Led Zeppelin

'Stairway to Heaven' turns 40 -- let's retire it with these other classics

Nov. 8, 2011 at 10:02 AM ET

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Led Zeppelin members, from left, John Paul Jones, John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1973.

Forty years ago today, British rock juggernaut Led Zeppelin released their magnum opus, "Led Zeppelin IV." Rife with flourishes of haunting folk, gritty blues and rafter-shaking rock of the heaviest order, "IV" swiftly became the band's defining album, largely thanks to the epic 8 minutes and 2 seconds of the fourth song on the LP, "Stairway to Heaven." Rock music hasn't been the same since.

Arguably classic rock's preeminent ballad, "Stairway to Heaven" is a multi-tiered suite that segues from lilting acoustic delicacy into feral rock 'n' roll abandon and back again. It's inspired legions of aspiring guitarists and spawned droves of ham-fisted imitations, but has never been equalled in its bombastic rock pageantry. Its lyrics are steeped in enigmatic allusions to the conflict between spirituality and earthly materialism, although a few of its verses have left even the most scholarly rock fans scratching their heads. "If there's a bustle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed now/It's just a spring clean for the May queen" (which, when played backwards, delivers a very different message indeed to some ears) is just mysterious enough to sound deeply meaningful, even when sung by a quartet of tight-trousered hellions.

But for all it's mystical allure and unparalleled guitar sorcery, "Stairway to Heaven" has become a virtually unsalvageable casualty of rock 'n' roll cliche. Beaten into submission by classic rock radio (it's not like Zep don't have other great songs, by the way) and famously banned from many a long-suffering guitar shop for being slavishly overplayed, "Stairway to Heaven" is in dire need of a vacation. It sits at the head of the table in a pantheon of classic rock anthems that could sorely stand to be retired for the next decade or two. Let's give it a rest, remove it from the sports bar jukeboxes and take it out of regular rotation.

While we're at it, here are four more rock warhorses that, like "Stairway to Heaven," could stand being put out to pasture ...

1.  "Light My Fire" by The Doors

While it was doubtlessly thrilling upon its incendiary (sorry) 1967 debut, the Doors' signature tune hasn't exactly aged like a fine wine. Iconic vocalist/self-styled shaman Jim Morrison's provocative use of the adjective "higher" might have given the staff of the The Ed Sullivan Show cause of alarm when Morrison brazenly sang it on the air that same year, but 44 years later, the Lizard King's somewhat remedial rhyme scheme -- paired with robustly-sideburned keyboardist Ray Manzarek's organ-noodling -- now feels more like being trapped in an indulgent poetry slam at an ice hockey rink.

2. "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" by Billy Joel

Lyrically ping-ponging between an indecisive protagonist’s ongoing quandary over what type of wine to order with dinner and the star-crossed marital travails of the infamous Brenda and Eddie, Billy Joel’s late '70s paean to the perils of growing older strives for the same sort of poignance found in any number of Springsteen opuses, but somehow cloyingly falls short. With the jaunty yarns of youthful shenanigans "on the village green" bookended by melancholy washes of sentimental strings and soppy saxophones, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” assaults its listener with all the finesse of a grand piano falling down a flight of stairs. Pick a vintage already.

3. "Free Bird" by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Leant an incalculable amount of stirring prescience by the tragic deaths of band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines in a 1977 plane crash, Southern rock powerhouse Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sprawling masterpiece "Free Bird" (originally dedicated to their fallen comrade Duane Allman) has nonetheless been robbed over time of said significance by becoming a laborious punch line any time a band retakes a concert stage for an encore. While originally featured on their 1973 debut, it's the rendition of "Free Bird" from their 1976 live double-album, "One More from The Road" (lengthened to 13 minutes and 40 seconds of treacle and frenetic guitar soloing) that has prompted many a divey rock club to ban any invocation of the song's name.

4. "Hotel California" by The Eagles

There’s something richly ironic about a thinly-veiled cautionary tale about excess coming from a band renowned for their appetite for same, but that hasn’t prevented the Eagles’ “Hotel California” from becoming a tireless staple of classic rock radio. Through a po-faced thicket of allegory, drummer/vocalist Don Henley paints a “Twilight Zone”-ish narrative of Hollywood’s hotbed of vice and temptation, closing the Faustian deal with the portentous intonation, “You can check out any time you like/BUT YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE.” Even only halfway through the marathon of fret-strangling that follows (courtesy of dueling guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh) it feels like Henley’s ominous statement has already come true.

Heard enough of any of these songs, or is one of your all-time favorites listed here? Is there a classic rock radio staple that makes your ears bleed? Let's hear it in the comments below. Oh, and rock on!

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