The band had finished writing the song just weeks before. The classic recording was still in progress. But on this night in 1971, Led Zeppelin decided to trot out their quirky, extra-long ditty for a concert at Belfast's Ulster Hall, a local concert venue.
A brief history of the event posted on a cultural site of the Northern Irish government paints the concert occurring amidst a dramatic backdrop in the region's history:
The decision to play Belfast at the height of The Troubles did not go unnoticed. Mark Bolan and T-Rex had pulled out of their gigs weeks earlier, starving Northern Irish rock fans of their need for live music. Zeppelin's music served to create a unified atmosphere among the fans, and that night music drowned out the sound of gunfire and rioting only a few streets away.
Jimmy Page would later claim that the audience was indifferent to the song on that debut night. A journalist who had been a young man in the crowd on that night, remembered his own lukewarm reception in a piece he wrote four years ago, celebrating the event's 40th anniversary:
That night in the Ulster Hall was the first public performance of Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and we didn't like it. Too 'ballady' for Led Zeppelin was our thoughts.
It didn't really sound like them – at least not until the last minute of the songwhen Jimmy Page launched into that now famous guitar riff. Stairway to Heaven went on to become one of the all time rock classics that has stood the test of time – sure what do I know about music anyway!
Several recordings posted on YouTube make claim to have captured that first public outing of what would become perhaps the most beloved song of the rock era. The tape below recorded a fairly straightforward rendition of the ballad, met by polite if not overwhelming applause.
Happy 44th Stairway! And it still makes us wonder