All That Glitters Is Gold

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(Pictured: Led Zeppelin at work, 1975.)

(Note to patrons: It has been brought to my attention that in last week’s post about “Free Bird,” I misspelled “Lynyrd” every single time. This is a change from my usual practice, which is to misspell “Skynyrd” every single time. Consider it an homage to 14-year-old boys such as I who couldn’t spell either one of them in 1974. Please enjoy today’s post about Lead Zeplin.)

Led Zeppelin released its fabled fourth album (Led Zeppelin IV or Four Symbols or Zoso or Runes or whatever you like to call it) in November 1971. “Black Dog” was released as a single shortly thereafter, and rose to #9 in Cash Box, #10 in Record World, and #15 on the Hot 10. After that, Atlantic Records pressed “Stairway to Heaven” onto 45s for promotional use at radio stations, with the song in stereo on one side and in mono on the other. The existence of this 45 leads to the widespread belief that “Stairway” was released as a commercial 45, but it was not, not in America at least.

According to ARSA, the first station to chart “Stairway to Heaven” was WSRF in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April 1972, but they’re an outlier. The record didn’t pick up adds in bunches until July and August. CKVN in Vancouver, British Columbia, showed it leaping from #12 to #1 on its chart dated August 7, 1972. It appeared on surveys from such influential stations as WPGC in Washington DC, WCOL in Columbus, Ohio, and WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, during the summer. In September, it went to #1 at WAMS in Wilmington, Delaware (just ahead of “Nights in White Satin”). WHYI in Fort Lauderdale made it #1 in September and October; in October and November it was #1 at WFIL in Philadelphia. It was a Top-10 hit in Phoenix, San Diego, and some smaller markets. Another Vancouver station, CKLG, ranked it as the #1 single for all of 1972. WFIL ranked it #7 for the year, and WRKO in Boston had it at #12.

There’s no way to reconstruct the history from ARSA alone, but it would be interesting to know whether these stations played the whole 7:55, or if they cut it shorter. One station that did the latter was WLS in Chicago. But they didn’t do it until 1975.

According to a 2019 post at the WLS Musicradio Facebook group that quotes Jim Smith, who was WLS music director in 1975, management was trying to forestall something they’d seen in other markets—album-oriented rock stations taking audience share away from Top 40s. So WLS elected to start playing some album cuts at night. “Stairway to Heaven” was one of Smith’s first suggestions, but the station’s program director declared that it was too long. (Smith pointed out that the station played other long songs, including “American Pie,” “Mac Arthur Park,” and “Layla,” but was told, “Those were hits.”) Initially, Smith was told to cut it to three minutes. He found a way to cut it to 6:05, and that’s the version that WLS played for a while. He says the station began playing the full-length version only after night jock John Landecker talked to a couple of high-school kids while doing an appearance, found out it was an edit (he didn’t know), and told the program director that the station had to start playing the long version or risk being perceived as un-hip. Smith marveled that listeners had succeeded in persuading the program director where he had not. He was, however, already prepared, he said. “The long version was already on cart, ready and waiting for this inevitable moment.”

As 1975 turned to 1976, Led Zeppelin IV was back on the WLS album chart (with the title Runes). And given how influential WLS was, it’s likely that other Top 40 stations, in markets large and small, followed its lead and added “Stairway to Heaven” to their playlists. (This would have been the time I first heard it.) At the end of 1976, Atlantic tried to capitalize on the song’s new popularity by releasing another promo 45 of “Stairway to Heaven,” this one featuring the live version from the newly released album The Song Remains the Same. [See comment from our man Yah Shure below; this is another reissue of the original. My bad.] It didn’t go anywhere, but by then, “Stairway to Heaven” didn’t need any additional help. It had become what it remains today.

Recommended Viewing: The documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, which was on CNN earlier this month and is now at Amazon Prime Video and elsewhere. The film is an officially authorized bio and as such is a little bit rose-colored, but it nevertheless does justice to Ronstadt’s historical importance, and just how damn good she was, and it’s mandatory homework for readers of this website.

12 responses

  1. Mnemonic tip for spelling “Lynyrd Skynyrd” right every time: all the vowels are Ys. Can’t miss.

  2. Having been a year into my first go-round in radio at the time, I can tell you that, at least here in California, no one played “Stairway” any way except all the way through. Some chose not to play it at all—for years.

    KKDJ in Los Angeles DID play it, pretty much from the week the album came out (but then, they played “Boobs A Lot” by the Holy Modal Rounders, too)—but KHJ did not, if memory serves, until Gerry Cagle became Program Director in 1974.

    KFRC in San Francisco? My memory tells me I heard it at night in the summer of ’72, but if I found out it was a year later, when Michael Spears arrived as PD, that wouldn’t surprise me, either. It does appear on a November, 1973 Beau Weaver aircheck.

    The incredible thing about “Stairway” is once a station did start playing it, they never stopped until they changed format. That sucker was on at least once a day for years, single-handedly inventing the “Power Gold” category.

    1. How much of the airplay was to provide time to go to the bathroom or some other reason for a break?

      1. At stations where jocks could do their own thing, probably quite a bit—but in L.A., San Francisco and San Diego, by 1971-72, you couldn’t just throw on a record that wasn’t on the playlist—at least not at those stations.

  3. OK, I have to ask: What criteria or methodology were Top 40 stations using to “chart” an album cut amid a survey full of commercially available singles? Were they going strictly by requests, or compiling their surveys through a combination of sales, requests and call-outs?

    1. I know a local station here in Erie, PA used to list album tracks as ‘LP Cut” on their surveys in the 70s. I think the only spins any album cut received was at night.

    2. Guy K: Depended on the station and the market.

      Some simply started getting sales info on albums as well as singles from the record stores they polled each week. If there’s a top five or top ten album that either doesn’t have a single or does but you’re not playing it, that’s a clue.

      Others just listened to the competing AOR station and identified tracks they thought would fit with what they were doing on the Top 40 station.

      The strangest thing I saw—and it didn’t work—was KHJ in Los Angeles, which in 1971, started printing an “L.A.’s Favorite Albums” list in each week’s “Thirty”. Started out as ten albums and went to 30 really quick. But, during their six-month experiement with album cuts, almost none of them came from those top-selling albums. Instead they were from LPs that weren’t selling well enough to make the list.

      1. It’s one thing for a Top 40 station to have added select album cuts (sure, plenty of them did that in the ’70s), but entirely another thing to integrate those album cuts into their weekly singles countdowns as if they were ranked by the same criteria that actual singles were.
        OK, I get that WFIL in Philadelphia made a decision to add Stairway to its playlist. But how did WFIL determine that Stairway was #1, ahead of all songs that actually had a 45 out there being sold, while Stairway’s ranking had to be based entirely on requests, LP sales or the arbitrary proclivities of the PD?

      2. “Arbitrary proclivities” is the key, I think. A survey could say whatever the station wanted it to say, based on whatever they wanted to base it on. It didn’t have to be sales. I have seen surveys containing a statement like that read something like, “This survey is based on sales, requests, and management’s own judgement of the records’ appeal.” I worked at a place where the survey was supposedly based on sales, but IIRC it was basically one record store plus the PD’s opinion.

      3. Guy K: What JB said. All the RKO stations (KHJ, KFRC, WOR-FM, WRKO, WHBQ) had the verbiage JB quotes at the bottom of their playlist. Gives you all kinds of wiggle room.

        There’s also a case to be made for LP sales being a legitimate criteria in and of itself.

        Album sales eclipsed single sales in 1969, though both continued to grow. Singles peaked in 1974, and it was a pretty rapid decline from there. By 1977, most of us were looking hard at LP sales and factoring that into singles chart positions.

        Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head” peaked at #20 in Billboard. “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me” stopped at #11. But clearly, they were bigger songs than that. It’s just that most people bought the album.

        The first three Cars singles (“Just What I Needed”, “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Good Times Roll” stiffed at #27, #35 and #41 respectively. But they’re not stiffs, they’re hits. From an album that was six times Platinum.

        I decided to look at the WFIL chart for November 6, 1972 (the first week that “Stairway To Heaven” was number one) and see what was up.

        1. Stairway To Heaven-Led Zeppelin
        2. I’d Love You To Want Me-Lobo
        3. Nights In White Satin-Moody Blues
        4. Go All The Way-Raspberries
        5. Listen To The Music-Doobie Brothers
        6. If You Don’t Know Me By Now-Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes
        7. Garden Party-Rick Nelson
        8. Good Foot (part 1)-James Brown
        9. City of New Orleans-Arlo Guthrie
        10. Everybody Plays The Fool-Main Ingredient

        I don’t have any doubt that, out of those ten songs, “Stairway To Heaven” was the most popular that week. And it was probably mainly phone requests. But there was some sales action, too—more on that in a second.

        Lobo, The Raspberries, Harold Melvin, Rick Nelson, James Brown, Arlo Guthrie and The Main Ingredient weren’t moving albums in any numbers that week (Billboard’s LP chart shows Lobo at #112, The Raspberries at #58, Harold Melvin at #121, Rick Nelson as a no-show (it had been out for three months, and ultimately peaked at #32, James Brown at #60, Arlo Guthrie at #52 and The Main Ingredient at #82.

        The Doobies were #33 with a bullet. And The Moody Blues album, which was five years old, was #3.

        Unless Philly was way different from the rest of the U.S., Led Zeppelin IV/ZoSo/Runes had peaked….it was #170 on the Billboard 200 album chart. So you could argue that there wasn’t a sales case to be made for “Stairway To Heaven”.

        But within six weeks, it rebounded to #118 for the December 30 chart. Most likely on the strength of radio airplay of “Stairway” by stations like WFIL. By the end of January, 1973, it was #89. Monster phones and the ability to move a year-old album halfway up the chart again.

  4. Homework already done: went to see the Ronstadt picture at one of the only two theatres in town that were screening it. And while I don’t suffer from Skynyrdytys, I can never remember whether it’s Mason Proffit or Mason Profitt. Just to be sure, I usually go with Mason Profffittt.

    While I don’t have the PR 175-white-label mono/stereo “Stairway To Heaven” promo 45, I do have the PR-269 stereo/stereo second release with the robin’s egg-blue label, circa ’75-’76, which states “Atlantic promotional EP.” That, no doubt, was Atlantic’s way of proving to Peter Grant that they had not issued a 45 RPM “single” in any way. It contains the same studio version on both sides that was on PR-175 and the LZ IV LP. I took one look at it when it arrived in the mail and nixed putting it in the studio. It came pre-scratched and wouldn’t have lasted a day at the hands of our mangle-happy deejays.

    If Atlantic ever issued a 7-inch promo 45/EP/whatever of a live version from ‘The Song Remains The Same’ in 1976, they never serviced college radio with it, nor have I ever heard of one.

    I have done a couple of recent custom LZ edits for my station. It’s amazing how much time you can save by trimming off Robert Plant’s excessive moaning, getting “Kashmir” down to a reasonable 5:33. “All My Love” can likewise be cut down to 4:33 without missing any essential ingredients. Anybody here have access to a clandestine 7-inch record press, mastering lathe and Atlantic label blanks?

    1. John,

      Here I was all excited to tell you there already was a promo edit for “Kashmir” until I realized the promo edit I had was for “Trampled Under Foot” which runs 3:48.

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