How The West Was Won

A Garden Tapes feature
by Eddie Edwards

The Garden Tapes » How The West Was Won » Stairway To Heaven


Stairway To Heaven

The spoken introduction is from LA but the song itself is from Long Beach. There is a part of this song, though, that is certainly not from either California concert.

On the 1972 American tour, John Paul Jones was still using the same droning organ sound for the first verses of "Stairway" as he had been since the band began playing the song live in March 1971. This can be most clearly heard on the BBC version from 1st April 1971. When Zep visited Japan in October 1972, Jonesy began using a Mellotron for this piece and from then on he was able to produce an effect quite similar to the genuine four-recorders sound on the fourth album, but in America in June he did not have this instrument at his disposal.

Slightly puzzling, then, that the version of "Stairway" on "How The West Was Won" should feature a stunningly beautiful woodwind accompaniment to the guitar and vocal from 0:12 to 2:14!

Although the keyboard sound in this passage does not come across all that clearly on the LA and Long Beach bootlegs, there's no doubt at all that the notes, and the instrument on which they are being played, are utterly different from what has appeared on the official release. The guitar and vocal parts on "How The West Was Won" are unmistakably from Long Beach '72, so the obvious conclusion is that John Paul and/or Jimmy didn't like the keyboard part on the original recordings and decided to replace it. But how? Had Jonesy brushed a few years' worth of dust off the mellotron, or an even thicker layer of dust off those old recorders, and laid down a completely new part in the studio? That was a possibility, but not a particularly realistic one.

In the 2005 edition of The Concert File, Dave Lewis and Simon Pallett provided the following information concerning the show at Southampton University on 22nd January, 1973: "Tonight's show ... was professionally recorded on Page's instructions. ... In 2002 Page salvaged the tapes for this show for consideration for release for what would become the How The West Was Won official live set. Engineer Kevin Shirley did mixdown some of the performances from this show for possible use but ultimately they decided to issue the 1972 Los Angeles and Long Beach recordings." Armed with this information, it wasn't too difficult to make an educated guess at where the "Stairway" mellotron part on "How The West Was Won" had come from.

Happily for Led Zeppelin fans everywhere, and particularly for those of us who like to convert educated guesses into documented facts, the aforementioned Southampton recording became available on bootleg and in trading circles in the summer of 2007, providing confirmation that the first couple of minutes of "Stairway" on "How The West Was Won" contain sounds that span seven months and 5,500 miles. A slightly disconcerting thought, but not one that sticks too long in the mind when you're actually listening to the exquisite mellotron sound, the wonderfully inventive playing, the smooth, flowing melodies interrupted briefly by a series of gentle staccato chords behind "...songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are..."

The organ sound on the early live versions of "Stairway" is captivating and deeply atmospheric, but it imparts a very sombre, almost eerie feel to the first part of the song compared to the brighter and more uplifting mood created by the Mellotron woodwind on the later versions. It's my guess that artistic preference for the later style was the principal reason for ditching the organ part but it would be extremely interesting to hear the California 1972 professional recordings in their original form in order perhaps to gain some further insight into why this decision was taken.

Definitely the most controversial aspect of this live album but, as is the case throughout, it's impossible to argue with the quality of the end product.

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