The Garden Tapes

A study of the Led Zeppelin film and album The Song Remains The Same
by Eddie Edwards

The Garden Tapes » The Song Remains The Same » Stairway To Heaven

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Stairway To Heaven

"Well - so things are beginning to vibe up a bit. Now listen, we've got to get one thing straight, stop acting like kids there, right? Just cool it a little bit. I think this is a song of, uh - sssshh - I think this is a song of hope. And it is a very quiet song, so shut up."

The violent side of life at a Led Zeppelin concert was portrayed in the film to some extent during Dazed and Confused, but this was clearly not the kind of atmosphere Pagey wanted to present as an introduction to the next song. Understandable, then, that he should discard most of this speech from the 27th and leave just "I think this is a song of hope" in the film, and the even more positive "This is a song of hope" on the album. But any lingering concerns that the disturbances caused by the exuberant first night audience at Madison Square Garden might have a detrimental effect on the performance, were quickly cast aside as the band proceeded to deliver a memorable version of its song of hope.

In the original film, the version from the 27th is used for the majority of the song, right up to the end of the guitar solo that many consider to be one of Jimmy's finest achievements. But Robert's voice, which had been in such spine-tingling form earlier in the song, didn't quite last the pace, so the version from the 28th, on which he sang the last lines with greater consistency, steps in to take us from "And as we wind on down the road" through to the end.

On the original album, we start off with the version from the 29th, sticking with that for most of the first two verses, before switching to the 27th at "In a tree by the brook...". From that point on, we follow the same path as the film, staying with the 27th till the end of the guitar solo and then concluding with the 28th.

Itís natural to pause for a moment and consider why different nights were used for the beginning of the song on the two formats. The answer, as on so many occasions, seems to be that what was acceptable for the film, where the emphasis is on the visuals, did not quite achieve the higher pass mark required for inclusion on the album. On the 27th, the mellotron was sounding a little rough, so the 29th, on which night that notoriously temperamental instrument was in a more cooperative mood, was called upon to supply the first couple of minutes of the album version. Another difference between the two formats is the precision of the edit at the moment of the switch from 27th to 28th after the guitar solo; on the album it's spot on but in the film the timing is very slightly off, giving the momentary impression that the tempo has slowed a little. A very minor difference, but one that yet again demonstrates the greater care and attention that went into the presentation of the music on the audio-only release.

On both formats, a strange vocal effect is noticeable after "There's still time to change the road you're on - I hope so". Robert seems to have two voices as he wails, "Oh, oh, baby, baby", and the first "baby" has a different tone to it, drier and with less echo. Comparison to the original soundboard recording reveals that this is indeed an overdub, the likely reason for which is that Jimmy and Robert didn't like the excessive echo present on the original recording and decided to add another vocal line in the studio, as similar as possible to the original, and to blend the new track with the old.

Just a quick note of the pertinent timings on the original CD before moving on to the new releases: the switch from the 29th to the 27th is at 01:56, the vocal overdub is at 05:12-05:15 and the switch from the 27th to the 28th occurs at 09:07.

The version on the new DVD has the same roots as the one in the original film, but it's been given quite an extensive makeover. It will come as no surprise by now that the new CD contains exactly the same version as the new DVD, so let's note the CD timings as we try to unravel the details.

"I think this is a song of hope" is the introduction that we hear on both formats this time, and the music from the beginning of the song to the end of the guitar solo is from the 27th, as in the original film. The mellotron has been made less prominent in the mix in one or two places where it was being difficult, but it's the vocals that receive the most attention. The first adjustment comes at 01:21, where the words "with a word" are from the 29th. Shortly afterwards there's a longer vocal patch from the same night, from "ooh-oo-oo-ooh" at 01:32 up to and including "In a tree..." at 01:58. "...By the brook" is the genuine 27th vocal, but the 29th supplies "there's a songbird who sings" at 02:01.

From 02:04 things settle down for a while as the next three minutes or so contain no alterations, until at 05:15 we reach the point of that slightly odd vocal overdub on the original releases. On the new version, a different approach to replacing the unsatisfactory section is taken, as the sustained "Oh" is from the 29th, "baby, don't it, baby" is from the 28th and then the genuine 27th vocal returns for "don't it make you..." etc. The result is less high and powerful than the studio overdub on the original releases, but sounds smoother and more natural. Just after that, at 05:24, a guitar chord containing a dissonant F note has been replaced with a more conventional C major. Then at 05:35, the second "wait a minute" has been removed from the mix.

I don't know about you, but I've listened to the Stairway guitar solo on the original Song Remains The Same album more times than I would care to admit to my therapist, without it ever occurring to me that it contained any mistakes, fumbles or even minor imperfections. Nevertheless, at 07:34 a few notes are replaced using ones that have previously been heard at 07:11. At 07:42 another short fragment is patched by copying the notes that followed a second or two later. Just after that, at 07:48, the climactic string bend that edged rebelliously up towards A sharp, has been re-tuned to a more conforming A natural. Two more tiny patches using notes from the immediate vicinity occur at 08:28 and 08:46.

As on the original releases, we switch from the 27th to the 28th as the guitar solo ends at 09:13 and Robert begins the last verse. "And one is all" at 09:48 and the second "not to roll" at 09:54 have been taken from the 29th, and "don't make me roll" has been dispensed with altogether at 09:56.

There then follows a mystifying section in which some quite complicated editing has been carried out for no readily apparent reason. Instead of the 28th version being allowed to run naturally to its conclusion, a section from the 27th spanning approximately four bars has been inserted, but with alterations to the guitar part in such a way that little bursts from the 27th and 28th have been sewn together, some bits repeated, others used in places where they weren't originally played. This all starts at 09:58 as everything switches to the 27th. The following bar, starting at 10:00, has a guitar part that was played on the 28th, although two bars earlier. The next, at 10:03, has two guitar fragments taken from different times on the 27th and stitched together. And the next, at 10:05, has the same guitar part from the 28th that we heard a moment ago at 10:00. At 10:08 the madness ends as we switch fully back to the 28th. This is all very impressively put together and sounds coherent enough despite slight fluctuations in guitar tone and volume, but what on earth was the point of it? The originally used passage from the 28th served its purpose perfectly well and in fact featured Bonzo in a slightly more playful and inventive mood, holding back the snare accents, pushing forward with the hi-hat and continuing to develop the tension even in these final bars before the ritardando.

There's just one last vocal fix at 10:17, where the word "And" has been taken from the 29th, on which night Robert hit the note right on the nose instead of having to make a tiny alteration mid-way through the word. Whether this and all the other little bits of cosmetic surgery have helped to create something that surpasses even the fabulous version on the original album, or whether they chip away unnecessarily at the character and emotion of the original legendary performances, is something that individual listeners will have to decide for themselves.

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