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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

For decades, when you heard this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN)

WERTHEIMER: You knew this was coming...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN)

LED ZEPPELIN: (Singing) And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our soul. There walks a lady we all know...

WERTHEIMER: This week marks 40 years since Led Zeppelin released "Stairway to Heaven." Perhaps the most over played, over covered, over the top, and yet beloved rock song of all time.

Here to help us pay a proper homage to "Stairway" is NPR music maven Ann Powers. She's at member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Ann, Hi.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, how are you doing?

WERTHEIMER: I'm doing well. Why do you think this eight-minute tune has endured for so long?

POWERS: I think there is there are several different reasons. One, is that it's easy to play the introduction on guitar. So, all of those boys and girls who picked up guitars in the era of classic rock and beyond know how to play "Stairway to Heaven." Including me, I must say.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

POWERS: It's kind of a gateway drug into, you know, heavy psychedelic rock. And then it's also really fun to sing in karaoke. You can do both things.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: So, now reminds us, when in 1971 - "Stairway" came out in 1971 on what is known as the "Led Zeppelin Four" album. So the band was already huge, right?

POWERS: Oh. yes. Led Zeppelin was a major commercial success. Not beloved by critics, I must say, but a huge force in rock 'n roll. They had retreated to a Welsh cottage to write some material and Jimmy Page, a very ambitious guitarist and songwriter, wanted to do the super-long song with lots of parts.

WERTHEIMER: Well, that explains where the hedgerows come from, I guess. So what do you think this song is about? I mean what are lyrics like, if there is a bustle in your hedgerow...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN)

ZEPPELIN: (Singing) If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now. It's just a spring clean for the May Queen...

POWERS: Well, you know, that lyric supposedly comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Fellowship of the Ring." Robert Plant was very into reading fantasy novels. He was also very into reading books about magic. So I think that's one of the things about this song, it has this quality of being kind of an ancient text. But, of course, it's completely modern - so much a product of the psychedelic 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Like something out of "Spinal Tap" perhaps? You can see the mini Stonehenge being lowered onto the stage.

POWERS: But, at the same time, it's easy to make fun of Led Zeppelin and easy to make fun of "Stairway to Heaven." And good knows, we've all done it. And yet, I think you would be hard pressed to not get sucked into this song. The ambition in it, the kind of overwhelming will that these guys had to make an epic rock song, to suck us up into their personal mythologies, it's fairly irresistible. And you might start out laughing but you're going to end up wailing along with Robert Plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Ann Powers is the host of the Record blog at NPRMusic.org.

Ann, thank you very much.

POWERS: Rock on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

WERTHEIMER: You can find Ann's picks for the best coverage versions of "Stairway to Heaven" at NPRMusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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