become extremely overplayed.
Is Stairway to Heaven’s main riff plagiarized?
A big controversy with Stairway to Heaven comes from a copyright infringement lawsuit. Led Zeppelin was accused of plagiarizing the 1968 song Taurus by the band Spirit in a lawsuit issued by the band’s bassist back in 2014.
They cited lack of resources as one of the reasons for taking over 40 years to file the suit, but the similarities between the songs were known to fans for years before it came to this.
It took 6 years for it to be resolved, since there were many issues in regards to copyright law from when the song was released. In October of 2020 the court ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin, preventing further appeals.
Regardless of the official result of the lawsuit it is impossible to ignore that Stairway to Heaven was heavily influenced by Taurus. The songs are incredibly similar, even someone without any sort of musical training can recognize the similarities between them.
Another reason why Stairway to Heaven could be forbidden comes from a claim of backmasking made in a television broadcast in 1982. Backmasking is the process in which a message is hidden in a song and can only be accessed by playing the song backwards.
Accusations of backmasking were common back in the day, with conservative religious groups claiming that rock bands were hiding satanic messages in their songs. Most of which required at least some effort of the listener to identify the supposed messages.
In this instance, there was even a push to require by law that records with backmasking be labeled as containing hidden messages. Both Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin’s audio engineer Eddie Kramer have expressed frustration and disbelief about the accusations. Other than that the band has mostly ignored the claims.
If you grew up in the 1980’s in a family who believed in the backmasking claims, it could result in not being allowed to listen to Stairway to Heaven or maybe even Led Zeppelin as a whole.
Stairway to Heaven in movies
Another interesting fact about the song comes from the 2000 Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous. The movie tells the story of a teenage journalist working for Rolling Stone in the 1970’s, being based on Crowe’s own early career working on the legendary magazine.
There was a scene intended to be part of the extended version of the movie in which the main character played Stairway to Heaven to his mother as a way to convince her to allow him to go on tour with a rock band as part of his work with Rolling Stone.
Crowe did a special screening of the movie to Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in an attempt to get the rights to a few of their songs. Sadly, the band only allowed four other songs to be part of the movie, with only one being granted the rights to be on the soundtrack.
The scene is still available as a deleted scene in the DVD and Blu Ray versions of the movie, but of course, as a silent version of it since they could not include the song. There is even a countdown for the viewer to play Stairway to Heaven and have the opportunity to appreciate the scene as intended by the director.
Led Zeppelin is well known for being strict when it comes to allowing their songs to be used in movies. The reason why the scene that started the joke about Stairway to Heaven being forbidden has an unrecognizable version of the iconic riff, is that they were not allowed to use more than a couple of notes without paying for the rights of the song.
Turns out that the “No Stairway! Denied!” line was true in more ways than just not being allowed to play the song in guitar stores.
Then why can’t you play Stairway to Heaven?
The truth is that you can. In fact, the Stairway to Heaven riff is quite simple and even beginners can learn it with some effort. Even though it is one of the most overplayed songs and if you play it in a store someone might joke about being forbidden, there is nothing wrong with playing it.
Even now, 50 years after its release, Stairway to Heaven is still a great song and it is natural that guitarists will want to play it. Just don’t expect people to be impressed when you play it in a store, since everyone who works there probably has listened to it a million times.
Related: electric guitars for starters!