Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Frank Zappa - "Stairway To Heaven"

Today's post looks at the equally celebrated and maligned Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven".

Well, one interpretation of it at least.

I say "equally celebrated and maligned" because it is the most played, listened to, discussed, talked about and covered 8 minutes of the entire Led Zeppelin catalog. For anyone getting started with the band's music, this is usually the entry point. The band themselves have cited this as a milestone in their career.

It has also been played more times on American radio than any other song. This may go a long way to explaining why it is so maligned. In the year 2000, Triple J estimated, in the absence of official numbers, that the song had been played over 3 million times. Let's assume in 2014 that the song has been played 4 million times, as a conservative estimate. If you were to play it end-to-end constantly (that is, as soon as it finishes it starts again) it would last for 60 years, 10 months and 19 days. In the film Wayne's World, the music shop had banned the playing of the song by customers trying out guitars - largely because staff would be sick of people attempting it and routinely stuffing it the intro.

In short, familiarity breeds contempt. It may as well be tattooed on our collective psyches.

We're not looking at the original today, but rather an obscure cover, And to be fair, you're looking into very murky waters when investigating "Stairway..." covers. There's country versions, cod-reggae versions, versions by the Russian Red Army Choir. Australian TV presenter Andrew Denton took the idea to a ridiculous extreme in 1990 with musical guests on his program "The Money Or The Gun" having to take on the song and do it in their own style. He released a CD with 22 versions and a home video with 25 versions of the song from the show. One just happened to be by Rolf Harris, but let's not go there...

Still, the version of the song I have unearthed is one of the standouts, in my view. Frank Zappa played it as one of the centrepieces of his last ever concert tour in 1988, and first released in 1991 on the double album "The Best Band You've Never Heard In Your Life". This version has elements of Frank's trademark humour and oddness in it, to be sure. in between vocal lines he throws in strange synth-noise interjections, as well as short, sharp and frantic guitar solo blasts.

The band plays the entire thing with various reggae grooves throughout. He starts off with a slow roots reggae feel, speeding it up slightly and ending with a fast ska/rock-steady feel at the end.

This version is not notable for Frank's contribution, although his soloing is amazing. His skills as an arranger are the star here. How he manages to get a twelve piece ensemble to play such a tightly crafted arrangement is a true testament to the calibre of musicians in the band. And the way he treats the iconic guitar solo in the latter half of the piece is a revelation - a completely novel way of recontextualising within the piece.

As an arrangement, it is a thrill-a-minute ride around a piece we all know by heart. I genuinely think it's worth multiple listens. The clip below is a dodgy audience shot film from a performance in Vienna that has been re-dubbed with the version taken from the aforementioned live album.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.


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