Friday, 20 August 2010
♫ Hello folks and welcome to a more normal edition of ‘News, Views and Music’. Well, if you can call ‘normal’ a newsletter that features an album about the world being finely balanced on the back of a terrapin and features a top five round-up where Paul McCartney is dead and Pink Floyd wrote a soundtrack for a film 33 years old. The only real news we have for you this week is that we now have four youtube videos finished and online (although three of them are on by special invitation so far). Please help us out by giving us a good rating (if you like them of course, you may hate them – although chances are you wouldn’t have got this far with the site unless you shared some of the same humour as us writers!) - type ‘Alan’s Album Archives’ into a search engine to find them! All we can say is we fully expect to see website mascot Max The Singing Dog picking up an Oscar next year! There isn’t much AAA-group related news around at the moment, hence the rather shortened news section this week...
♫ Kinks News: A surprise in the BBC4 schedules last week was an hour’s compilation of Ray Davies’ Glastonbury show from the end of last month. Unusual not only in that we don’t often see Ray get a whole programme to himself these days, but also because it’s the first footage we’ve seen from the whole of Glastonbury this year – the beeb seem to have passed the festival over in its 40th anniversary year despite including programmes from many pretenders to the throne like the Isle of Wight and Womad. Alas, Ray’s still using the choir he insists on adding to all sorts of Kinks songs even when they palpably don’t fit, so half of the show was pretty much unlistenable for an old fan like me – and I’m still cross that I’ve waited all these years for Ray to revive the thrilling ‘Shangri-La’ and then he goes and hands over the arrangement to a bunch of bored looking backing singers. However, the rest was pretty good with some unusual choices thrown in, such as ‘Johnny Thunder’ from ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ (mentioned by Ray as being from recently deceased bassist Pete Quaife’s favourite album, although sadly he mentioned reading about that fact on the BBC news website rather than this website where I believe we were first to mention that fact!) and a rare performance of Ray’s solo ‘Workingman’s Cafe’ from 2006, which sounds a lot better live than it did on record. Ray also seems to have changed his backing band yet again from the era when I saw him live (2007), with an older and yet still unexpectedly noisy band behind him. The unexpected highlights were two songs dedicated to Pete – a moving version of ‘Days’ that Ray first started playing the week his old friend died (news and views passim) and a rare revival of the glorious ‘See My Friends’. Nice one Ray!
♫ Two anniversary sections for you this week. The first covers August 9-15th and in which we wish a big happy birthday and a slice of cake to AAA members: Mark Knopfler (guitarist, singer and pretty much everything with the Dire Straits 1979-93) who turns 61 on August 12th and David Crosby (singer and guitarist with The Byrds 1965-68 and with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young various dates between 1969 and present) who turns 69 on August 14th. Anniversaries of events include: Ready! Steady! Go! for perennial TV favourite Ready! Steady! Go! which premieres on August 9th 1963 and runs for three years and four months; the infamous Charlie Manson murders take place in Laurel Canyon, relevant to this site as Manson is a close friend of Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, quotes various songs from The Beatles’ White Album at the crime scenes and causes several AAA members living in California’s Laurel Canyon to emigrate elsewhere (August 9th 1969); Paul McCartney is arrested on his first ever drugs charge, several years after John and George, although conversations later suggest he actually carried the rap for wife Linda who is pregnant with daughter Stella at the time (August 10th 1972); the first of the annual Richmond Jazz Festivals takes place on August 11th 1963, with those well known jazz musos The, umm, Rolling Stones headlining; The Beatles announce the formation of Apple Records barely a week after first mentioning their plans for their new company – the first release is the band’s ‘Hey Jude’ (August 11th 1968); A tearful John Lennon gets as close to an apology as middle America will ever get over his ‘Beatles bigger than Jesus’ remarks (August 12th 1966); The now sadly forgotten ‘Festival Of Hope’ takes place, the first to be designed from the outset to raise money for charity (that decision came late in the day at Woodstock). Headlining are AAA men Jefferson Airplane (one of their last gigs) and Stephen Stills, but despite the talent on offer the fe4stival ends up making a loss (August 12th 1972); The Kinks’ first charting entry ‘You Really Got Me’ registers on the charts for the first time (August 13th 1964); Jefferson Airplane make their debut performance at San Francisco’s Matrix Club, a venue that just happens to be owned by vocalist Marty Balin (August 13th 1965); The Beatles play their record-breaking show at New York’s Shea Stadium, with 56,000 screaming fans –an attendance record that won’t be beaten until CSNY in 1974 (August 15th 1965); the first day of Woodstock, an anniversary we covered in detail a year ago in these very pages (August 15th 1969); George Harrison publishes the closest we’ve yet had to a Beatle autobiography, the frustratingly short and originally expensive ‘I Me Mine’ (August 15th 1980) and finally, Paul Simon plays to his biggest crowd for his ‘Concert In Central Park’ (August 15th 1991).
As for August 16-22nd, here’s to the candle-blowing members of the AAA: Carl Wayne (vocalist with The Hollies from 1999 to his death in 2003) who would have been 66 on August 18th. Anniversaries of events include The Beatles’ still mysterious sacking of their most popular member Pete Best and replacing him with...Ringo (think about that for a minute) who plays his first gig with the band two days later (August 16th 1962); The Beatles’ first performance in Hamburg at the Indra Club (August 17th 1960); The second of two records featuring Jagger, Richards, Lennon and McCartney from the summer of love is released – the Stones’ best single (as far as my tastes are concerned) ‘We Love You’ (August 18th 1967 – the other record is the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’); Mick Jagger accidentally hurts his hand in a pistol fight staged for the seemingly cursed movie ‘Ned Kelly’ (August 18th 1969); The Moody Blues begin their highest grossing UK tour, some nine years after their original split (August 18th 1981); The Beatles begin their first American tour, playing to much bigger crowds than they are used to in England (August 19th 1964); American radio station KNOW ban all Beatles tracks from the air after hearing that the ‘Sgt Peppers’ LP may contain drugs references – thankfully most of the other stations simply ban that LP (August 19th 1967); The Rolling Stones release one of their most famous songs ‘Satisfaction’ (August 20th 1965); Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham creates Immediate Records with The Small Faces, lured from Decca, one of their first signings (August 20th 1965); The Rolling Stones and 10cc co-headline a prestigious gig at London’s Knebworth (August 21st 1976) and finally, second Beatles film ‘Help!’ premieres in America (August 22nd 1965).
♫ It’s a conspiracy. Every time I try and write this article something seems to happen either to me or my computer, but I will not be stopped! Here are the five weirdest and wackiest AAA conspiracy theories – and no, I haven’t made them up (I don’t think even I have the imagination to thin k up some of the following...), they are all genuine theories out there on the net (we’ll even point you in the right direction in case you want to read more, as we can naturally only feature the very bare bones of each theory here). Oh and before I start getting knocked by conspiracy theorists out there, I’m one of you guys: I’m half convinced that we never really did get to the moon in 1969 (I’m even slightly convinced the moon is a hollow spaceship parked there by aliens on their way to create us artificially), I’m quite frightened by how plausible the evidence for 9/11 being an inside job seems to be (I can’t wait for the 30 years’ secrets act on that one) and there’s a part of me that will forever agree with the allegation that Princess Diana was murdered because she was about to denounce the Royal family as a bunch of reptilian aliens. Not because the evidence backs it up – simply because it would make so much sense over why we still have them at all. But of the following only the Brian Jones story seems to have any real basis in fact (and even then its probably less likely than the tragic accident all the Stones’ friends were expecting in the mid 60s anyway).
1) Codename: ‘Paul Is Dead’ (circa 1969), created and spread by American DJs. For the full story visit http://homepages.tesco.net/harbfamily/opd/index.html, which is a site as alarmingly detailed and comprehensive as our own.
As ever, the Beatles were the first – although in case they probably weren’t at all pleased at being the first group to have a conspiracy theory made up about them. The truth is that in November 1966 Paul McCartney had a rather bad accident and fell from a moped he had borrowed from his cousin, cutting his top lip and growing a moustache to cover the fact up (The Beatles being The Beatles they all followed suit in a staggering display of unity unheard of today). The rumour was that Paul had in fact been in a car, had stormed out of a Beatles session in a mood at 5am one night, picked up a hitch-hiker who after getting in the car recognised the driver and screamed, causing a collision with a yellow lorry. Paul, unable to get out the car, died in a fireball and Brian Epstein, afraid of how fans might react, paid off the policemen and kept the whole thing quiet. (Surprisingly, I’ve yet to read the idea that Brain Epstein was murdered to keep the secret quiet – although it has to be said his death was much more mysterious than any of these theories).
So who was that guy we saw from 1967 onwards? Well, at first there was nobody – hence the fact that The Beatles mysteriously stopped touring, for the first time ever used an illustrated sleeve on ‘Revolver’ (with a photo of Paul screaming, no less) and used a cut-out for the Sgt Peppers sleeve (Paul is in the same position on the rear sleeve, with his back to the camera). The band then got in a replacement, either Billy Shears (as per the mention in ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’) or William Campbell depending on who you believe (a William Campbell really did go missing from his job as an Ontario Police Department around 1966 and did look a bit like Paul so we’re told – hence the OPDept patch on Paul’s sleeve on the Peppers cover).
The Beatles, well practised in the art of leaving random messages for fans in their records, are then meant to have left over 300 clues on their records: the most famous is the Abbey Road cover which represents a graveyard, with Paul as a bare-footed corpse out of step with the others, George in scruffy denim jeans as a gravedigger, John in white as the preacher and Ringo in an unusually smart suit as chief mourner. The car numberplate of the ‘beetle’ behind reads LMW 28IF – a sure clear about McCartney’s age had he lived allegedly, although his true age in September 1967 when the album came out was 27. Other album clues include the ‘graveyard’ scene of Sgt Peppers, complete with several disturbing images such as Shiva the Destroyer (a result of George’s dalliance with Hinduism) and a left-handed bass guitar made out of floral wreaths.
Other clues include some ‘backmasking’ (hidden messages revealed when tracks are played backwards) which are extremely spooky I have to say, especially the ‘I buried Paul’ mumbled speech at the end of ‘I’m So Tired’ and the ‘Paul has no shoes’ hidden in ‘Blue Jay Way’. (But surely even the Beatles weren’t talented enough to make songs sound ‘normal’ when heard backwards – even psychedelic genius Syd Barrett couldn’t do it and boy did he try!)The infamous ‘walrus’ clue (John may have written ‘I Am The Walrus’, but often claimed it was Paul in songs like Glass Onion and a mention in the Magical Mystery Tour booklet) – walrus allegedly was an Eastern sign of death (as revealed to the Beatles in Rishikesh, perhaps?, although nothing I’ve read or heard about pre-1969 ever even mentions this – Lennon may seem to have chosen the animal at random but in fact got it from Lewis Carroll) and the most eerie of all, the ‘mafia’ sign of impending death with an open palm held over the citim. This is the clue that holds most sway for me as there are literally a dozen instances of it on Beatles records and photos including Revolver, Peppers and Yellow Submarine, not to mention four times in the Magical Mystery Tour booklet – and at no time is an open palm seen being held over John, George or Ringo. Oh and Lennon himself ‘admits’ to the conspiracy in his Paul-bashing song ‘How Do You Sleep?’, although that was just mischievous John being mischievous John.
The part where this theory falls down is the idea that the others calmly went on with the idea, never even hinting at it in the remaining 40 years and that John, as the remaining chief writer of the Beatles, ended up writing not just 90% of the Beatles songs from 1966 on but actually handed over most of the best ones to the mysterious new Paul to sing. Surely they’d have just made up the fact he’d got laryngitis and had run out of ideas would have been more believable, especially after Lennon’s domination of the group on records like ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (10 songs to Paul’s three). It’s also questionable who ended up writing the songs for McCartney’s solo career, especially after Lennon died, although those of you who’ve heard such awful albums as ‘Flaming Pie’ might well question whether Paul really is the same genius who came up with such pre-1966 classics as ‘All My Loving’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’. Overall, though, it’s a puzzle why this theory just won’t go away in the 41 years since it was first formed and how the creators of this epidemic got so many people to believe them in the first place...
2) Codename: ‘Lennon’s Assassination’, created and spread by various people including some fans after Lennon’s death in 1980, although at its peak since the arrival of the internet. I resent the use of the word ‘oldie’, but apart from that http://www.lovearth.net/tensecretstobecomingacatalystforworldtransformation.htm has a lot more info that may be of interest...
There’s something tremendously unsatisfying about the idea of a lone, random murder of a famous victim. Like JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Abraham Lincoln, Lennon has his own conspiracy theory, that speculates that far from being a lone, mentally ill killer Mark Chapman was a patsy hired by the FBI/CIA/government officials who were worried about remarks the great man might make. On the side of ‘evidence’, Lennon was genuinely troubled that someone was after him in those last few months of 1980, with many of his close friends remembering him telling them that he feared he wouldn’t live very long and that someone might ‘get him’. Now, Lennon’s intuition was spot-on in 1972 when he first moved to the USA and claimed his phone was being tapped and he was being followed by Government agents, afraid of his influence and anti-establishment friends. John was dismissed as being a paranoid rock star at the time but after the official 30 years’ secrets act released the documents in 2002 the world was astonished to see that it was Richard Nixon who was the paranoid one, even getting several men to infiltrate Lennon’s concerts that year dressed as hippies. Lennon, fighting for the green card that would allow him to stay in America after a minor drugs conviction saw him threatened with deportation several times, reportedly backed down from his political stance deliberately (or perhaps because of the poor sales of the political album ‘Some Time In New York City). Fans have speculated ever since that the sheer change in style between ‘New York’ and the toothless ‘Mind Games’ may have meant have Lennon was warned off with a much bigger threat than deportation (although 1973’s ‘Bring On The Lucie (And Freeda People)’ would hardly have gone down well in this context).
So who did give the commands to shoot Lennon? Even the conspiracy theorists don’t know, although names like George Bush senior and even, hurtfully and unbelievably, Yoko have been banded around. The claim is, though, that Mark Chapman – who was, after all, a Beatles fan – was brainwashed by some big and secret firm to murder Lennon. Chapman’s own statement claimed that he heard a voice telling him to ‘do it do it do it’ and a ‘dead silence in his brain’ before he shot the Beatle and he is said to have acted dazed and confused at the scene of the crime (very similar to Lee Harvey Oswald after JFK). In a little known twist, Chapman originally pleaded ‘not guilty’ to Lennon’s murder at first before a ‘little voice’ in his head told him to change his plea. As for the timing of the assassination, Lennon was barely two months out of retirement and the powers that be thought me might get back in touch with his old anti-establishment contacts. There is also evidence that the police took a particularly blaissez-faire attitude with the murder, questioning few witnesses or accepting that it was anything other than an open or shut case.
The downside of all this is that anyone who reads the full tragic statement made by Chapman can see that this was the work of a textbook mentally ill person. Chapman identified with Lennon early on in his life, seeing in him the strengths of courage and overcoming a difficult background to become important and influential. The only trouble is, Chapman never had the musical talent of Lennon and without a Paul, George Ringo or Brian Epstein to back up any talents found himself increasingly jealous rather than overwhelmed by his idol. The timing of his death is also given as an opposite reading of the above events – that far from being a revolutionary gun-toting star, in 1980 Lennon was praising house-husbandry and children. Chapman, far from ending a thorn in the side of the Government, shot Lennon partly because he felt betrayed by the man he’d looked up to for so long and feared that for low-income struggling nobodies like himself there really was no way out. Chapman, far from being brainwashed, knew exactly what he was doing – and after so many disappointments in life had turned his head upside-down truly believed that what he was doing was his most sensible course of action and almost ‘revenge’ for Lennon’s ‘betrayal’. Lennon, then, died out of jealousy and bitterness rather than Government orders, although you can bet your bottom dollar that somebody from the Government was keeping an eye on Lennon’s comeback, just in case he did pick up on old ways again...
3) Codename: ‘Brian Jones’ death’, 1969. Created and fanned by many Rolling Stones down the years, although the police files themselves reveal a great deal of ‘doubt’ over Brian’s cause of death. http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/celebrity/brian_jones/index.html has more...
For those who don’t know, founding Stone Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool at the home which formerly belonged to Winnie The Pooh author AA Milne on July 3rd 1969. Brian was well known for his liking for drugs and had indeed been kicked out of the Stones at the end of 1968 for being so far gone he was getting in their way of touring and recording. Add in the fact that Brian suffered from asthma quite badly and that as recently as 1967 a police report described him as ‘an extremely vulnerable young man’, prone to suicide if investigations were not handled carefully, and on paper you have an open and shut case of either tragic accident or equally tragic suicide. But in mid-1969 Brian was more than back on his feet, had pretty much denounced his drug past and was well on the way to finding his own feet as a musician again. Had Brian died in 1968 we may well have shrugged our heads and said ‘oh well’, but the Brian of 1969 was reported by many friends to be genuinely happy and back in control of his life again. Add in the fact that Brian’s asthma was more under control than it had been, the fact that there were no drugs and only a small quantity of alcohol in his body according to the inquest and that Brian was a champion swimmer, winning many medals in his youth, and things start to look a little weirder.
Things got truly strange earlier this decade when builder Frank Thorogood allegedly signed a deathbed confession that he had murdered Brian over a pay dispute. Even though police had rejected him as a suspect, the builder had indeed been there the day Brian died and had reportedly been seen rowing with him a few hours earlier, after a beam Thorogood had fixed had come crashing down from the scene and nearly hit Brian’s girlfriend Anna Walhin on the head. Brian was, understandably, furious and also disputed the amount of wages and accessories like groceries that he was paying the elder man, who reportedly didn’t take kindly to having a millionaire 27-year-old boss. Brian, thinking the matter had cleared, invited Thorogood into the pool later on that night, when he was allegedly murdered. Two witnesses are also said to have come forward later and reported seeing a man in ‘workman’s clothes’ holding somebody’s head under water.
It has to be said, though, that all the ‘clues’ for the murder have come forward retrospectively. The police felt that they had covered all possible ground in their investigation and certainly the other people there at the house that day treated Brian’s death as a tragic accident, not believing the rift between master and worker to be anything more than a slight disagreement. You also have to question the motives of the killer – whilst the more I learn about Brian’s lifelong tantrums the less I like him, I find it hard to believe that even Jones could taunt an employee into murder, especially a famous man whose death would be world news. If the story about the beam and money passing hands is true than Brian is also, arguably, in the right – any person employed solely for building work and is housed and fed on the premises should surely get a ticking off if his work is dangerous.
Brian himself seems to have thought he had made up with Thorogood, too, and he wasn’t stupid – he had one of the highest IQs of any AAA member in fact – there’s no way he’d have got into a pool with someone who had murder in his eyes. What seems more likely to me is that a still smarting Thorogood simply refused to hand Brian his asthma inhaler when the Stone had a sudden attack in the water, believing his namby-pamby employer was putting it on for sympathy. Afraid of the fallout from his act, Thorogood never mentioned this to police and, feeling guilty, carried the secret to his deathbed when he felt he ought to tell someone. That’s only speculation of course – the only person who knew the truth was Brian and he is unable to tell us – but there’s certainly something mysterious about the inconclusive nature of the case and the quite seriously reported confession, which even made the national news some 38 years after Brian’s death.
4) Codename: The CIA were Grateful to the Dead, 1965. Rumour first spread via the internet 1990s. http://www.shroomery.org/forums/showflat.php/Number/1467277 is the most comprehensive guide, although there are a couple of other listings out there...
Truly the weirdest conspiracy theory of all, right up there with the ‘Paul Is Dead’ one, is the idea that the revolutionary, counter-culture Dead were crted specifically by the CIA and FBI (no one agrees quite which) to draw attention away from the other truly revolutionary and anti-establishment bands which were really posing a threat to the powers-that-be in 1965.Sme fan gossip even has the Dead down as Satanists, simply on the back of the song ‘Friend Of the Devil’, although the theory with (comparative to the others) the most legs is that the Dead were a bunch of freemasonists who loved putting symbols into their music to brainwash fans.
For starters, the dead’s beloved skeleton symbol was actually a key freemason symbol stretching back years (the most famous Dead skeleton – the ‘steal your face’ logo – is also meant to come in the freemason’s favourite colours, allegedly). There’s also the (originally unreleased) song ‘Mason’s Children’, which was actually written about Charlie Manson but is such a deliberately vague song it certainly could be interpreted as a mason song with its strange images and tales of bricking the dead up in walls. The Dead’s early days with the ‘Merry Pranksters’ has also come under observation, as many of the pranksters allegedly seem to have US intelligence connections, not to mention the fact that the FBI seemed in a bit of a hurry to help the Dead when counterfeit copies of their 1973 LP ‘Wake Of The Flood’ went on sale or that the Dead are still the only band given permission to play at the site of the Egyptian pyramids, even though their anti-establishment reputation hardly makes them a front-running candidate. Perhaps most interesting theory of all is that despite numerous smaller busts and the pretty much common knowledge that they were all into drugs only fans got busted at Dead concerts, not the group themselves.
However, in reply, skeletons are surely an obvious image for a band named ‘Grateful Dead’ and the other supposedly ‘illuminati/new world’ images such as inverted triangles and eyeballs are hardly more common on Dead artwork than it is for other bands (you might also have noticed that we use a pyramid as a symbol for our site. I swear we have nothing to do with the illuminati and knew nothing about them till after stating the site. It was simply the nicest looking logo on clipart and one I thought was relevant as it resembled something long-standing with the power to pass on knowledge to future nameless generations from the past unchanged. As you can tell, I was in one of my pretentious moods when I chose it). It also seems pretty daft that either the tradition-loving and exclusive masonists are supposed to have secretly converted millions of fans to the cause over the years (even after owning all the albums and sitting my journalist exams in a freemason lodge, I still have no desire to become a member) or the pro-government agencies should have ‘created’ a band quite this anti-establishment and other-worldly (even if they were trying to create an extreme version of this to cover things up, they did it blooming successfully – why not create a ‘safer’ group like Herman’s Hermits or the Dave Clark Five? Or perhaps they did?...No only joking!) And why would musicians as clever and talented as the Dead agree when they surely stood a chance of success on their own? One to file under ‘not very likely’.
5) Codename: ‘Dark Side Of The Rainbow’ (1995-ish), reportedly first mentioned back in the 1970s but only really big since the 1990s, fanned by internet speculation and American DJs yet again. See http://www.turnmeondeadman.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17&Itemid=25 for the full list.
The Floyd only have themselves to blame. Not content with being one of the most impersonal and ‘faceless’, mysterious bands out there, the band crowned everything with a website that was set up to deliberately cause speculation over the cover artwork of the Floyd’s last album ‘The Division Bell’ (the band still claim not to have known EMI had set it up). But fans came up with a weirder idea – if you play the 1939 film ‘The Wizard Of oz’ at the same time you play the ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ album, you see one heck of an amazing synchronisation.
For instance: the opening black-and-white portion of the film ends at the exact same time as side one of the album; ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ lasts the exact length of the ‘tornado’ sequence, ebbing and flowing at the same rate; we hear ‘Brain Damage’ at the exact time the Scarecrow sings about wanting a brain; the track title ‘Time’ is highlighted during the opening credits for no apparent reason (although this one means the film makers were in on the act a full 33 years before the album was made...); the alarm bells of ‘Time’ ring out as the wicked Miss Gulch first appears on screen; the band kick into the line ‘home...home again’ as Dorothy tells us she wants to go home; most hilariously, the good witch of the North enters to the line ‘don’t give me that goody-good bullshit’; the closing heartbeat of the record coincides with Dorothy leaning in to listen to the Tin-Man’s empty chest and finally you could also consider that the ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ could be ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ or that the ‘dream’ Dorothy has is actually her ‘brain damage’ from the pressures of living as per the album (certainly, she’d not having a very nice time of it in the first half of the film). There are plenty more, but these are the ones that work best – and I couldn’t see any after putting the CD back on again after the 42 minutes were up as you’re supposedly meant to.
Well, I tried doing using this ‘new soundtrack’ a while ago and while some things did link up, particularly the ‘clues’ outlined above, an awful lot of ‘clues’ were tenuous at best. Surely the Floyd would have made a more obvious link had they meant us to view the record in this way, such as including a rainbow on the cover, not just a prism, or naming one of the band members ‘Toto’ or something. One hell of a lot of fans seem to have gone overboard for it, though, and to the best of my knowledge no other record or film combination has ever been given the time and dedication that this one has. There is, however, the sad fact that even the technologically-minded Floyd would have found it hard to synch up the music to the film given the technology of 1973 (the effect in their own films/soundtracks is a bit hit-and-miss) and certainly many of the ‘clues’ would suggest that the Oz film-makers were in on the conspiracy, which given that the film was made before any of the Floyd were born seems to be pushing it a bit. The only time the band themselves have ever commented on it is when an amused Nick Mason told reporters ‘we definitely never based the album on ‘Wizard Of Oz’ – we nicked it all from ‘The Sound Of Music’ instead’! So, this theory just seems a to be a bunch of ‘cosmic coincidences’ but who knows – perhaps somebody above planned it that way?...
Don’t have nightmares. Normal service will be resumed next week! (And if we’re not here, then you’ll know we really were onto something with this top five...)
'High Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead' is available to buy by clicking here!
Estimated Prophet/Samson And Delilah/Passenger/Dancing In The Streets/Sunrise/Terrapin Station
Grateful Dead “Terrapin Station” (1977)
"Let my reviewing-spiration flow, while I try to work out what you need to know, till things you've always heard won't sound familiar, shadows of reviews of future passed, till I discover myself in the past at last, down in Carlisle I loved an album many years ago...
I can't figure out if it's the Dead's ending or beginning, but the train's put its brakes on, soon the evil will be winning, all but the obvious hidden with nothing to believe in, but first there's Terrapin for good or ill , for good or ill again, some songs rise, some fall, some climb....
The compass always points to Terrapin"
I'm afraid this review will have to start with one of those personal bits you get from me every so often about a particular album. Instead of the usual straightforward gushing praise or a particular experience, however, it's more one of synchronicity - one of the Dead's favourite words, usually meaning the universe was sending them signals about them being in the right place at the right time. The Dead may never have played there and lyricist Robert Hunter may have got the idea from a traditional song named 'Lady With A Fan' that dates back to the Middle Ages (and is covered in traditional form by fellow AAA band Pentangle by the way), but I know the city of Carlisle (setting for the title track) very well indeed. By one of those synchronistically unlikely moves that nobody reading this will ever believe but happens to be true, I even bought this album from an excellent second-hand shop there during my first ever trip to the city (let me emphasise this wasn't a clever move on my part either but pot luck - this was only my second Dead LP and I knew nothing about this album until I got it home; there was no internet in them days to look it up on either remember). It's probably not stretching a point to say that this album, that second hand shop and the pull of both was responsible for me spending three years of my life at university there (although being a multicultural melting pot of English, Irish and Scottish roots, possessing an older more vivid history than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and a rather brilliant little college mainly full of first-class teachers along with a few wrong 'uns helped too). And yes it was very much like the song says - a series of trials set in a lion's den that are impossible to achieve, calling out vainly for inspiration for some essay that wouldn't come and finding myself stuck in a siding, that all sounds deeply familiar. Oh and 'sullen wings of fortune beat like rain' - Hunter got that right, especially the 'rain' part (it rains 90% of the time in Carlisle. The rest of the time it snows). The creepy thing about this is that neither he nor Jerry knew what they were writing - both were hit by inspiration at roughly the same time at opposite ends of America, with Hunter 'feeling' as if a song was coming and writing that opening invocation to his muse, Garcia writing the melody that fitted perfectly without a change at exactly the same time. If 'my' home city (and I still call that even though I haven't lived there for a decade) had been part of a song like 'Good Lovin' or 'Sugar Magnolia' I'd have left it at that - but 'Terrapin Station' is a frighteningly obtuse and complex suite that could mean nothing or everything and even for the Dead seems to exists on some existentialist plain that can only be tapped into by the sub-conscious. Are we all three (plus various Deadheads) really sitting there at Terrapin Station, waiting for our trains to take off into the other-worldly nether? Or did Hunter just happen to pick a love song about an impossible to please woman who demands much of her many suitors that merely by chance happened to have that setting (Carlisle's still full of them too, by the way). For the record, no I didn't see any terrapins there - but what if they were in hiding? What if it's waiting for me? What if I am the terrapin? (or am I a walrus?) What if it's you?
Erm, anyway, just a little something for you to ponder there. Obviously 'Terrapin Station' has an almighty pull over me for the above reasons, but I still can't fight the plain and simple fact that the band have gone a little backwards. Back in 1977 many Dead fans had already got off the bus. At the height of the punk the band had already been going 12 years, had lost one member tragically young and were about to lose another (RIP Pig and Keith). After returning from an 18 month hiatus with the pioneeringly jazzy, if occasionally unlistenable, album ‘Blues For Allah' and deciding to stick together to see what happened, the Dead seemed from here-on in unable to shake off the vanguard of being 'old school'. Things weren’t helped when this most spirited and wayward of bands, who had been firmly without a producer since giving Dave Hassinger a nervous breakdown in 1968, were saddled with producer Keith Olsen because record company Warner Brothers thought they had a better chance of getting a hit that way (they will do the same thing to George Harrison four years later and regret both moves). It's as if the Dead have swapped the beaten-up old 'bus' they've been riding since 'gettin on' during 'The Other One' for a souped up locomotive - still determinedly old fashioned and with mileage on the clock, but altogether slicker, speedier and less homespun. The older Dead would have fought tooth and nail, but in a changing climate with old bands' careers fading away and a new label to please the band simply rolled over and, well, played Dead, wrapping their distinctive sounds around a cleaner, more presentable sound. The production values of this album, whilst being very hop and contemporary by 1977 standards and not quite the travesty of later albums, is still wholly unsuitable and makes the Dead sound like extras on their album. For a start their two drummers relegated to simple rhythms, the bassist told to turn down and the shrieking harmonies of Donna Godchaux brought to the front. The fact that this album features just four original songs, only one of them a Hunter-Garcia collaboration unlike the heady days of 1970 when the band wrote three songs before breakfast, and you can see why this album has a mixed reputation. It deserves it too - while Bob's 'Etsimated Prophet', Phil's 'Passenger' and Donna's 'Sunrise' all have their moments the two covers songs 'Dancing In The Street' and 'Samson And Delilah' are amongst the worst ideas the band ever had. They even turn to disco for the former for terrapin's sake - and on a Motown classic too, is there no shame?
But – and you knew there was going to be a ‘but’ didn’t you? – that sidelong suite isn't just a long song to fill up a whole sixteen minutes; it's a gloriously ambitious exploration of the unknown, arguably the last great moment of ambition in the Dead's canon and easily their longest studio work. A twisting, suite that, even here in truncated and heavily over-produced form (Hunter wrote twice as many verses - these reflect merely the first half), still sounds like one of the writers’ deepest compositions and weaves a wonderful magical musical spell, even if it's possible to say definitively what the heck the song is actually about. The other three group originals are also amongst their composers’ best (with Donna’s song the surprise standout),even if none of them are quite in the same league. Unlike ‘Blues For Allah’ or this album’s successor ‘Shakedown Street’ there’s no obvious filler material in terms of originals, percussion-led instrumentals or Garcia-Hunter oddballs that are clearly there just to make up the numbers because the pair are running out of steam. Despite the often clinical and claustrophobic sound, which rather robs the band of their improvisational heights, the Dead sound good here, playing much more tightly than usual. Also, even though there are only six tracks in total, you get to hear the Dead tackle more styles than normal, from breathy ballads to Motown funk to one of the heaviest rockers the band ever did to the prog rock title track.
If the band tries a little too hard at times, that’s because in the new climate of 1977 they aren’t quite sure who they are anymore. It’s like the Stones on ‘Some Girls’, The Who on ‘Who Are You?’ or The Kinks on ‘Low Budget’, retracing their steps in the face of a new challenge to find out the music that first kick-started them on their voyage into the seas of rock. Only, this being the Dead, it’s first time they’ve been saddled with a producer (though there are more to come) and annoyingly he’s even less likely to let the band go all punk than they are likely to embrace the concept themselves, though 'Passenger' in particular offers a fascinating glimpse as to what the band might have sounded like 'doing a Stones'. Annoyingly the band also choose to go to the other extreme and fall into the 'disco' trap. Now there are times when this much-maligned genre can work. The Beach Boys, The Kinks and Stephen Stills all recorded superb disco songs, not coincidentally all of them marrying the composers' traditional styles with a harder unrelenting beat and coming up with lyrics about being swept away by something. In many ways the Dead should have been perfect for this new world of dancing - after all it's impossible to keep still at a Dead gig and a sizeable minority of their fans spent all their concerts dancing in the aisles anyway. However by contrast with their AAA brethren, the Dead simply revive an old Motown cover they never used to do that well anyway and stick a bit of a disco rhythm on it. The results are horrendous, right up there with 'Money Money' and 'Keep The Day Job' as the band's greatest lapse of taste. A second unforgivable slice of disco madness in 'Samson and Delilah' (which carries a 'traditional' credit but so should have been given the unique credit 'The Bible arr The Grateful Dead' for aesthetic purposes) compounds the misery: did no one really stop to think that this was wrong? So what we have on ‘Terrapin’ is, not for the first or last time on this site, a compromise. A couple of edgy performances that rock harder than ever before together with a couple of faceless pop covers and a side-long title track. This isn’t punk, then ('Terrapin' itself lasts half as long as The Sex Pistols' entire original output!), but nor did the band ignore the new sounds of 1976/77 – they just aren’t ready to embrace it.
Much of the discussion of this album has, understandably, been centred around the famous title track. A swooping Hunter-Garcia epic, it manages in typical style to sound as if it's a folk song from thousands of years ago and a contemporary parable about life in the then-modern world. We’d been crying out for the Dead to write another mammoth beast of a song ever since hearing the epics ‘Dark Star’ and ‘That’s The Other One’ and – the unlistenable ‘Blues For Allah’ suite aside – this is the first time Hunter and Garcia have written a clear ‘epic’ since the late 60s. However, skipping straight to ‘Terrapin Station’ does the other songs a disservice as each original is, in its own way, as impressive and layered as this song. ‘Estimated Prophet’ contains perhaps Bob Weir’s best set of lyrics together with a gulping, gasping tune that’s highly memorable, Phil Lesh gets the last of his occasional writing credits with the completely untypical rocker ‘Passenger’ and Donna Godchaux shines on her best ever moment for the Dead, the truly under-rated ‘Sunrise’. ‘Terrapin’ is almost her and husband Keith’s last stop with the Dead and that’s a shame because, while both members struggle to fit in with the early 70s-look band they really suit this poppier, more commercial late-70s feel.
I’ve always loved Keith’s playing, which has gone under-looked in the Dead canon surrounded by Pigpen, Tom Constanten and Brent Mydland’s contributions, but heard here Keith’s keyboards are at their flowing best. It took quite a time for Keith’s style to fit in with the rest of the Dead – who had, after all, been playing together for eight years before Pigpen’s death, but by the 1975-through 1979 period I feel Keith cracked it, balancing the more ramshackle elements of the rest of the Dead and giving Garcia room to breathe. What a tragedy it was that he died so young just after leaving the Dead, as if he’d lived he’d surely have made quite a stir with his own band or by joining another – after the Dead experience he could have fitted in with anybody! Wife Donna has always got a bad name with Dead fans, mainly because of her off-key wailing at Dead concerts where, it must be admitted, she has ruined one or two promising gigs (such as the Dead’s run of ‘farewell’ shows in 1974). But on record it’s another matter entirely – she’s a very positive vocal match for Bob Weir’s energetic lead and the duo’s duets are some of the high spots of the second half of the 70s run of Dead records. Her own lead on ‘Sunrise’ also promises greater things, although alas its one of only two songs and two lead vocals she ever gets to sing, and it’s an equal tragedy that Donna seems to have disappeared since leaving the band in 1979.
As for the rest of the band, they’re their usual dependable selves, albeit rather adrift in this new world of synthesisers and strings. Drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart are the worst casualties – the producer is plainly not used to working with two drummers at once and this record is much more thought-out and prepared than usual, not relying on the sort of second-sight the two drummers brought to earlier albums like ‘Live Dead’ and even the under-rated ‘Mars Hotel’. They still manage to cook up a storm on the scarier passages of ‘Terrapin’, however. Phil Lesh is equally perplexed at having his eccentric bass-fills curtailed for this record and it's a crying shame we don’t get to hear him sing on his own song ‘Passenger’ (it’s a shame his second contribution to the record, ‘Equinox’ never came out at the time either, as its the equal of the other tracks here and ‘terrapin’ is quite a short-running record). As mentioned, Garcia is a bit overshadowed here and –for the first time – is not the de facto leader of the band, even if his song is the longest here (albeit only around half the 16 minutes actually feature any vocals). Even his guitar playing sounds a bit subdued, with Jerry just as unsure of himself in this new setting as the others. That leaves it to rhythm guitarist Bob Weir to be the group’s new boss, in as much a band of wilfully disorganised misfits ever had a boss, and he serves his job well, belting out his lead vocals with genuine enthusiasm and driving the band on.
Usually we try and find a 'theme' in an album about now. Every so often I've had to admit defeat and say 'there isn't one', but those tend to be albums that clearly didn't have themes and are simply a collection of tracks pooled together to keep the record companies quiet. With 'Terrapin' it feels like there ought to be one, but the closest I can get is the feeling of being a 'journey' despite never quite making the destination or realising what those answers are. 'Estimated Prophet' is a fascinatingly obtuse song by Weir and Barlow about a 'message' coming through that the narrator clearly believes whole-heartedly but which he's too confused to explain and which nobody around him believes (that's why he's only an 'estimated' prophet, Bob not quite sure if he really has the truth at his finger-tips or not). 'Dancin' In The Streets' is, erm, a journey down the street (Ok this might not tally that well) - but note that the narrator does have a 'message calling out around the world', even if that message ultimately ends up being dancing. 'Passenger' finds the narrator trapped on a world's journey he never signed up to, his life passing by too fast (he starts the song finding empathy with a firefly and their short but bright existence). 'Samson and Delilah' re-tells the Biblical story of cutting off her heroes' hair where most of his strength lies, although the song stops before that revelation and simply follows him 'into the lion's den' (the same one as per Terrapin?) Samson, sure of his 'natural' strength, is this album's one lone confident character, sure of where his life is going and for once the listener knows more than him (clue: it's not pretty). 'Sunrise' is a song that asks questions about what happens next, the ghost of a close friend coming to Donna, 'his eyes as sharp as arrows' as if he's trying to tell her something about what comes next ('Terrapin Station' is the next stop on the record - is this deliberate, one wonders?) And as for 'Terrapin' well - quests that cannot be fulfilled, promises that cannot be kept and a story of heroic deeds that ends with the narrator lonely and frightened in a siding awaiting...something, this song is a journey alright, destination still unknown.
So, is 'Terrapin' a journey worth taking? Certainly the title track is - and I should know, I took it. 'Sunrise' too is a charming song, full of that Donna Godchaux goodness and easily here greatest moment with the band. Both songs could sit on my mythical 'Best of the Dead' compilation tape quite happily and tend to be the two songs I look out for from this period on the various 120-and-counting archive Dead concerts out there. The rest of the album, though, is less palatable, with a shoddy slick production that's doubly annoying after hearing the Dead embrace the new and unwieldy in 'Blues For Allah' (this album's opposite in so many ways - there it's the title suite that doesn't work and the shorter, compact songs and the production that do) that ruins even the title track (choirs and strings? On a Dead song? Producer Keith Olsen must have been smoking something stronger than the band...) The two cover songs are woeful, not just bland filler but truly ugly how-did-this-happen? mistakes you'd hope the Dead had worked past by this late in their careers. Clever as 'Estimated' and 'Passenger' are too, I've never found quite as much in them as my fellow Deadhead travellers - the first is a song more to admire than love, while the second only works in the context of the album; compared to most past Dead rockers it falls rather flat. In other words I can't decide whether 'Terrapin Station' is the last of the great Dead records or the start of the rubbish ones, can't figure out if it's the beginning of the end of the beginning. Meanwhile the train's put its brakes on the whistle is screaming...this just is Terrapin, for good or ill, for good or ill... again...
That’s Bobby you can hear on opening track ‘Estimated Prophet’. While I think songs like the summer sunhsiney ‘Sugar Magnolia’ and the gorgeous ‘Weather Report Suite’ have the edge on record, as a song ‘Prophet’ might be Weir’s best song of all. It was inspired by a type of fan that Weir noticed often at Dead gigs of the time, the sort of messiah figure who used to get doped up on drugs, get hidden ‘messages’ from the music and tell the audience about them (which is why we thought our top five might be of some relevance to this review, offering five possible revelations although only one of them is Dead-related and even the character in the song doesn’t sound mad enough to think of that!) Weir was tired of having his music drowned out by the explanations (sorry, Bob, as I’ve just realised I’m probably doing the same with this site) and decided to beat him to it with this song about a person whose convinced he’s about to be given a ‘vision’. The lyrics to this song are fascinating, especially the religious imagery in the second half of the song when the protagonist gets carried away and expects to see what’s in his head in the skies above him, but what makes this song stand out is the relationship between the words and music. At first the song is a very bass-heavy, stop-start kind of a song, firmly rooted to the ground, but as the character gets more and more visions the song takes off in a new direction, with the melody lines circling off into new directions. Alas, the only negative point about this opening song is the long drawn-out ending, filling up space where this album’s fine outtakes could have slotted in, and suggesting that the visions aren’t coming after all. While this song caused many a fan apoplexy after hearing it as a rough-and-ready rock song in concert, the stilted production values for once suit this song, whose whole point is that it should stand detached from us until the message takes over the messenger midway through. Overall, a brave stab at something different which works well, with Bobby rarely better than on this charismatic lead. Live Performances: 389
The cover of ‘Dancin’ In The Streets’ however, undoes all of the last track’s good work. Whereas ‘Prophet’ was new and involving, this tired re-tread of the old Motown standard sounds tired. Forgiving the band for dallying with a ‘modern’, almost disco sound is one thing – as we still get to hear some very Dead images and ideas – but hearing a cover done hundreds of times before in way that’s neither involving or exciting is something else. Bob and Donna take the lead on this song, but the key sounds unsuited to either of them, as if they’ve hit out on a compromise that makes Bobby sound too high and Donna too deep. The best part of the song is Garcia’s addition of a new guitar riff, which with its ever-busy scale runs up and down the keyboard do inject a bit of energy into the song, but it still would have sounded much better as the basis for a new song. The end project just makes you wonder what on earth the band were thinking – all the band’s ‘old’ fans would rather the Dead had turned this song into a truly Dead-like performance, while the band’s intended ‘new’ fans probably thought it odd that the band had revived a song even older than they collectively were to try to sound ‘modern’. The song sounded even worse in concert, where it was given a slowed-down reggae feel and seemed to go on for hours. In fact, at some concerts, it probably did, this being the Dead and all. Live Performances: 122
‘Passenger’ is much more lively, even though I probably the much less saturated-with-production, looser version on the ‘Dead Set’ live record. Like many of Phil Lesh’s songs, ‘Passenger’ is hard to follow, being more a collection of obscure and odd images than the ‘plot’ of other songs, but the clipped delivery and stream-of-consciousness of the words are again well suited to by an unexpected return to out and out rock and roll. However, there is a sort-of-story here which sounds like a 2:48 condensing of Gracia’s 16: 10 ‘Terrapin Station’, with its character a ‘passenger’ through life, learning about life with every stop he makes on his journey. In places the song sounds more like a David Crosby recording, being more a collection of questions asking what is going on rather than offering solutions, although the refrain ‘passenger can you see me?’ suggests that the song is being narrated by a messiah figure who, far from being all-seeing and all-knowing, only understands life from studying those around him. Most fans probably missed the lyrics anyway, shouted as they are, and instead simply latched onto the music which features a propelling beat and some unusually piercing guitar (presumably from Weir as it doesn’t sound much like Garcia). When the band did rock out, it was usually with a song heard in a completely different context – such as ‘Sugar Magnolia’ or ‘Friend Of The Devil’ which had started out as folk-rock ballads on album. This is the first real Dead song designed from the first to rock – and it does quite successfully. It’s also arguably what the album needs at this point, sandwiched between two rather weak covers. Live Performances: 100
The fact that the Dead have decided to set the 'Samson and Delilah' passage from the bible almost verbatim into music is less strange than it would be with many bands – as we’ve already seen in ‘Prophet’ a certain symbolism has always been common with the dead (see the top five below for more) and especially Robert Hunter’s lyrics adopt many bible passages for re-telling in the modern age. However ‘Samson and Delilah’ must rest as one of the dullest Dead recordings of all because it doesn’t have a modern twist to go with it and by the time you’ve heard the verse and chorus you haven’t even got the melody-line to keep you guessing. Bob Weir’s arrangement is, again, far too ‘modern’ ie late 70s for most Deadheads’ tastes back then and – what with Donna overshadowing Garcia in the backing vocals – a fan of the late 60s’ line-up would be hard pressed to recognise which band is playing at all. Only Garcia’s most characteristic guitar solo on the whole record catches the ear at all and even that’s only fleeting. A true shame that such a forward-looking record feels it has to look so far to the past for ideas and does both eras a huge disservice. Live Performances: 364
‘Sunrise’ is the album’s unheralded gem, a gorgeous ballads from Donna Godchaux which is thought to have been written for band associate Billy Graham, whose concert venues ‘The Fillmore East’ and ‘West’ the band regularly played for. If so, you have to wonder what husband Keith thought about all the sexual imagery in the song, although it’s his sensitive synthesiser work that brings out the best in the song. Chances are the song is more about re-incarnation, what with the ‘tree of life’ images and so on, with perhaps the charismatic Graham being seen as the latest in a long line of photogenic prophets. The song is quite a clever parallel between the prophets and seers of old, gathering together people looking for answers and the current generation turning to musicians, with the concert proprietor who was famous for getting the impossible done cast as the second Jesus. There’s also the classic line about charismatic anybodies: ‘when he’s gone, I want to know him better’. I hadn’t noticed before how keyed up this album is with ‘prophets’ by the way but there they are – telling us what’s in their head in ‘Estimated Prophet’, telling us bible parables in ‘Samson and Delilah’, asking where mankind is going in ‘Passenger’ and most famously setting tests for human subjects in ‘Terrapin Station’. Whatever the cause of the song, the tune is gorgeous, bubbling up from nothing to heights of great emotion and with stripped-down, very Haiku-like images in the lyrics. Donna also sings fantastically well on this song, far better than anywhere else on the Dead catalogue, stretching her vocals without over-taxing them as she so often did live. Garcia’s guitar aside, however, it doesn’t really sound much like The Dead, a fault of much of this record. The lyric reference to Graham as an Indian ‘shaman’, ‘cutting the air with a feather’ , is continued on the album’s rear sleeve where a Dead skull is decorated with a feather and roses. Live Performances: 30
Where to start with the 16 minute long title track 'Terrapin Station'? Well, how about telling you that this is merely a truncated version of what could have been, with Garcia selecting from literally dozens of sheets Hunter had hastily scribbled down. And let me follow that up that by telling you how this long track was created – with Bob Hunter, aware that his muse was thinking up something, writing the opening words ‘let my inspiration flow’ and watching on amazed as those pages after pages appeared in front of him, seemingly fully formed. Garcia, intrigued to hear what his writing partner was up to, looked on in amazement as the song naturally fitted a rhythm and melody he’d already concocted for a different, unfinished song, with only a modicum of alteration. It’s as if ‘Terrapin Station’ really was being passed on, prophet style, to the Dead for us fans to follow – especially given the trials and tribulation suffered by the characters within from which they learn and grow. Which brings me onto why this track has a special place in my heart. You see, its loosely based on a long forgotten English ballad, named ‘Lady With A Fan’ which is so obscure I’m impressed even English maniacs like Hunter and Garcia picked up on it. But this isn’t just a general English folk song, its set in Carlisle, the much-ignored, not-often-visited city that is the furthest north of England you can go before reaching Scotland, a city full of so much history that even the local Marks and Spencers carries a plaque on the wall telling us that King Charles I had his headquarters there during the Civil War and a place very dear to my heart. You see, I suffered my own trials and tribulations in Carlisle – endless trials that seemed to just add up one after another – and if ever live was testing me it was then (by comparison my current life of fighting off illness, arguing with job centres and writing 8000 odd words every week seems comparatively easy). I had the very striking record sleeve to ‘Terrapins’ on my wall for much of the three years I lived there and once I picked up on the word ‘Carlisle’ in this song, apparently for no reason (I never flipping knew about ‘lady with a fan’ and nobody I met in Carlisle had heard of it either) and I couldn’t help but think that Garcia and Hunter were trying to tell me something. Or, given the breakneck speed at which it was written, that somebody was trying to tell me something through them.
But needless to say I’m not the only fan to latch onto this song. Of all the post-‘retirement’ songs of 1974, with the possible exception of jerry’s fighting-back-from-coma song ‘Touch Of Grey’, ‘Terrapin’ is the song that’s probably struck the biggest chord with fans. Its the last time the Dead sound big and proud and all-knowing, the last time that they sound like they know just exactly where they’re going. That sound suits a song about characters fighting obstacles they can’t hope to understand, seemingly on the whim of a lady they’ve just met. The lady, with a fan no less, challenges those around her to fight for her love, telling them that she will look down on them if they refuse to take up the challenge. Before long, though, she’s been forgotten and the song moves on to a far more esoteric plot, with the light form a crescent moon promising that we will ‘be there soon’. There’s also the idea that the ‘terrapin station’ of the title’ is some kind of utopia, one that answers all our questions but is outside man’s understanding on earth – and yet our past knowledge of it from our previous lives means we keep pushing and searching for it while on earth. Or something like that, who knows – this is one of those songs so wonderfully vague and surreal it all but invites you to put your own interpretation on top - and I can guarantee that few fans will ever share the same ideas about this song. One thing that does seem likely, though, is that the title track refers to the old Buddhist principle that the Earth rests on the back of a terrapin’s back. Terrapins, like their close family turtles and tortoises, are very slow moving, hence the slow orbital movement that moves our planet out of alignment with the stars bit by bit and its sturdy shell is sometimes open to disturbances like earthquakes and volcanoes. It seems like nonsense to believe that now, but what better solution had the great thinkers of our past to go on back then? All those dots in the sky are all suns, each with their own planets, with the Earth just a forgotten and unimportant speck in the grand scheme of life? Bah! Don’t be silly! That seems to be the theme of the eerie ‘At A Siding’ section of the song, which has the narrator in a place ‘filled with darkness’, finding himself back on ‘terrapin’ again; the idea that there has to be order in life, even if its as daft as the world resting on a terrapin’s back. The juxtaposition of the archaic ‘terrapin’ with the modern word ‘station’ throughout also suggests that mankind’s quest is ongoing and that we are as unsure of our true path as our ancient ancestors were. Syd Barrett may have had the same idea with his solo song ‘Terrapin’ but then again, like parts of song, it could mean absolutely anything. Yet somehow, against all odds and after passing through a series of quite frightening percussion-dominated passages, the song ends triumphantly with the only choir to have appeared to date on a Dead record emphasising the major key riff rather than the questioning, unsure minor key riff.
Ah yes, the choir. There are fans who’ve heard everything the Dead ever did and tell me that until I’ve heard this song live, without the embellishments, I haven’t lived. Alas the only live version of ‘Terrapin’ I know is an early 90s reading from the ‘So Many Roads’ outtakes set and like many of the Dead’s early 90s material rambles rather than rolls on and passes you by rather than pounces. I certainly would like to hear it without the choir, however, as its pretty tasteless and bombastic, especially for such an ‘epic’ song that until the end does rather well by keeping itself on the straight and narrow, mainly courtesy of the two drummers who dominate the frantic second-half of the song. The string parts are more palatable, mainly because they’re ducked rather further down in the end mix, but I suspect the recording would still sound better without them there at all. Keith Olsen might have worked wonders with the Dead’s more polished and subdued catalogue, but a track like this needs finesse – and instead ends up sounding like Mantovani. It’s to the song’s credit, however, that the brilliance of the track shines through its trappings and for such a ‘wordy’ song, one that was clearly a poem set to music rather than a straightforward set of lyrics, it really moves along nicely. Jerry’s guitar parts show off all the tricks of the trade, sounding curious and naive at the start, sceptical by the middle section and downright scared by the end. The rest of the band seem to lose touch with the song somewhere about the middle – it would be hard not to with a song this long, after all – and it’s probably fair to say their visions for the song don’t match Jerry’s or Hunter’s. Jerry’s voice, too, sounds uncomfortably weak here, electronically treated in contrast to the Bob-and-Donna show loud and proud on the album’s first side. But I’ve yet to hear a bad Jerry Garcia vocal and despite the trappings this is another fine effort, moving from caution to headstrong passion to calamity with each verse. In all, ‘Terrapin Station’ might ramble, it might at sidings too long when it should be sauntering along briskly and it might well have run out of steam by the end. But for the most part it’s a staggeringly brilliant song, full of intriguing ideas and mystic insights that are open to all sorts of juicy interpretations and yet rarely gets boring despite its length and layers. If only the Dead had recorded this piece in a more straightforward way, if only verses had not been cut and if only the choir, string and brass arrangements could have been dropped this may well have been the best song of all. But even here, in bastardised form, its beauty shines through. I don’t know whether I ever did get the message during my time in Carlisle, no matter how many times I played this track to the background of my increasingly complicated life or how many times I stared at the terrapins on the cover, but I sure had a lot of fun guessing. And that’s the beauty of a classic song.
In case you were wondering, the 'missing' verses published by Hunter later in his 'Box Of Rain' collection of lyrics mainly extend the meteorological metaphors, with a long bit about the sun coming out and the narrator stumbling out of his 'siding' 'stumbling bereft of reason, faith and name, broken hearted blind and lame, slain by doubt mistaken trust, abandoned in the rain to rust'. Reflecting that the words we use for nature are not their 'real' names (but man-made monikers) Hunter then has the 'real' sound of nature come forth 'cast by a new moon through dense thought to an ancient tune'. Eventually all the darkness falls away and the sun shines, the final verse ending 'A long line to ride, a long black train, on a spiralling track, takes us back to Terrapin'. To date the Dead have never performed the rest of the verses but spin-off band 'Phil Lesh and Friends' did once in 2013 with Phil's son Brian setting the lyrics to music. Live Performances (of the oroginal 'Terrapin Station'): 302
Overall, then, Terrapin the album is a strange beast. Not many even half-satisfying albums have only six tracks – and yet having said that few albums cover as much ground as Terrapin Station does in one. The dated production means it doesn’t have the timeless feel of ‘American Beauty’, there is no real pioneering sound on here a la ‘Anthem Of The Sun’ and there are no classic singalongs like ‘Wake Of The Flood’. Like we said, many fans have hopped off the bus long before ‘Terrapin Station’ but its a shame that they did, because for all it’s faults this album is still one hell of a ride. I’m oh so glad my stop with the Dead came after Terrapin Station, to allow me to wander around one of the Dead’s most fascinating of all albums. I’ll have a return ticket please, again and again and again.