Monday, 2 February 2009
♫ Well, well, well, 20 issues young eh? Who’d’ve thought we’d have got here so quick? (Except for the AAA artists who wrote concept albums around time’s ability to pass so fast anyway). In celebration of our anniversary edition we’ve cobbled together all the 20-themed songs we can think of into our latest handy disposable list, but first our news. We are now included in an additional three search engines (we were aiming for 20 but couldn’t quite manage that far) and are quickly heading for 150 hits (that’s hits as in ‘views of our website’ not the top 20 music chart sort. Or indeed the ‘top 20 things you’d like to do to the website creator for taking up so much of your time). While we wallow in that fact for a minute, here’s your weekly and – this time – short round-up of the world’s news:
♫ CSN news: Just a brief addition to the last fortnight’s worth of CSN news; i) The Crosby-Nash ‘In Concert’ recording from November 1970 is set to receive yet another BBC4 screening this week (that’s the fifth in the last 18 months! I know this concert is the best thing yet broadcast in the history of BBC4 but even for me that’s pushing it a bit!) The concert even has a prime-time slot this time, 8.30pm tomorrow (February 3rd). ii) Be quick if you want to grab some of those Crosby-Nash tour arm-bands we talked about in the last issue, as this is the last week you’ll be able to purchase them (visit ***) iii) Finally, a reminder that the long awaited Graham Nash 3-CD retrospective ‘Reflections’ is due out on Monday, Graham’s 67th birthday. No doubt there will be a review coming to you sometime soon, but there may be a bit of a delay for us getting hold of it so we just thought we’d remind you all!
Anniversaries: They say it’s your birthday if your name is Graham Nash (Hollies 1963-68, CSN/Y various times, did I really need to tell you that by now?!), who as mentioned above turns 67 on February 2nd, Skip Battin (bassist with the Byrds 1969-72) would have turned 74 on the same day, Eric Haydock (bassist with the Hollies 1963-65) would have turned 65 on February 3rd and finally in this long list Dave Davies (guitarist with The Kinks 1963-93) turns 62 on the same day. Happy birthdays all! Anniversaries of events this week include: the release of the first solo record post-split by either Simon or Garfunkel – the former’s ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ which quickly scales up the charts despite the doubts of record company Columbia (Feb 5th 1972), three Beatles get back together in a recording studio for the first time – no, not ‘Free As A Bird’, but George’s tribute single to John ‘All Those Years Ago’ (find it on the Harrison album ‘Somewhere in England; recorded Feb 6th 1981), the Kinks make their first television appearance, miming to first single ‘Long Tall Sally’ on much-loved much-missed music programme ‘Ready Steady Go!’ (Feb 7th 1964), in a forgotten milestone of music history, Stephen Stills becomes the first person ever to record using digital sound, although his recordings have to date never been released (as far back as Feb 7th 1979) and finally Pink Floyd give their first concert performance of ‘The Wall’ in LA (Feb 7th 1980)
And so here we again at our traditional end-of-newsletter farewell. As the bucket hanging clear to hell descends upon us at the end of yet another issue’s lifespan, we celebrate the top five AAA songs referencing the words ‘20’ in honour of our anniversary issue! (Excepting the Beach Boys album ‘20/20’ which we couldn’t fit in but is, of course, an honorary member of this list!)
5) 24 Hours (10cc/Windows In The Jungle, 1983). Hmm, a whole day in the life of man referencing a whole life in the day of a website (or something like that…) As discussed at length in review no 86, 10cc’s Eric Stewart nearly died in a car crash and spent the rest of his band career delving into more serious topics than the usual 10cc fare. Like many tracks from the superlative ‘Jungles’ album, this song juxtaposes all the great things in life that flashed by its creator’s eyes with the mundane things that most people spend their allotted time doing (and no, reading this website isn’t one of them! It’s the keyhole through to your soul, honest!) Just as the jungle rhythms give way to city sounds in an all too convincing natural segue, so our lifespan flies out before us and we falter. Or something like that anyway.
4) Four and 20 (CSNY/ Déjà vu, 1970). OK, so we’re getting a bit desperate on ‘20’ titles OK? This delightful pocket ballad about an old age pensioner who started and ending his life with nothing (see review no 34 for the full story) only makes sense if the narrator is ‘four score and 20’ years old (ie 100). Whatever his age, this song is Stephen Stills at one of his many early 70s peaks, sadly cast adrift into the recorded world without those glorious CSN harmonies until a reunion concert of 1990.
3) 20th Century Man (The Kinks/ Muswell Hillbillies, 1971). Will there really have been as many centuries in the modern (ie anno domini) calendar as there have been issues of our newsletter next week? Well, ‘yes’ is the simple answer to that. But like all of you who happen to be under the age of nine while reading this, Ray Davies was born a 20th century man and what with wars, pollution, pointless bureaucracy, a failed welfare state, trigger-happy-peacemen and an uncertain future, he ‘doesn’t want to be here’. Not that the 21st century seems much of a better prospect so far, but still – judging by the evidence of this depressing but depressingly oh-so-true song, the elder Davies brother never thought humanity would last long enough for us to find out.
2) 20 Flight Rock (Paul McCartney/ Choba B CCCP, 1989). The weakest McCartney album (up until the gormless ‘Chaos and Creation’ at any rate) found Macca threatening to start the Cold War all over again by recording a series of lame rock and roll covers especially for the Russian people (this album was one of the first Western records to be officially sold there after the Berlin Wall came down and the ‘iron curtain’ was lifted). ’20 Flight Rock’ is a song that crops up several times on Macca’s CV, mainly because it’s the song that got him ‘into’ the Beatles (so legend has it, Paul’s prowess on the guitar and his faultless reading of this song’s lyrics got him into the band without question – although closer to the truth seems to be the fact that Macca could tune a guitar when Lennon still didn’t know how). This is in fact one of the better songs on the album, with Eddie Cochran’s lyrics about a lusty teenager following his girlfriend up 20 flights of stairs and finding himself too tired to do what he was intending on reaching her room one of the better 1950s rock and roll/ comedy cross overs (see ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Fortune Teller’ and the pay-off line of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ for more examples of this short-lived genre).
1) Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Beatles/ Sgt Pepper’s, 1967). Yes, it was 20 issues ago today that our website was launched (hooray!), its been going in and out of style, but its guaranteed to raise a smile (even if it’s a smile of horror), so let me introduce to you the song you’ve known for 42 years, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Come back Billy Shears, all is forgiven!
And so farewell friends with this latest message from Philosophy Phil – ‘It doesn’t matter who you are and where you want to be, the story’s in the journey and not what’s out at sea!’ Till the next issue, keep rocking!
AAA: THE EMERGENCY SERVICE WHEN YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT ALBUM TO PLAY
'High Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead' is available to buy by clicking here!
“Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye” “Everything promised is delivered to you
“Aoxomoxoa” (Grateful Dead, 1969)
St Stephen/Dupree's Diamond Blues/Rosemary/Doin' That Rag/Mountains Of The Moon//China Cat Sunflower/What's Become Of The Baby?/Cosmic Charlie
"Delusions of living and Dead" or "Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye" or
Warner Brothers advert from 1969: 'Fun is fun but we can't keep cracking out these divertissments without some sales. So we nervously suggest you take on Aoxomoxoa. For our mutual benefit'.
I'm not quite sure what's led to me bring you the review of this album this week, dear readers, so soon after our other Dead reviews and with an album I must confess I've never really understood. While I've played bits of it several times on other releases ('St Stephen' and 'China Cat Sunflower' are rightly regarded as the backbone of the band's set list in this era and appear on dozens of archive CDs), I can't say I've brought this record out of it's sleeve for a long time - unusual for any 60s album in my collection, never mind the Dead's. Only this record has been buzzing round my head lately like a wasp and seems to have been following me around lately. It might have been the site of my friend and fellow website creator The Face Of Bo wrestling with the incomprehensible line ‘drip a silver kimono like a crazy quilt stocking through a dream night wind’ while stepping up to the microphone on the game Rock Band rock band that first decided me to writing about this album. Well, that and trying to play the drum parts for both Billy Kreutzmann or Micky Hart at the same time on the game's ‘medium’ mode – even at that slower speed, I don’t think my left arm will ever be the same again (editor's note from revised review - it still isn't the same six years on!) Or perhaps it's the sheer amount of palindromes that started cropping up everywhere: you know the sorts of things 'Madam I'm Adam' 'Dammit I'm Mad' 'The Spice Girls Are Era Slrig Ecips Eht!' or my personal favourite 'Mr Owl Ate My Metal Worm'. I've just caught the end of a documentary on saints discussing St Stephen. Someone on Eastenders (no don't worry I don't watch it - I was waiting for something far more palatable to come on) just cried 'woo-attts be-cawme of ooor baebie? Dum-Dum-Dumdumdum!' (translation for non-Cockney readers 'What's Become Of The Baby? *Cliffhanger Music*) And I'm pretty sure that was a China Cat I just saw on a shelf on Antique's Roadshow. Anyway the fates seem to be telling me to review this album, so who am I to disagree?
Whichever way it was, 'Aoxomoxoa' is a funny old album, being neither fish nor fowl (or, if you like, neither Terrapin nor Station), too weird for most comfortable listening without quite being as gloriously wild as its predecessor. While I find myself coming back to the demented delights and jazzy beauty of the records either side of this one rather a lot ('Anthem Of The Sun' and 'Live/Dead') there's something about this one that's rather off-putting, awkward and angular, as if the band knew how to make a great LP and then decided not to, leaving instead flashes of what might have been. Usually Dead albums get better on repeated playings - that's true even with such accepted turkeys as 'Shakedown Street' and 'Go To Heaven', but I've found that this album gets more and more difficult to sit through the longer you own it ('Dupree's and 'Baby' are both featured in the 'middle' of their respective sides and neither are possible to stomach that easily). What's more this album sounds weird, without being quite as rule-breaking or dangerous as before, if that makes sense. The songs here that are actual 'songs' all fit to a verse-chorus structure (even if it's a quirky elongated structure dictated by complex compound time rhythms of 7/11 and 9/11 that no other band would dare play), while the out-there songs sound like the sort of things any out-there genius with a tape recorder and a bucket of acid could come up with, rather than musical geniuses with a 16-track-machine and a tone of the stuff.
'Aoxomoxoa' is you see a palindrome, which means it's an album that sounds the same whether you play it backwards or not. Oh whoops - apparently it's just the title that can be read the same back-to-front as left-to-right, but it might as well be: 'Aoxomoxoa' is the Dead's second weirdest album and as such has lead to a lot of head-scratching amongst fans then and now (the title was record illustrator Rick Griffin's idea - the band had been loosely planning to call it 'Earthquake Country' for some strange reason). Whilst every other band around were getting away from the sonic weirdness of the middle sixties years in the 'rootsy' year of 1970, the Dead simply ploughed on feet first, coming up with the middle album of their psychedelic trilogy. That's partly because, having booted out the various Warner Brothers officials nominally in charge of albums one and tow, the Dead were free to roam. It's also, in part, due to the advances in technology in this era that everyone - engineers included - were still learning how to use. Legend has it that the band got quite far through the sessions on an eight-track tape recorder in the second half of 1968 before junking the whole lot when Warner Brothers announced that they'd just bought a 16-track machine and the band promptly 'borrowed' it (many guidebooks count 'Aoxomoxoa' as the first album ever made using 16-track; it did indeed come out before the other main competitor 'Abbey Road' by The Beatles, although the fab four's sessions may have started a fraction earlier - fans are a bit hazy on when exactly the band got hold of their new toy). As you'd expect from a group of lunatics suddenly delivered the keys to a state-of-the-art asylum, there's an awful lot of nonsense as well as pure brilliance from these sessions: 'What's Become Of The Baby?' has rightly taken most of the flak, a spoken-word affair you can't hear properly anyway thanks to the hazy production, but not far behind are such oddities as the fragment 'Rosemary' and the roaring twenties throwback 'Dupree's Diamond Blues' (the first but sadly least interesting in a long run of Hunter/Garcia charming rogues). As it turns out, like the first mix of 'Anthem', the band were never happy with it and remixed the entire LP in 1971, which is the source of most pressings to date (although, unlike 'Anthem', I do happen to own the original mix on vinyl and think it's better, complete with a choral tag for 'Doin' That Rag' and a slightly sharper sound in most places although that said the decision to cut the choir on 'Mountains On The Moon' was a good one; this mix is long overdue on CD, perhaps as a double-disc set with the original, although apparently it has been re-issued again on a pricey LP).
'Aoxomoxoa' already had the reputation as something of a folly before it even came out, with the record's poor reception changing the way the band will work from hereon in (and give them the reputation for the first time of being a 'live' must-see and a studio no-no, one that wasn't always warranted).The band lost Warner Brothers an awful lot of money after several thousand studio hours had to be paid for without much income coming in (this record wasn't far off selling just one copy for every hour it had taken to create!) and the next three albums have to be done 'on the cheap' (although as all three records are acclaimed by fandom as three of the very best five the band ever made that's not as much of a hardship as it sounds and proof perhaps on how the Dead had to have some discipline to reach their peak). As a sign of how much Warner Brothers understood this record, they promoted it not with the music or the sterling album cover (a terrific Rick Griffin picture of a skeleton in a grave surrounded by trees flowering into guitars, whose typical ambiguous lettering meant 'Grateful Dead' could also be read as 'We Ate The Acid') but with a Pigpen lookalike competition (as if anyone else ever looked like Pig!) That mis-marketing and the album reception has to some extent changed forever the way we've viewed this record: a flop before it even made it out of the studio (even 'St Stephen' and 'China Cat' were slow to be taken up by fans, compared to 'Dark Star' and 'That's It For The Other One', their other big inventions of 1968).
However like many a Dead album it sounds rather better now than it perhaps did at the time, when such self-indulgence was so 'last year' and the band's contemporaries were already making the sort of sounds heard on future LPs 'Workingman's Dead' and 'American Beauty'. What's remarkable is how short and concise everything is (barring the bad acid trip 'Baby'), with 'St Stephen' shorn of the pyrotechnics of the better known 'Live/Dead' version and 'China Cat' not yet paired with traditional song 'I See My Rider'. At its best, as on these two tracks and two of the most unfairly overlooked Dead songs of them all - the relatively forgotten classy ballad 'Mountains Of The Moon' and rocking comic finale 'Cosmic Charlie' - 'Aoxomoxoa' is not a folly but a fully-fledged pioneering album that knows exactly what it's doing. It's the other four songs that lets the album down (with 'Doin' That Rag' a special case -I still can't tell if it's the work of genius or stupidity!) Garcia and his new pal Robert Hunter themselves spoke about this album being 'over-written' when they came to reflect on it several classics later, while Jerry admitted he took a perverse delight in being 'obscure' in this period and making people work to try and interpret what he meant (something we'll be having a bash at in a few paragraphs' time, so wish us luck...) However sometimes it's that very OTT braveness/daftness that makes this album what it is: after all, even the closest it has to a hit single in 'China Cat' features a lyric best described as charming gibberish...
However through all this muddle there is a theme going across this album and what's more it's a strong one. As Griffin's album cover of death and birth implies, this is an album about growth and discovery, about old things making way for the new. All the characters in these songs are searching for...something, even if some are more eloquent than others. Even more interesting is the theme that this 'search' isn't something 'new' as many sixties albums make it out to be - with scholar Hunter on board, who really knows his historical texts, the hippie movement is seen in context as part of a grander plan for mankind to navigate his way to happiness, taking in time zones from the early centuries AD to the future (possibly).
My take on 'St Stephen' for instance is that this is the very hippiest of the hippies generation, ridiculed and misunderstood, reaching backwards in time for solidarity with a former change in the powers that be (Stephen is pretty much the first saint who didn't meet Jesus and converted after hearing the stories; far from being sure straight away his embracing of Christianity came after a lot of doubts and soul searching and in full knowledge of the persecution that awaits him). 'Dupree's Diamond Blues' is based on a real story of poverty from 1921 when Frank Dupree of South California robbed a jewellery store at his girlfriend's prompting, shooting two men when it went wrong. A sympathetic criminal, he's another like 'St Stephen' whose both a threat to the authorities and doing what he did for what might be a good cause. 'Rosemary' is a maiden, a rather Victorian sounding one, reaching vainly out to a world who doesn't even know she exists and dying alone with the symbolism of her fully blooming garden sealed off for eternity - the hint being that she could have been happy had she embraced (or been allowed to embrace) the 'new' of her day (the taboos of single women going out un-chaperoned and having a life for themselves). 'Doin' That Rag' must be one of the most impenetrable lyrics Hunter ever wrote ('Baby' being the other candidate) but sounds to be at least in part about a similar sort of misery, the narrator - and all those like him - staying out at night, escaping the watchful eye of parents and wives, 'picking up on what their share is' although what it's a share of they're not quite sure. 'Mountains Of The Moon' meanwhile is a Medieval lament, full of Lords and Kings assembled in a hall, not quite sure about a celestial apparition in the sky and what portents this means for their cosy life (we never find out what - a solar eclipse perhaps? Or perhaps the moon was so close to the Earth the inhabitants could see the 'moon' and 'heavens' clearly; as the only truly visible object in the night's sky before telescopes were invented the moon played a major role in Middle Ages scientific and philosophical thinking, so it's an apt obsession for this setting. Incidentally an incident in 1178 saw monk Gervase of Canterbury record the moon 'on fire and splitting in two' - an asteroid collision? Alternatively there's a mountain range in Africa named 'Mountains Of The Moon', although presumably no Kings or Lords would have been assembled there).
As for side two, 'China Cat' is the epitome of the explorer - if you forget for the moment that he's merely a cat then China is very much the noble confident bearer of the new and exotic, 'proud walking jingle in the midnight sun'. Cats are also notorious for doing their own thing, however much people try to control them - no wonder, then, that along with terrapins and 'bears' they've become the animal most associated with the Dead (they're a key psychedelic symbol, with Syd Barratt too imagining all sorts of exciting adventures for his cat Lucifer Sam at the dead of night when the whole world except for musicians and crotchety reviewers are asleep). As for 'What's Become Of The Baby?', this song could mean anything as written but sounds from its title on down as a generational cry, a look of horror from parents who see children doing something they were never allowed to do and feeling fright mingled with a little jealous. Interestingly, and in keeping, with the theme of the rest of the album, there's no dating and the lyrics are ambiguous so this could in fact be the generation gap between any era, not necessary the Dead's own. Finally 'Cosmic Charlie' is persuaded, finally, to go home, to comfort and familiarity, his wandering now at an end, waiting for the winds of change to 'blow'. Does Charlie come from the future as the word 'cosmic' implies? Or is he the sixties-generation everyman, living in a modern-day old of avenues and roads noticeably, tuned into a greater cosmic message than previous eras (the joke may be too that a 'charlie' is a slang term for an 'idiot' and yet this Charlie is 'cosmic;' someone whose seen and understood more of the life than most people who just stayed at home and may not be thick at all just misunderstood; interestingly fellow AAA member and Dead fan David Crosby will write about a 'cosmic' Charles in the song 'Charlie' from 'Crosby*Nash' 2004 which too sounds like a simpleton who might just be a genius).
That's the album in nine parts, then, and what you may be noticing if you're reading these reviews in chronological order is how suddenly and quietly Jerry Garcia has taken charge of what is to all intents and purposes (until the mid-70s at least) 'his' band. The first album had Pigpen as an equal, the second had more time spent on Bob and Phil in addition to Pig and yet none of the three really get a look in here, with the credits all going Garcia's way bar a co-write with Lesh on 'St Stephen'. Jerry sings lead on every song too - sometimes solo, sometimes in tandem with Bobby - as well as dominating the music with several sterling guitar solos. Clearly the decision in 1968 (thankfully temporary) to drop both Bob and Pigpen from the band is still having a bit of an effect. To be honest it's very odd having no Weir songs here at all (only on 'Workingman's Dead' will this ever happen again) while Pigpen - who sang the entire second side of 'Anthem Of The Sun' - doesn't appear to sing or play a note. Instead this is Jerry and Bob Hunter's 'baby', with input from Phil, the two drummers - and Tom Constanten making his last appearance on a Dead LP. All of the keyboard touches you hear are his, with 'Mountains Of The Moon' his last great addition to the Dead canon (although Pig does play organ on the warm-up jams included as bonus tracks on the CD re-issue) and are a nice foil to Garcia's leads, the first time really that keyboards had been an 'upfront' part of the sound (pig's soulful playing is really more for colour). It's a shame that Constanten won't hang around for longer, as his classical structure nicely embellishes the feeling of history that comes with both this album and the last, although he clearly felt something of an 'outsider' in the band (he was a committed scientologist, at odds with a largely atheist group, and refused all drugs; band manager Rock Scully later called him 'like a marine in a prison camp full of Japanese, like our boss in a way'. Pig was especially upset to see him go).
For all the divisions that are beginning to fester, however, 'Aoxmoxoa' still feels like the last great 'family' Dead album. The last record made while the band are still largely based in Ashbury Heights, Laurel Canyon, the back sleeve features a great and rare shot of not only the band but their extended families and employees (a great contrast to the other-wordlyness of the front!) Rumour for years had it that the little girl looking worried to Pigpen's left was none other than Hole mainstay and Kurt Cobain widow Courtney Love. Certainly the facts would seem to fit: her dad Hank Harrison was a Dead fan and hung out doing odd jobs, while for a time the family lived in a commune and so naturally came across Deadheads; Courtney would have been five when this picture was taken, which seems more or less bang on too). However it isn't her but Bill Kreutzmann's daughter Stacey, whose mother had split from her dad soon after her birth but still had access to the band (she remembers Pigpen as being her 'favourite babysitter', which is a great image!) This is almost like a 'farewell' to where the Dead started - which is an even better summary and line-in-the-sand that waves goodbye to the band's psychedelic years than the bright colours on the front.
Overall, then, it's easy to see why 'Aoxomoxoa' is one of the few early Dead albums (along with the debut) not to be claimed as one of the greatest albums of its era. The record has always enjoyed a bumpy ride with Dead fans over the years, with plenty of ‘difficult’ fare to counteract its undeniable charm in places. No one could make a record like this today. We at the AAA tend to reserve that statement for truly off-the-wall no-chance-of-working albums like Pink Floyd’s ‘Ummagumma’ (40 minutes of atonal instrumentals anybody?), the Human League’s ‘Love and Dancing’ (long trancy remixes of songs barely a year old) or Pentangle’s ‘Cruel Sister’ (a capella songs nestling with 20-minute long opuses made up of three of four verses) – self-indulgent albums that are curios rather than essential listening, guaranteed not to sell except to an artist’s core audience, loved as each one of these records is by somebody. You might well file ‘Aoxomoxoa’ away for months or years at a time like I do – and yet there is more worth and substance here than on this album’s two bed-fellows, with at least three excellent additions to the Dead canon (on a generous day, it's as much as five, which ratio wise is about what we normally say is a 'very good bordering on great' album). Its just that, given free reign in the studio for pretty much the first time, the Dead try everything here – and only some of it works well, with the rest coming off very badly. 'What's Become Of The Baby?' is the biggest single mistake in the Dead's canon until they start going all disco in the late 70s, while personally I find the chirpy honkytonk of 'Dupree's Diamond Blues' even more irritating (now there's a song to get stuck in your head for days on end!) No wonder, then, that Warner Brothers hated it: they saw nothing here being close to a hit (although I suspect 'China Cat' would have done rather well actually with the right marketing), didn't understood the words or the ideas and had no clue why this album should have taken up so much extra time and money compared to every other band they handled. Hence that rather odd pleading advert we quoted from above (that's not us being silly - it's a genuine magazine advert from 1969!) which sounds awfully close to 'we can't sell the damn thing - and igf you don'ty buy it nobody will!' In retrospect had next album 'Live/Dead' not been so successful (and so under-budget) then the Dead might have buried for good right here. But we know, dear reader, that this story has a happy ending, with millions of twists and turns still to unfold from this point in, and that's also what's so great about this album: the band could go anywhere and everywhere and they go about as far in all directions as any band could on a single studio album made in 1969. Of course they're going to fall flat on their faces from time to time - and of course that human ability to mess up is going to endear them to their core audience all the more. You can hear too the first (or is that second?) seeds of what Garcia called 'songs started to sound the way I wanted them to sound'. After all this is an experiment - and who gets their experiments right first time anyway? Buying 'Aoxomoxoa' at the time may have been set up with a lot of pleading but actually Warner Brothers got the one and only thing right in their whole marketing campaign; buying it at the time really was of mutual benefit to band and fan, allowing them to discover what did and didn't work and getting it right the next time, over and over again until far into the next decade while the fan got to hear the Dead at their most experimental and, occasionally, right up there with their best. And that calls for an AAA palindrome of our own: 'The grateful dead are getting greattaerg gnitteg era daed lufetarg eht...'
But what does work on this album is exceptional. The studio version of ‘St Stephen’ which kicks off the record is undoubtedly a poorer cousin than the live version included on ‘Live/Dead’ later on the same year - but even in its tentative, template state its an amazing track by 1969 standards. Like the saint, this song never sits still for a minute, wandering off from fresh-faced pop into a lop-sided 11/4 march, a mournful Elizabethan ballad middle eight that lasts as long as the rest of the song combined, has a false ending with a rag-time flavour and finally ends in all out jazz rock fusion Grateful dead-ness. (The live version is more straight ahead rock and roll – well, comparatively – but ends instead with a near a capella rendition of ‘William Tell’!) The whole thing is so unsettling and downright weird that you’d never choose this track as background music – but then background music was never what the Dead were about. This is a challenging adventure, one designed to stretch the listener every bit as much as the band and so exhausting to listen to that I’m suddenly very pleased the makers of ‘Rock band’ didn’t add this track to their line up as well. The Dead are on cracking form here – Phil Lesh’s bass woops up and down the scales without paying any regard to what the rest of the band are doing, Garcia and Weir’s harmonies are their best to date, new member Tom Constanten’s delightful boogie woogie piano licks earth the song just when Garcia’s typically effervescent solo threatens to get out of control and the two drummers of Kreutzmann and Hart remind me why my arms are still aching after last week’s spot of drumming. It’s the lyrics, though, that make this song – Garcia’s old army buddy (yes the peace movement’s idol Garcia really was in the army – but not for very long before he was thrown out, needless to say!) Robert Hunter cameod on the Dead’s last album ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ (see review no 23), but he’s only a mainstay from this album on. The adventures of St Stephen remain one of his best contributions to the Dead, a half-cross between an Elizabethan sonnet and contemporary hippie poetry. We all know Stephen’s saints day (Boxing Day, though we’re more likely to think of King Wenceslas today), but this doubting deity’s struggles between what he was told to believe and what he felt to be true really becomes a matter of life or death here. Like many a period Grateful Dead lyric, this song uses old figures from the past to mirror the never-ending struggles of humanity to live together in the then-present day, with Stephen (one of the earliest Christian martyr’s prosecuted for his beliefs in about 300AD) obviously intended to be part of the doubtful but nevertheless ‘new’ brigade. Like many 60s songs about change and upheaval, it reminds us that once all the things we take for granted were equally new and pioneering ideas, accepted only by a few at first. Genuinely frightened by the image of a ‘bucket hanging clear to hell’ of he makes the wrong choice, Stephen’s struggles are difficult until he finally accepts what he knows in his heart to be true – queue a pained shriek and the Dead finally coming out of their counter-pointed jam to ram the point home with riff after riff in pointed unison. There’s even a twist – after waiting what seems like an eternity for others to embrace his beliefs, Stephen finds his views becoming accepted as the norm and soon he’s itching to break free of them once more. All together now, ‘Can you answer? Yes I can! But what would be an answer to the answer man?!’ Classic stuff. Live performances: 171
Elsewhere we get a bit of a mixed bag. ‘Dupree’s Diamond Blues’ divides Dead fans like few of their other songs – personally I find it irritating, with this nod to the 1920s and 30s full of all the smug tongue-in-cheek elements thankfully missing from the Dead’s other dabbles with period trappings on this album. Dupree was a real life criminal from 1921 who was notorious for the murders he committed while robbing a jewellery store – in the Dead’s eyes he did so simply to pass on his ill-gotten gains to his trinket-mad lover, though that probably wasn’t true! Hunter’s lyrics s lip a bit on this one, like most of his other Dead songs bar ‘Truckin’ that deal with real people rather than myths and legends, as no one comes out of this tale that sympathetically. Pigpen’s rooty-tooty organ playing is impressive but wrong, chirpily accompanying the scene of chaos in such a way that nobody comes out of this story too well. On the plus side, though, this is the one song hat sounds better in its re-mixed form compared to that of the original album, being much clearer and punchier. Live performances: 79
‘Rosemary’ is a fragment of a song, but none the worse for that fact. Most Dead songs of the period sound epics, but this is a subtle, understated song that seems to be deliberately hard to decipher (Garcia’s heavily Leslie speakered-vocals make the lyrics hard to decipher anyway, but even without they’re obtuse – even by Aoxomoxoa standards). This song does, however, contain the wonderful image of a beautiful garden decaying as it is gradually entrapped by four walls blocking out the sunlight that help it grow (I’m not brave enough, but somebody else really ought to tell Roger Waters that he wasn’t the first person to come up with the concept of ‘The Wall’!) Live performances: just once, before the album's release, on December 7th 1968
‘Doin’ That Rag’ is a half-successful return to epic status. On the plus side, this bouncy song has verve and guts a plenty despite the ridiculously convoluted time signatures and possesses a tune to die for. On the minus side, Hunter’s lyrics are a shade too obscure despite a neat tag explaining that music and singing – even while drowning – might just be enough to save us before its too late and Garcia sounds downright embarrassed singing them on the early part of the song. Like many a Dead song to come, this is a disguised ecological plea, wondering how the human race will pan out now that the 60s are here and ‘everybody’s doing that rag’ (albeit this is the late 60s, when the peace and love side of things was already on the turn) and whether groups like the Dead will be part of a great new tidal wave of social change or merely the court jesters of the 20th century? Live performances: 34
The album’s next classic is the delightful ballad ‘Mountains Of The Moon’. More Elizabethan imagery and the presence of a harpsichord would make this song sound like an uncomfortable spoof in lesser hands. But Garcia and Hunter are on stunning form here, with melody and lyrics complementing each other perfectly. Your guess about the mountains of the title are as good as mine (is this is a parallel group of earthlings on the moon who’ve only reached the Elizabethan stage? Orv is it, as many people have ret-conned, a reference to the exotic Ruwenzori Mountains at the border of Uganda and Zaire which are too known as the ‘mountains of the moon’?) But the rest of the lyrics deal with yet more images from our past, this time ancient Greece albeit, in typically Dead fashion, the story of saving and protecting the earth in our ancient past gets mixed up with an ecological plea from the future (hence the ‘moons’). As intricate and delicate as the Dead ever got (barring ‘Rosemary’; see below), Garcia’s subtly expressive vocal is one of the best in his canon and classicist composer Constanten’s playing augments the Dead’s jazz/jugband/blues/pop/rock and roll mixture better than ever before. The Dead are too often dismissed today as an un-listenable psychedelic band (The oldest music joke in history; ‘What does a Grateful Dead fan say when the drugs have worn off? My God, this band is terrible!’) Don’t believe it for a minute - play this to any disbeliever and see their heart melt from a hundred paces. Live performances: 10
As mentioned several times in the last couple of newsletters, ‘China Cat Sunflower’ is a delight. Like ‘I Am The Walrus’ in a happier mood, this is a swim through a stream of consciousness river full of such memorable and lasting images that its impossible to call this gibberish – it’s the colourful elements that are always in the world but very few of us take the time to notice and only occasionally speak to our subconscious. Or it’s a fun acid trip, whatever takes your fancy. Hunter’s lyrics are delightful, even if they’re a pain to sing as Mike surely agrees, and Garcia’s ‘liquid velvet’ improvised guitar runs are yet more evidence of what a fine and intuitive player he was. Weir’s chunky rhythm guitar and Lesh’s almost-conservative-by-his-standards, ridiculously-elaborate-for-anyone-else bass parts complement the mix of sounds well and the Dead turn in one of their better studio band performances on this one. (How did they ever get the reputation of being a poor studio band? After sitting through several of the dodgy live re-issues since the band’s demise in 1995 I’m convinced it should be the other way round, though please don’t remind me of that after playing the joys of ‘Live/Dead’ or ‘Europe ‘72’!) Live performances: a whopping 554
The worst track – I can’t quite bring myself to call it a ‘song’ – is ‘What Has Become Of The Baby’. I haven’t played this track in years because I always skip it - and its not got any better in the interim. All we have here is Garcia singing slowly a capella. Badly. With his voices treated by so many synthesised effects that you can’t tell what he’s singing. And when you do finally decipher them, you wish you hadn’t bothered. (they’re about death, basically, with earthlings reverting to childhood when they pass to new dimensions – but these lyrics aren’t even as interesting as that sentence makes them sound). No other group members are on this track (this album overall is dominated by Jerry more than any other Dead LP except, perhaps, ‘Workingman’s Dead’) and its an unusual and uncharacteristic slip in the Garcia-Hunter canon – there are a few more duff collaborations between them to go to be sure, but none of them end up on an album in the group’s lifetime. What has become of the baby? What has become of the Dead, more like. Live performances: None (although the Dead are rumoured to have played along to the recording during one sadly un-taped gig!)
The album then ends with the most traditional Dead-sounding number on the album, ‘Cosmic Charlie’. But whereas most Dead ensemble numbers sound like six or seven geniuses playing together at a 100 miles an hour, this one sounds like that kind of a Dead jam played back at slow speed. Despite spending a welcome five minutes analysing how the Dead’s sound ‘works’ (ie there isn’t as much going on to distract the ear as normal here), choosing this track to close the record makes it sound a bit of a damp squib. Lyrically, this is another Hunter lyrical piece discussing the social upheaval of the 60s that hangs imminently in the air (‘New things coming as the old ones go…things are moving on but much too slowly!) and contains plenty of good couplets (including an early reference to the band ‘truckin’ on’). The finale (where the hippies start by saying ‘how do you do?’ but all too soon hear those distressing magic words of stability and normality ‘go on home, your mother’s calling you!’) is especially strong and – at the risk of contradicting myself – on their own would make a fine farewell to the album. But somehow hearing a third song on this theme of ‘change’ within 35 or so minutes makes the whole thing seem tired when accompanied by the slow tempo despite its worth – and its distressing when as early as the third line of the song we get a hummed nonsense line to fill up space (‘dum de dum de dum de doo’). Yet if Cosmic Charlie falls flat on his face, it’s only by comparison to the Dead’s own higher standards, standards which are scattered liberally if not consistently throughout this album. ‘Aoxmoxoa’ isn’t as liberating as ‘Anthem Of the Sun’ or as melodic as ‘American Beauty’ or ‘Wake Of the Flood’, but it is exciting (in parts), inventive (in parts) and contains enough deadisms to let the newcomer know what the whole strange trip of the band is all about. Live performances: 43
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