No one song ever defined or redefined a group as generously as "Stairway To Heaven" did Led Zeppelin. For Jimmy Page, "Stairway" crystallized the essence of the band: "It had everything there and showed the band at its best...as a band, as a unit" he said.
"Stairway" evolved during winter 1970-71 sessions for the group's iconographically titled fourth album (a.k.a. ZOSO). It achieved an alchemical blend of the band's metal foundation with the rootsy feel of tones that decorated Led Zeppelin III. Page came up with the chord structure at the Zep retreat in Bron-Yr-Aur, Wales. After a reality check back in London at Island studios, the band regrouped at a country estate in Hampshire called Headley Grange. "Stairway To Heaven" came together as the band lounged before a roaring fire, took out the guitars and plugged into the Rolling Stones' mobile recording studio parked outside to capture the rapid flow of inspiration.
Plant in particular seemed to be channeling an active muse. According to Page: "He must have written three quarters of the lyrics on the spot. He didn't have to go away and think about them. Amazing, really." Plant himself cited British antiquarian Lewis Spence's Magic Arts In Celtic Britain as a source for many of the song's images. The band finished back at Island Studios. Page began, delicately, on a 12-string, but for the solo he played a vintage Telecaster once owned by Jeff Beck. To perform the song live, Page convinced the Gibson company to resume production on a long-defunct double-neck that became his trademark.
For Page, "Stairway" was "a milestone... Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something that will hold up for a long time, and I guess we did it with 'Stairway.'" But he also glimpsed pathos from Led Zeppelin's peak: "We haven't got the opportunity to explore any more."