It’s something that all rock fans have experienced at one point or another. The somber, slowly picked strings of acoustic guitar; the medieval crooning of distant flutes; that iconic voice’s cautionary tale of a lady who was sure all that glittered was gold. In the entire history of rock music, perhaps no song has had the legendary impact of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” In the decades after its original 1971 release on Led Zeppelin IV, it has slowly become the most omnipresent rock song of all time, prompting millions of eager teenagers around the world to pick up guitars for the first time and begin their own rock ’n’ roll fantasies.
Now more than 40 years later, as part of the band’s campaign to reissue all of its studio material, Led Zeppelin has reimagined “Stairway to Heaven,” along with the rest of Led Zeppelin IV, as well as the group’s 1973 album Houses of the Holy. The newly released deluxe editions of these classics each contain a full CD’s worth of previously unreleased mixes of songs well known by Zeppelin fans. It’s best not to look at these releases as new and exciting rewrites. Rather, it’s like Led Zeppelin has quietly shifted from one corner of the room to the other after years of playing in the same spot. Sometimes, a different perspective, no matter how small a difference, can be refreshing.
Indeed, for both casual listeners and longtime fans, the differences between these new versions and the originals may not even be noticeable. In some cases, however, they are very welcome. The reissue of “Stairway to Heaven” is labeled as the “Sunset Sound Mix.” It is softer, the guitar part is less crisp and faded with a deeper echo, and the flutes are quieter and in the background. When the song reaches its epic bridge, the electric guitar part is muddier. Without reference to the original, these changes don’t really stand out, yet they cast the song in a reserved light. It’s not life changing, but it is interesting to see a different interpretation of a song that has been so solidly embedded in musical consciousness for decades.
Another standout track is “The Crunge,” the funky and frantic fourth track from Houses of the Holy. The original song was meant to play on the soul music of James Brown, and this is made much more evident in the reissue. The already miniscule echo on the vocals is now completely gone, creating a much more raw vocal sound more evocative of a Brown-style vocal track. This subtle change is the difference between Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and the Godfather of Soul.
Some of the biggest departures from the original versions occur in the reissues of “The Song Remains The Same,” from Houses of the Holy, “The Battle of Evermore,” from Zeppelin IV, and “Going to California,” also from IV. All three of these reissues are missing the vocal parts. While it might seem blasphemous to listen to any Led Zeppelin song without Plant’s characteristic “baby”s and unfairly high range, these songs offer something special. “The Song Remains the Same” features Jimmy Page’s guitar work in place of Plant’s singing. It’s not the tightest playing (then again, Page isn’t the tightest guitarist), but it is filled with a different energy that isn’t there on the original.
This is even truer with the softer songs from Zeppelin IV, “The Battle of Evermore” and “Going to California.” These acoustic numbers, featuring both guitar and mandolin, actually seem like they are unfinished. There is something amazingly reflective about hearing the scaffoldings of two incredible folk-rock songs, knowing that at this phase of their production they still only existed somewhere in the band’s notebooks and imagination.
These two Zeppelin reissues do not have things to offer for everyone. Some may see the acquisition of slightly different, and in some cases unfinished, versions of already great music as a worthless act—that is fair. But the hardcore Zeppelin fans hoping to buy the fancy deluxe editions to display in their shrines will view it as a new adventure.
Featured Image Courtesy of Atlantic Records