First steps: Led Zeppelin's stairway to Irish heaven
Rock anthem 'Stairway To Heaven' was performed live for the first time here... 45 years ago
Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30
It's acknowledged as one of the greatest of all great rock anthems. It's been covered by a most unlikely bunch of admirers including Dolly Parton, Mary J Blige and Rolf Harris. And, according to conspiracy theorists, when played backwards, if you try really hard you can make out the words: "Here's to my sweet Satan. I sing because I live with Satan."
It is, of course, Led Zeppelin's signature anthem 'Stairway to Heaven', and it was unveiled to an expectant world for the first time exactly 45 years ago in Belfast, with its second ever performance the following night at Dublin's converted National Boxing Stadium.
At the start of March 1971, with The Beatles gone and The Stones taking stock, Led Zeppelin were on the cusp of becoming the biggest band in the world. Their first three albums had broken sales records and they now emerged from winter hibernation with a set of new songs destined to become core to their canon, including 'Black Dog', 'Rock'n'Roll' and 'Stairway to Heaven'.
They chose Troubles-torn Ireland as the unlikely start point for a short low-key tour to road-test their new material before heading for the vast stadia of the States. When The Beatles had played Ireland in 1963, a fawning media had chronicled their every move, but Led Zeppelin were no cuddly Mop Tops. Rock music had moved on, grown more surly and more threatening. In 1971, Led Zeppelin were a bigger deal in the sheer scale of their pulling power than Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift today, and yet the prim Irish media opted to ignore their presence here.
It was left to a Melody Maker hack to record the visit. He wrote: "The first two dates took them to pastures new, and the reaction made them wish they had gone to Ireland from the earliest. The fans in Belfast were particularly knocked out and grateful, as so many English bands have chickened out of the trouble-torn town. In fact there was trouble. A petrol tanker was hijacked, a youth was shot dead and the inevitable fire bombs were hurled on the night we were there."
In fact, wary of flying when they didn't have to, some members of the band and their swelling personal entourages arrived by car ferry. The packed audience at Belfast's Ulster Hall were particularly wowed when Jimmy Page unveiled a custom-made double-barrel guitar with 12 strings atop and six below, to unveil for the first time the ambitiously complex 'Stairway to Heaven'. Following its world première, the man from Melody Maker jotted: "An excellent ballad, it displayed Robert Plant's developing lyricism." Recalling the show years later, bassist John Paul Jones said the debut went down like a lead balloon. As he remembered it: "They (the audience) were bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew." With the roars for another encore still ringing in the ears, the four rock gods set out for Dublin in separate cars. For the three who'd hired local drivers it was a straight two-hour drive, but drummer John Bonham had brought his regular driver, Matthew, who took a wrong turn and had to run the gauntlet of the nationalist Falls Road. Arriving at the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, Bonham reported: "The street was covered in glass and there were armoured cars and kids chucking things. We just kept our heads down and drove right through."
Road manager Richard Cole had supplied each band member with a bottle of Jameson whiskey at the start of their journey and the entire party arrived in Dublin in a state of disarray, but Bonham, as usual, was several sheets extra to the wind. In his Zep biography, Hammer of the Gods, Stephen Davis wrote: "Peter Grant (the band's manager) was ill. He and Cole stayed in his suite drinking Irish coffee. Around midnight they received a call that there was a problem in the kitchen. Bonzo (Bonham) and Matthew had gone looking for a late supper, which had evolved into a brawl. Matthew had assaulted the hotel's chef.
"As Cole arrived to smooth things over, Bonzo started shrieking for blood and lunged at the outnumbered cook, but Cole grabbed Bonzo first. He punched Bonzo hard in the face breaking the drummer's nose and covering him with his own gore."
Pouring blood and humiliated at being whacked by the band's hired help, the drummer - "furious, drunk and crying with rage" - told the manager he was quitting the band. Grant's reported reply was: "Go on and f**k off. Don't give me that s**t at this time of the night."
That rocky night in Dublin was nothing out of the ordinary for the band, and for the bellicose Bohnam in particular, whose binge drinking would bring about his own death nine years later, aged just 32, prompting the other members to disband.
Heading back to England following a frenzied reception by 3,000 devotees at the National Stadium, guitarist Jimmy Page told the Melody Maker: "I enjoyed Ireland and wish we could come back." They never did, though they did return in spirit.
In 1973, now officially the biggest act on the planet, Page, Plant and Grant called in hip designers to create the cover for their new album Houses of the Holy. One option meant going to Peru. The other involved lots of children sprawled on the Giant's Causeway in homage to Arthur C Clarke's sci-fi classic Childhood's End. Told that either would be obscenely expensive, manager Grant snarled back: "Money? We don't f**king care about money! Just f**king do it!" And that's how one of the most iconic album covers in rock history began life on the Antrim coast.