The forbidden riff is a well-known thing amongst guitarists and those that work in guitar stores. But how did the forbidden riff come to be a thing? Here’s the history of the forbidden riff…
The forbidden riff isn’t actually forbidden, and it is actually one of the greatest rock songs ever committed to tape. If you don’t already know, the forbidden riff is Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. And the reason it is considered “forbidden” has to do with Wayne’s World, a movie that came out in the early 1990s.
Written by a host of SNL luminaries, Wayne’s World was one of the most popular comedies of the early-1990s, earning itself almost cult-like status more or less instantly after its release. It is responsible for popularising Queen with millions of new listeners, thanks to the headbanging car scene, and creating the idea of the forbidden riff.
How The Forbidden Riff Came To Be…
In a scene in Wayne’s World, Wayne goes to a guitar shop to test out some new guitars. He picks one, sits down, and starts playing the intro to Stairway To Heaven. Before he can get past a few notes, a store clerk runs over, stopping him. The clerk then points to a sign which reads: NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. And thus, the forbidden riff was born.
Wayne’s World was immensely popular, so the joke caught on pretty quickly. Guitar stores the globe-over put signs up in their stores, referencing the movie. But all of this was a joke. You can go into a guitar store and play Stairway To Heaven – no one will stop you. But you might get a few looks, as the forbidden riff is now well and truly planted inside the collective unconscious.
That’s the official reason why Stairway To Heaven is considered the forbidden riff. But as with most things pertaining to Led Zeppelin and rock music from that era, there is also another, darker aspect to it propagated by bonkers fundamentalist Christians that think everything to do with rock music is satanic. And Led Zeppelin, alongside Black Sabbath, were CONSTANTLY under fire for “working with the devil.”
The Devil Wrote Stairway To Heaven
Back in the 1970s, the occult enjoyed something of a revival. Bowie, Jimmy Page, even The King himself, Elvis, were interested in the works and philosophies of Aleister Crowley, the man behind Thelema – a rejigged, renewed version of The Golden Dawn which was based on his book, The Book of The Law.
The Beatles featured Aleister Crowley on their St. Pepper album cover and plenty of musicians loved his work, including Jimmy Page and David Bowie. Paige even bought Crowley’s old house on a loch in Scotland. But Aleister Crowley wasn’t a satanist. If anything, he was a magician or mage – he worked with spirits and guides (and demons, but not demons in the sense of bible-belt demons; they’re closer to the daimons of ancient Greece and Egypt).
But Paige’s love of occult practices lead many to assert that Stairway To Heaven – and much of his talents as a guitarist – were born from a Faustian pact with the devil himself. Just like Robert Johnson, one of Page’s major influences. This, of course, is complete nonsense. But it still created all kinds of hysteria around Stairway To Heaven and Zeppelin in general.
Satanic Messages in Stairway To Heaven
Adding fuel to fire were the claims that if one played Stairway To Heaven backward, there were hidden, Satanic messages. According to crazy people at the time, the following can be heard if you play Stairway To Heaven backward: “my sweet Satan”.
This odd theory was popularised by Christian nut-job and radio host, Michael Mills, in the 1980s. Mills had a massive listener base and spent a good deal of time explaining why Stairway To Heaven was indeed satanic. It contained hidden messages, so, of course, this was planned by Satanists like Page and Plant. God knows what Mills thinks of bands like Ghost!?
As always, though, this was complete nonsense. Page even addressed this during a speaking event at Oxford University:
If you playback the records, I’m being serious here even though it’s crazy, but, if you playback the records there was something that says ‘Paul Is Dead’ and then they started to playback a whole manner of records. Of course, we were going to be main candidates for it, and somebody said, ‘It says my sweet satan in it’, and I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s hard enough writing music one way roundJimmy Page
Much of this hysteria is born from the fact that most people, like 99% of people, assume that anything to do with occultism is satanic, and this just isn’t the case. Some of the oldest forms of occultism date back to pre-Christian times – things like the Kabbalah, for instance, which was used before Jesus even walked the earth. The main focus is NOT devils and demons but angels and archangels like Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael – “el” means of god, for instance.
This nuance, however, was lost on fundamentalist Christians. They believed anything different from what their televangelist was peddling was the work of Lucifer, and this is why nearly all rock bands from the 1960s and 1970s were accused of being satanic. It is also why metal music is considered satanic. The fact that some bands actively identify themselves with satanic practices, however, is another thing entirely and most it is harmless, a pastiche did to make them appear, well… “more metal”.
The Forbidden Riff is NOT Forbidden
What does this all mean? Pretty simple, really: the forbidden riff is not forbidden. You can play Stairway to Heaven as much as you like. The idea of it being forbidden comes, initially from Wayne’s World, but it also has ties to claims made by Christian radio host Michael Mills, and also because, as a song, Stairway To Heaven, is one of the first tunes everybody learns on guitar.
Stairway To Heaven is one of the most popular rock songs of all time. Robert Plant even paid a radio station $10,000 to stop playing it after constantly hearing it on the radio while driving across America. During the 1980s, Stairway To Heaven was definitely overplayed, so this too contributed to its status of becoming the forbidden riff – people were just sick of hearing it!