Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Street Survivors will always be tied to the plane crash that injured or killed much of the band and its crew. Released just three days before the crash, the album was quickly reissued because its cover showed the band members surrounded by flames. Rock culture thrives on urban legends and mythmaking (KISS’s Gene is dead, the Beatles’ Paul is dead, etc.), so it wasn’t a stretch for the Street Survivors cover to be seen as not only an omen of the crash, but also as a comment on the afterlives of those who didn’t survive the crash.
Even after the album’s cover was changed to depict the band against a plain black background, there was still “That Smell” to consider. A fierce account of substance abuse and injury, the song could be read in its own macabre light. Never mind that, after the birth of his daughter, bandleader Ronnie Van Zant had reportedly reprioritized and calmed down a little. Or that the song was actually in response to separate substance-fueled car wrecks by bandmates Allen Collins and Gary Rossington.
All of which obscured the fact that Street Survivors might be the strongest album in Skynyrd’s too-short catalog. You couldn’t make a proper greatest hits without half of the record (“That Smell”, “What’s Your Name”, “You Got That Right”, and “I Know a Little”), and the fairly solid other half underscores Skynyrd’s deep roots in blues, country, and rock. It’s strong from start to finish.
It wasn’t an easy album to make, though, and that’s the story this Deluxe Edition tells. The band originally recorded a version of the album with producer Tom Dowd at Miami’s Criteria Studios. Plans changed, however, when the band’s live sound engineer, Kevin Elson, heard an album with no fire or punch, and told the band, “If you release this album, your career’s over”. Guitarist Steve Gaines agreed with Elson, apparently saving Elson from Van Zant’s wrath in the process. The band reconvened at Atlanta’s Studio One, where they had earlier recorded “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird”, producing the album themselves in a flurry of rerecording, remixing, and rearranging.
This release places both albums side by side, the original unreleased Criteria version and the familiar Studio One classic, and the experience backs up Elson’s contention that the Criteria version didn’t capture Skynyrd’s true glory. The original Criteria version sounds a little lifeless. It’s not that the songs are significantly different—the Criteria songs were already finished versions—but they lack power. At Studio One, “What’s Your Name” gained its horn arrangement and “That Smell” lost an extended guitar coda, but the changes really come down to a slightly different vocal here, a different guitar lick there, and that indefinable production touch that brings it all together. The biggest differences come in the revised tracklisting: “One More Time” and “I Know a Little” (both older songs) were in, while “Georgia Peaches”, “Sweet Little Missy”, and “Jacksonville Kid” (Van Zant’s autobiographical rewriting of Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man”) were out.
Those three exiled songs found a home on MCA’s 2001 reissue of Street Survivors, however, so they’re not the real draw here. The Deluxe Edition focuses on the comparison of the version we know with the version we’ve never heard. That’s unlikely to be a repeat experience for too many listeners, though, since the reworked Studio One version pretty fully realized the band’s ambitions. The set also includes five live cuts from California in August of 1977 that are reportedly the last known recordings of the band, but they’re hampered by poor sound quality even though they capture Skynyrd in fine form.
So even though this newest incarnation of Street Survivors accomplishes exactly what we’ve come to expect from the best titles in the Deluxe Edition series—showing classic albums in comprehensive new lights—it’s primarily for diehard fans. Everyone else will be better served by picking up the earlier MCA reissue, which contains all the good stuff for a lot less money.