Monday 29 June 2015

The Beach Boys "MIU Album" (1978)

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The Beach Boys "MIU Album" (1978)

She's Got Rhythm/Come Go With Me/Hey Little Tomboy/Kona Coast/Peggy Sue/Wontcha Come Out Tonight?//Sweet Sunday/Belles Of Paris/Pitter Patter/My Diane/Match Point Of Our Love/Winds Of Change

"We'll ride out the storm just a little bit longer!"

The irony! 'MIU' is one of the most bitterly fought over AAA albums, made with a lot of bad blood and power struggles, with Brian Wilson bullied and blackmailed into working, which came close to splitting the band up for good...and it's named after  the 'Maharishi International University' in Iowa. A retreat intended for peace-loving people to access their inner peace and let all the petty squabbles of the world behind. A retreat that was meant to lessen the worries of the outside world, not magnify them. A retreat that only half The Beach Boys wanted to record in - but were forced to go along with anyway. Though oddly there's no mention at all of meditation on this record (unlike the last two Beach Boys albums '15 Big Ones' and 'Love You'), yes this bitter album really was recorded at the MIU across a few weeks in Spring 1978 (hence the name). Well sort of: Dennis was busy with his solo album and Carl refused to show up given the rows the band had been having across 1977 and the treatment of his brother Brian in particular, so actually only Mike Love, Al Jardine and a reluctant Brian Wilson turned up for work for a three-way album best described as 'odd'. For years now Mike had been talking about wanting to make a Beach Boys record based on their old formula of catchy songs and a return to the simpler way of writing and with Carl and Dennis' absence sensed the time was right to prove to the world that there was still life in The Beach Boys yet. To some extent the plan worked - 'Peggy Sue' was a minor hit on first release and 'Come Go With Me' the band's first top ten hit since 'Rock and Roll Music' in 1976 when released as the 'promo single' for the 'Ten Years Of Harmony' compilation in 1980. However it arguably came too late - all the fans of the early singles had left in droves long ago and longterm fans who'd stuck with the band thought the return to yesteryear after an, erm, interesting decade was a slap in the face with 'MIU' equalling Sunflower's achievement as lowest charting Beach Boys record in the States (both peaking at #151, weirdly). What was intended to be a mega success instead became an abject failure and one with major ructions for the group - it's their last album for second record label Reprise (whose sales really hurt the band's move to Caribou the following year), their last album with Mike and Al in charge (well, for now; Carl and Dennis call all the shots on the next album 'LA Light' and the two records after a sort-of democracy) and very nearly their last album period.

To this day many fans consider 'MIU' one of The Beach Boys' weaker moments - even with all that awful shlock still to come from the 1980s and 1990s. While I'd never make the claim that MIU is one of the better ones (no record with two quickly re-written and barely concealed Christmas songs, two rock and roll covers from the 1950s and the single most distasteful moment in The Beach Boys' canon could possibly be that) I've always been of the opinion that 'MIU' is another of those 'nearly' Beach Boys albums. You know the ones - the records like 'Carl and the Passions' and 'The Beach Boys Love You' where so much goes right in such a sweet low-key way that it's a shame that what goes wrong so colossally just overpowers everything. While Brian gets less to do than on the last two records and is by all accounts the most seriously ill he's ever been up to this point, some of his songs have that special Brian Wilson quirkiness and his lead vocals sound far less strained somehow. His trio of songs near the end of side two ('Pitter Patter' 'My Diane' and 'Matchpoint Of Our Love') are among his most severely under-rated, with Dennis' gruff cameo on the middle song a last great burst of Beach Boy grit and Brian's detached straight-faced vocal on the last of these three the most 'normal' Brian has sounded since the 1960s. A shame about the other nine songs of course...
The main trouble with 'MIU' isn't what happened at the end (when the last songs written for the album were actually pretty decent) but what happened at the beginning. Even though the eccentric album 'The Beach Boys Love You' hasn't been many people's ideas of a classic record, it did at least feature Brian Wilson in charge and with the option of recording what he wanted. Another album on the same lines was already close to being made (with at least nine songs recorded for the project) titled 'Adult Child' - and a typically bonkers and over-ambitious yet strangely sweet and compelling record it is too. With Brian's booze and drug intake at its peak and Dennis' recent solo album, the glorious 'Pacific Ocean Blues' semi-permanently on the hi-fi Brian pours himself into the record and comes up with a few autobiographical gems alongside the weirder stuff. 'Lines' isn't what you expect (it's a song about Brian's exercise routine - though admittedly a routine taken in an attempt to keep him off the drugs) but it's charmingly Brian, 'It's Trying To Say' - Brian's song for Dennis - is a glorious philosophical ode, Carl's 'Everybody's Trying To Say' is a marvellous update of the old Beach Boys sounds for a more adult age and Brian's take on the rat pack songbook with 'Still I Dream Of It' is heart-wrenching in the extreme. The only problem is 'Love You' didn't sell that well and Reprise are no longer patient enough for Brian to work out his problems whilst paying for his studio time. Instead Mike and Al take it upon themselves to scrap the entire moving, heartfelt, emotionally adult album - with the sole exception of the album's weakest track, the misogynistic 'Hey Little Tomboy', the one track where Brian working to his own rulebook is a problem not a solution - and instead decide to make a silly kid's Christmas album instead.

To be fair the festive version of 'MIU' (intended to be titled 'Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys' and often used as 'filler' on CD re-releases of 'The Beach Boys' Christmas') has its moments too. Dennis, still busy with his solo album but keen to add some festive cheer to the band, submits the achingly gorgeous if rather solemn 'Christmas Morning'; Brian's moody 'Winter Symphony' is his best vocal of the decade so far and the re-make of 1969's 'Loop De Loop Flip Flop' (here re-titled 'Santa's Got An Airplane') is fun, if unfocussed. Guess what? That's right - Reprise can't stand this album either and tell The Beach Boys to try again and be quick about it. Mike and Al sensibly decide to see what they can rescue rather than starting from scratch - and yet again rescue the wrong bleeding half of the record! Songs like 'Mekelakikimaka' and 'Belles Of Christmas' were too daft even for a festive album; re-worked into unconvincing pop songs about Hawaii and Paris respectively they became pointlessly shallow and gauche; the exact backwards past-it image The Beach Boys had done so well the past few years shedding. And that's not all - even after the recording sessions finally get underway a third time the band don't see fit to include 'Our Team', a silly pop song with the whole of the MIU students chanting along and a rare bit of unity with everyone but Dennis taking part (even Carl!) It's the single best song from these sessions not written by Brian (it's mainly by Al, with extras from a few other writers) and ended up being stuck in the vaults until being unearthed on the '30 Years Of Good Vibrations' set in 1993. Thankfully Brian's three new recordings made the album or this really would have been the Worst Beach Boys Album Ever.

 The problem, then, isn't just that MIU is misguided or rushed, but that it could have been so much more had the usual Beach Boy power struggles not come to a head whilst making it. Just picture how great an album might have been which contains the above songs all in one place alongside 'My Diane' 'Pitter Patter' and 'Matchpoint Of Our Love' - (the best since 'Holland', possibly 'Sunflower'). That would however left Mike and Al in a bit of a pickle - because despite effectively masterminding two records now it would have left them with very little to do on a record they'd put their all into. Until now they'd got out of their predicaments by relying on Brian to create the nuggets while they filled in the gaps - but the delay between records meant Reprise were getting impatient and they simply didn't have the time (instead Brian had taken the poor sales to 'Love You' - a record he invested a lot of time in - and the rejection of 'Adult Child' hard and was his usual unpredictable self in this period, eager to get working and fizzing with ideas on his good days and trapped against his better judgement offering nothing on his bad ones). For the first time ever Brian didn't get the sole producer credit - instead he got promoted to 'executive producer' while the album's real leaders (Al and band friend and occasional songwriter Ron Altbach) got the 'real' producer's credit below him. Circumstances and inter-band politics (Carl and Dennis were disgusted at the way Mike and Al always manipulated band arguments so that Brian 'agreed with them' and they became the 'majority') meant that the pair were dead against using either's material either (instead the pair get a single cameo each on a Brian Wilson song - Carl is wasted on the silly 'Our Sweet Loce' though thankfully Dennis' painful gruffness is the perfect fit for Brian's 'My Diane', a song that may well have been written by his elder brother in the same confessional style of his 'Pacific' record).

So, with Carl and Dennis unwilling to work and Brian largely unable, Mike and Al simply ploughed on, resisting the temptation to dig back into the vaults except for two Christmas songs they'd worked hard on and - bizarrely - Brian's 'Hey Little Tomboy' (perhaps the worst track recorded out of the three goes at this LP) and instead writing at speed. Only the pair of them aren't very good at writing at speed. Both Mike and Al are great writers when they feel truly inspired - songs like 'Sumahama' and 'Lady Lynda' from the next LP alone prove how talented both Love and Jardine are when they really feel passionately about something to say. But working at speed is something only Brian with his natural gifts managed to do successfully and it gave him something of a nervous breakdown; their decision to stuck religiously to the old-time formula of simple pop songs without much to say is the single worst decision of the album; not because they can't pull it off but because they can't pull it off at such speed.  Their contributions to the album return to the formula of the past alright, with their slick productions and anti-sceptic lyrics and melodies, but they lack the depth that a few extra weeks in the studios would have given them - or the sense of contrasts these songs might have had when set against the deeper songs taken from the last two abandoned records. Hearing Mike teach us Hawaiian or The Beach Boys rehashing sloppy covers of songs from their childhood was the sort of formula that only worked in the mid-1960s because we knew that the band were stretched past their limit anyway and the band was still charismatic and charming enough to (usually) get away with it as long as Brian still had time to write a classic or three per album. By removing themselves of everything else except that lucky 'last strike' of Brian Wilson compilations, Mike and Al have basically made one of those early Beach Boys albums padded out with filler, without even the hit singles to go with them (unless you seriously think that one of the all-time worst covers of 'Peggy Sue' and a so-similar-it-may-as-well-be-the-same cover of The Vikings' 'Come Go With Me' represent the band at their best). For three-quarters of this album 'MIU' is terrible, truly awful, like all the worst aspects of The Beach Boys stuck together in one place (clichéd lyrics, too-simple melodies and a production and performances that have no connection with any real emotion) - and yet I still like this album, both for the other quarter of unheralded Brian Wilson gems and the thought that this album could so easily have been a winner in different circumstances.

The record's flop status had a major shift in how The Beach Boys evolved - effectively proving to one half of the band that returning to the old commercial days was a bad move and the momentum shifting back to a patient Carl and a newly invigorated post-solo album Dennis for the far superior 'LA Light Album' which silences both Mike and Al to the same sort of token cameos they were given across this record, but on their own songs this time. To be fair, that record was a flop too however much occasional fans like me love it - which perhaps all proves a point: The Beach Boys work best when they're together (when they're, to use the words from an album outtake, 'for our team, yeah!') Mike's and Al's work can be extraordinary - but they have to mean it, have to have worked on it for years and have to show off their knack for writing catchy and accessible songs in the context of the overall Beach Boys sound. Carl and Dennis wrote some truly haunting. beautiful songs that are exactly what the band should have been doing for long-term fans like me who thought there was always more to this group than sun and surf and sand - and yet for most fans their songs sounded better when set next to Mike and Al's simpler, lighter material. As for Brian, if either faction of the band wanted him back anywhere near his best they had to live in harmony with each other as best they could, stop sulking and playing mind games and remember what a great heritage they carried around with them and what a privilege it was to be able to add to it, however low the sales were at the time. No wonder 'MIU' doesn't quite work - at times it's a wonder that it works as well as it does, especially with such misguided songs as the insulting French monologue 'Belles Of Paris' or the you're-not-pretty-enough 'Hey Little Tomboy', a shocking lapse in taste (the main difference between the halves of the band? Carl, for one,  had an instinct about what worked and - on his good days - the humility to go with the best idea in the room; Mike and Al seem to have had the policy of 'if we like it then the rest of the world will like it!' which isn't always the case; as writer Brian would normally be mainly to blame too - but how can he help it when his friend and cousin say 'yeah - more of that please and less emotionally powerful songs about how your heart is breaking please!') The fact that such a disjointed album made with such antipathy and dislike where the band clearly hadn't learnt a thing about how to live with each other and get the best out of each other was made in a place of peace and learning is hilarious. As is the presumably unintended pun in the credits ('Thankyou Maharishi for enabling us to record our album in an environment of love' - this love, of course, being of the Mike Love variety).

Not, of course, that we really knew what MIU stood for when the album first came out: the credit for the MIU Institute only comes in very small letters on the inner sleeve and the tacky cover (of a surfer at night) seems to have nothing to do with the title at all. Instead fans made up what they thought those initials stood for: 'Mildly Irritating Upstarts'? 'Mike's In-Charge, Ugh!'  'Majorly Incriminating Underachiever' 'Mocking Industry's Usurpers?' 'Messy, Inferior and Ugly?''Moping Is Unseemly?' 'My - It's Unlistenable!' 'Mekelakikimaka? I'm Unimpressed!' The biggest surprise of the record is that once 'Our Team' was removed there's absolutely nothing about peace or meditation on here. In fact there isn't really a 'theme' on this album at all (which must be a Beach Boys first - even 'Party' had a theme, even if it was only a 'how many potato chips can I fit in my mouth while upstaging my brother while he's trying to sing?' kind of a one). Instead we get everything with a geography that varies between France and Hawaii (which both sounds suspiciously similar), a philosophy that varies from returning to the safety of the past ('Sweet Sunday') to embracing the future ('Winds Of Change') and which takes in such demented subject matters as raindrops, tennis games and tomboys who'd look so much better with some lipstick on and a dress, oh yes they would honest set against heartbreak, betrayal and depression (and that's just 'My Diane'). I'd love to say that this scattershot album has a bit of everything deliberately or even that we're looking at the sort of clever 'lessons in contrast' going on in Simon and Garfunkel's 'Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme' (seriously, you can divide the whole album into pairs, based on class, different takes on love and poetry being both profound and silly) - except that I don't think we are. 'MIU' isn't an album that feels substantial enough to be doing anything by purpose - instead it's just the best that two men could do in a hurry with a record company breathing down their neck, a poorly cousin/friend who didn't want to be there and two other cousins/friends/enemies they'd rather record any mess over actually calling up and asking for help. Instead it only sounds substantial sometimes by accident and mainly thanks to putting those three great Brian Wilson songs together near the end. Perhaps the most telling thing about it is how the various Beach Boys remembered it afterwards: for Mike it didn't do very well because it was 'too democratic'; for Dennis it was a 'an embarrassment to my life, it should self-destruct!' and when asked about the record in the 1990s Brian couldn't remember anything about making it at all! Divisive yet too bland to remember - that rather says it all.

Is a record worth buying for three songs? Well, that's up to you, but given that the only CD version on catalogue comes with the much nicer 'L A Light Album' (a record every Beach Boys fan should own - in fact the last album, chronologically speaking, that Beach Boys fans should own) then I'd say yes. After all, 'Tomboy' 'Paris' and 'Kona Coast' nothing here is too awful - just ordinary by The Beach Boys' very high standards. After all, how many times will you feel the need to play Al Jardine sleep-singing his way through drippy ballad 'Winds Of Change'? To dig out 'Mekelekikimaka' because at least on a Christmas record the sort of patronising terminology heard on 'Kona Coast' makes some kind of warped sense? Or listen to 'Peggy Sue' without feeling the urge to put the superior original on instead? All Beach Boys have something though - something you need - and this record is no exception, with Brian sounding much perkier and much more himself in this more old-fashioned world of non-synths and half-block-Beach-Boys-harmonies than he did on 'Love You' (even if the songs aren't as good - or at least a lot more safe and 'normal' rather than 'unique if a bit bonkers'). The covers may be bland - but they're not as bad as on '15 Big Ones'. The band may be fractious - but you can still hear more of The Beach Boys sound here than on 'Love You'. The writing may be disappointing - but Brian's on good form, which automatically gives this record a star rating higher than the 1980s records. For all of these reasons 'MIU' is better than the  'That's Why God Made The Radio' album everyone fell over themselves to praise at least - even if a lot of this review just seems like a wrong list of excuses without many actual things here to enjoy purely on their own merit. Things will, thankfully, get better - though after that they'll get a lot, lot worse than this... More In (a) Unisecond...

'She's Got Rhythm' sums up the album nicely - spirited, but a little shrill and woefully repetitive. Still, the chance to hear Brian Wilson actually sounding happy for a change and back singing to somewhere approaching his natural higher register once more is a welcome one and if you squint your ears really hard this could just be The Beach Boys of old. Interestingly the lyrics may be a sequel of sorts to 'Good Vibrations', with Brian as a dating teenager sensing that a certain girl he hasn't met yet has a certain 'rhythm' about her that resonates with his. Brian's joy is counterpointed by Mike's sour-faced verse, though, as he narrates the simple facts as his cousin gets madly carried away and sounding like the voice of doom ('The place was near closing - I offered to take her home!') Mike and Al do a good job at trying to sound like a full complement of Beach Boys in the backing, but the melody doesn't really go anywhere and you've kinda learnt all the tricks going in this simple song by the first minute.

'Come Go With Me' reveals Al's strong belief that The Beach Boys can find unity and strength by returning to the past and the music that inspired the band the first time round. This cover of The Del Vikings' song by Clarence Quick was a #4 hit in 1957 - the perfect timing for The Beach Boys' childhoods - and in many ways this is the perfect Beach Boys cover with lots of space for their doo-wop and rock and roll strengths and lots of space for Mike and Al to cross over lines. Certainly enough fans liked it to make it the band's last big pre-Kokomo hit when released as a single in 1980. However like 'Rock and Roll Music' 'Peggy Sue' and dozens of other Al-led cover songs, it all falls slightly flat. There's nothing really here that wasn't done better on the original and it all sounds slightly false and distant somehow, as if neither of the two leads either know or care what they're singing. Worryingly, there doesn't seem to be a sound of Brian here either, although that does sound like Carl cropping up on the group chorus this time. Well, it's better than a good half of '15 Big Ones' but I can't say I particularly wanna come go with the band based on this song.

There is perhaps a little too much Brian on 'Hey Little Tomboy', the single worst song to be revived from 'Adult Child' and responsible for putting so many fans off the 1977 recorded bootleg for so many years (honestly, the rest isn't like this misguided song at all). Carl is back long enough to add an enthusiastic vocal but Brian sounds awfully gruff. As for the lyrics: yuck! This narrator reckons a girl could be pretty if only she stopped acting like a boy - and feels far too smug with himself for giving her the time of day. 'I smell perfume, I like jeans, so many changes I see!' sings an oddly lecherous Brian without any thought given over to what the girl might want (she's clearly chosen that lifestyle for a reason - probably because she keeps getting too much attention from bozos like the narrator who should know better!) On the plus side this 1978 remix loses the appalling middle eight when The Beach Boys stand around ad libbing all the changes they're going to make and is much sharper all round, with more for Mike and Carl to do besides Brian. But dear God those words - why did nobody step in and stop this travesty? The long lost cousin of 'Dressed Up For School' (Ooh what a turn on!) 'Tomboy' is a rather unfortunate example of what five middle-aged men trying to sound like teenagers can come up with unedited and the results aren't pretty. Frustratingly, 'Tomboy' is easily the most exciting song on the album, the one track here that sounds as if it was put together in Brian's beloved 'sections' instead of traced directly from slot A to slot B. Few other songs go in so many different directions in a mere 150 seconds, but without a Tony Asher or Van Dyke Parks Brian badly lacks the creative voice to make the most of his inspiration and instead turns to what's on his mind - an uglier re-write of 'Caroline, No' but this time with really short hair!

'Kona Coast' or 'Mekelekikikamaka' to you is next! - no I'm not swearing, that's what this song was originally called when intended for 'Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys' where for reasons best known to himself Mike Love decided to teach us how to say 'Merry Christmas' in Hawaiian. Funnily enough, I've never had to use that nugget of information yet. No instead I'm saving my swearing for this pale re-tread of sixties song 'Hawaii' which was re-written in su8ch a hurry that half the lyrics don't rhyme and lines just drift off into nothing... There are so many mysteries surrounding this seemingly simple song: why is surfing in Hawaii Mike's 'Captain Cook Moment'? (Seeing as I've just come here from the Dr Who story 'The Greatest Show In The Galaxy' in which Captain Cook turns out to be a werewolf perhaps I can see it now actually...) Why add in the line 'The Great Pacific Ocean Expanded' - even if it has (geologically doubtful) it certainly hasn't since Mike first went there a few years earlier, so why tell us? Why is Phil Spector of all people 'wishing us a friendly 'Aloha' - (since when did Phil Spector wish anybody a happy anything, least of all his rivals in The Beach Boys?!) Why did Mike think rhyming 'Mecca' and 'You Betcha!' was a good idea? It's almost as if this song was being made up on the spot (close: it was badly re-worded from the original with all the Christmas references moved, with as little re-writing as possible...) Mike Love gets a lot of stick from fans but at his best he's a terrific lyricist: his simple words for 'California Girls' say so much in such little space and as recently as 'Holland' he's been writing odes to America that are hauntingly beautiful. But this is rubbish that even a beginner wouldn't get away with. The rest of the band sound suitably bored, trying to re-create a sort of bad karaoke Beach Boys that sounds far less convincing than on the rest of the album. This song is a struggle to sit through in either version, but at least the Christmas recoding has spirit (of a sort) - this re-make is just stupid.

Another Christmas leftover, funnily enough, was 'Peggy Sue' - or to be more accurate the yule-tidied version 'Christmas Time Is Here Again' (same tune, but with some atrocious new Al Jardine lyrics that would have made Buddy Holly's glasses fall off in shame). As heard here, 'Peggy Sue' is lively enough, with an Al Jardine vocal bordering on hysterical and as a backing track this is one of the most inventive here, with a few flying guitar riffs (probably Ed Carter rather than Carl), a synth part that unusually starts this happy song in the minor key and a walking bass that keeps momentum going. Carl's there for the backing too, briefly, with a better-than-average attempt at some block Beach Boys harmonies on the chorus. However, there's no getting away from it: this is a messy, rushed, confused affair with everything that made the original so popular (Buddy's enthusiasm, his character-making vocal 'hiccups', the sheer newness of hearing a song like this) distinctly missing. How this song made it even as far up the charts as the low 50s in America I'll never know - almost every other cover of this much-heard song has more to offer than this one, which is plainly here just to fill up another two minutes of the record.

'Wontcha Come Out Tonight' has, given the album it's sitting in, more flashes of genius than most. There's a pretty tune here with Brian back to his natural instinctive best and it's switches of pace from sighing longing to tortured waiting is well handled. Mike is quick to pick up on this in the lyric and turns in his best on the album, underplaying the song for once with a dreamy, hazy feel about a wonderful night that's ending all too quickly. However the track certainly doesn't sound as if the Beach Boys are having a wonderful time - instead everyone sounds bored out of their skulls, as if this is take 233 and all of them have gone right off this song. Brian comes as close to sleep-singing as he ever has and clearly doesn't want to be there; but a double-tracked Mike is right there with him, sighing his way through his own lyric. The chorus of block Beach Boys vocals is stapled on badly at the beginning  and end too, jolting the listener out of the reverence into a party atmosphere that just doesn't fit. Many post-sixties Beach Boys recordings are lost opportunities (some of those eighties recordings would have been really good had they not sounded so much like eighties recordings), but few mess up a semi-promising song quite as clumsily as this one does. Frustrating.

Hurrah, Carl's back! 'Sweet Sunday' (listed as 'Sweet Sunday Kind Of Love' on the label but not the sleeve) is to be honest another atrocious song with Brian and Mike returning a bit too blatantly to the old formula: a cosy night in during an early part of a teenage romance before reality has set in just yet and with a lyric that recalls 'And Your Dreams Come True'. However Carl's vocal is committed, however daft it is, and it's suddenly as if the whole album has gone up a gear. Brian may well have written the song especially for his younger brother as it plays to a lot of his strengths: quiet intimacy and cosy romanticism. In many ways its like the 'crooning' song Brian got Carl to record for 'Adult Child', but the younger Wilson shows a bit more restraint here doing just as little as he can get away with. The middle eight is especially striking, as Carl's vocal steps 'forward', rising little bit by little bit as The Beach Boys' harmonies gradually fall - hinting that the impossible dream of the narrator he's waited so long for is finally within reach at last. It's a special moment on a less than special LP, even if, out of context, you'd never really give this sweet yet simple song the time of day.

'Bells Of Paris' is another disaster area. Not content with insulting the people of Hawaii, Mike turns his sights on the French with a clichéd, patronising lyric that features some of the worst rhymes of his career, not unlike William McGonagal's obscenely bad attempts at poetry ('Pitch a penny in her like a wishing well, feed the pigeons in the park near the Tour Eifelle' - erm, I think you'll find its London that has the pigeons, Paris has, umm, French Hens or something). Even if you didn't know it would be easy to tell that this song too came from the aborted festive album where it was originally titled 'Bells of Christmas'. You can almost picture the band thinking to themselves 'Hmm, what else has Bells? Jester's hats? Cats? Noddy? Aha Paris - that'll do!' That's it - there's no insight into the inner workings of Paris here and even as a travelogue there's nothing here to go on - it's a surprise, actually, to learn, that yes The Beach Boys really did come here on their 1968/69 European tour. Something tells me Mike was back at the hotel when the others were sightseeing however as this lyric is hopeless. Again, though, the melody isn't bad and you can see why the band would want to revive it after the Christmas album was rejected. But what a shame they didn't simply junk the 'bells' idea and write a completely new song to go with the track (you can't even hear the bells properly on this album mix!)

At last, just when you're giving up all hope and wondering when the torture will be over and inwardly promising never to be rude to The Spice Girls again if only the album would stop, in comes a run of better, nay excellent, nay superb, nay brilliant songs that only The Beach Boys could have made. Mike and Al gets co-credits on 'Pitter Patter' but this is obviously a Brian Wilson song that picks up on their old rivals The Beatles' take that 'rain or shine is just a state of mind'. The narrator has been waiting for the rain to fall for hours and finally it arrives in a tumultuous storm of thunder and lightning. Brian's take on this (and surely its his lyric - it's so Brian) is that he was looking forward to the rain because it will be quicker getting to the point where it stops and things are back to normal: it could be that Brian was genuinely weather-watching or that he meant this as a comment on the arguments and divisions within The Beach Boys. His enthusiasm is infectious and for once Mike and Al join right in with a delightful vocal which they patter back and forth like a tennis match (more on that story later...) Brian adds that rain helps crops grow and new seed to form and adds the comforting thought that 'when it rains the ways of love rise in  my heart'. Well, they are The Beach Boys after all and if you can't be by the sea then rain is the next best thing. The song also offers the 'theme' of this record (in as much as a scatterbrained record like this one has a 'theme'): ''Let's weather the storm just a little bit longer'. The daft 'pitter patter' harmony vocals were born for Mike to sing and do a good job of mimicking the random-yet-full-of-patterns sound of rainfall on a window-pane. Not as deep as some Beach Boys classic, but one of their very best 'simple songs' that nobody knows yet everyone should.

'My Diane' is better yet, a haunting Brian song that despite appearances was surely written for wife Marilyn Revell. Brian was very close to all three Revell sisters for a time and actually dated Marilyn's younger sibling Diane first - Brian recalling with horror in his 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' autobiog the night he accidentally called his wife by her sister's name. The truth is c learly too painful to sing, which is why Brian substitutes the name change and hands this song over to Dennis to sing. The middle Wilson brother is perfect casting for this slow-burning torturous ballad - so in keeping with his own material for 'Pacific Ocean Blue' and at the time this album was being made the soon-to-be-abandoned 'Bambuu'. In truth, by 1978 Dennis is a better writer: he's found a way of plugging into his demons and his past and admitting his guilt without it torturing him the same way it does Brian: 'Pacific Ocean Blues' almost comes with a big sign saying 'I'm sorry - but this is the way I am and I can't change it, why should I?' Brian just repeats 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm so so sorry', like Nick Clegg having a youtube enhanced breakdown (Ha! This is the last possible moment anyone reading this will remember who Nick Clegg is...) Brian will stay married to Marilyn for several years yet, but this is generally recognised as the point at which both give up all attempts ate repairing their marriage and simply live different lives in the same house. Brian is clearly less than happy with the arrangement: memories haunt him, night and day and he wonders whether his ex's detachment - so different to his own breaking heart - is good acting or whether she's 'forgotten' him already. 'Did you think that you were chained down and now that you are free...' the third verse leaves off, the question hanging unfinsihed in mid-air before Dennis returns to his repeated wail 'Everything is wrong and nothing is right, I want you back with all of my might...' Simple this song might be, in common with so many other 1970s Brian Wilson songs, but it's clearly a 'simple' of a quite different sort to what Mike and Al are writing: this is a diluted version of a pain that's almost impossible to sing about and Dennis, tapping into his brother's pain after more than  one heartbreak of his own, does the song real justice. The haunting Beach Boys harmonies are also the single best on the album, doing the opposite of what they usually do, sounding claustrophobic and depressed and as if this is the end of the world, the antithesis of the teenage dates we started with. had it not been for 'La Light' to come this would easily be the best Beach Boys album of the post-Holland 1970s, moving, real and poetic - three words you can't use to talk about any other song on this album.

'Matchpoint Of Our Love', for instance, is Brian's sillier take on his rapidly failing marriage. A comedy song sung straight - and sounding not unlike 10cc in the process - this is a disco-fied song about, erm, a tennis match. The last ball is about to be served after a lifetime of slanging matches that have been bitterly contested since the narrator and his girlfriend got together. Brian recalls how 'early in the game you broke me - just like a serve', sighs that 'we should have both walked off the court' and that even 'volleying with small talk' wouldn't put things right or delay the points served against him. 'Love is still the only game in town' Brian sings, perhaps punning on his cousin's name and the 'love' score in tennis and you could easily imagine an outtake of this silly song where Brian is singing this all in his madcap 'grinch' voice (see 1974 single 'Child Of Winter'). However the yearning, achingly beautiful middle eight makes it clear that beneath the tennis gags there's a real point to be made in this song: the sudden switch from the slow shuffle dejectedly making its way round the court to the golden, certain, hopeful narrator of the past ('No one ever held me the way you did') is a real moment of Brian Wilson magic, righting the song just when it seemed destined to sink. Alas the moment won't last, but it's magical while it's there. Yep, even when writing comedy songs about sports Brian can write a deeper song than Mike or Al trying to be serious!

Talking of which 'Winds Of Change' is a most peculiar closing number. It's an Al Jardine-Ron Altbach collaboration that tries hard to be a classic Beach Boys ballad (indeed, it's not unlike the ones Brian's been writing the past decade for his solo albums and 'That's Why God Made The Radio'). However after so much 'real' emotion it sounds more fake then ever, an off-putting treacly orchestra wrapping its way round a nursery-rhyme style melody and some soppy lyrics about everything being ok soon, honest, that's schmaltzy in the extreme. Along the way Al imagines himself as a lighthouse 'shining a light for the whole world to see' , finding 'something special in this quiet dawn' and telling us that 'the clouds have lifted, the storms have passed'. Yeah, right - The Beach Boys were never at war as hard as they were when they regrouped the following year for 'L A Light' (an album largely made in private, with only Carl there with everybody else) and the vocals of both Al and Mike sound less than convinced. And yet there's another goose-pimple Beach Boys moment when the band reprise the finale of 'When I Grow Up To Be A Man' from the position of being older, telling us sadly that 'it won't last forever' with a beautiful final 'round' that could have come from any of their past classic albums.

That's 'MIU' in a nutshell then: most of its awful, but there's just enough moments of brilliance to keep you going to the bitter end. It's a good album for Brian, actually, who with less pressure to come up with a whole album of songs and with a few years of laying off the cigarettes helping his voice at least sounds more like the Brian Wilson we all loved from the past - however horrendous his personal life still was at this point. For everyone else, though, it's a salutary lesson that The Beach Boys are doomed when they try to work in 'packs' - the strongest records post-Brian as the be all and end all of The Beach Boys are the ones like 'Sunflower' and 'Holland' and even 'L A Light' where the whole band are pulling together and giving their best, covering each other's strengths and weaknesses. Both Al and Mike have great instinctive ears for catchy chords and simple pop, but they need the depth of their bandmates to counteract this (Mike especially is always at his best making other people's work glimmer with that little something extra rather than coming up with stuff from scratch). 'MIU' is a funny old record - no album made at a Maharishi meditation retreat should ever had come up with a song as worldly and sexist as 'Hey Little Tomboy' and three barely rehashed Christmas songs is a stupid move, even for such a rushed album. However, at other times 'MIU' can take your breath away with how much it gets right - how powerful even a half-Beach Boys sound can still be and how this band still have a power like no other when the material brings out the best in all of them. MIU? Much MIs-Understood, if frequently Misguided, Inadequate and Unlistenable with Moments of Indefinable Understanding.

 Other Beach Boys related articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

Grateful Dead: Official Live/Solo/Compilation Albums/One-Off Albums Part Two 1978-2011

'High Time - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Grateful Dead' is available to buy now by clicking here!

Bob Weir "Heaven Help The Fool"

(Arista, January 1978)

Bombs Away/Easy To Slip/Salt Lake City/Shades Of Grey//Heaven Help The Fool/This Time Forever/I'll Be Doggone/Wrong Way Feelin'

"There's trouble on your painted lips"

After truckin' along generally without incident or accident, the Dead's bus started to come off its wheels in the Autumn of 1977. The first casualty was Mickey, who badly injured his arm in a car crash and was left unable to play for quite a few months at the end of the year. Most of the band greeted the enforced rest with a sigh of relief (they'd been touring heavily for eighteen months by this time) but Bob had been especially fired up after the band's return in 1976 and was on something of a creative roll. As Garcia slowed down, he found his own creative muse flowing stronger, but he had a problem - the band were never going to re-model themselves round him the way they had around Jerry and he simply had too many songs that weren't really suitable to the Dead stage. Instead of taking a break like the others, Bob entered the studio to record his latest crop of songs (most of them written with old friend John Barlow) and recorded this album quickly, without any other input from the Dead, only his second solo album and his first in six years. In many ways it's a surprise there wasn't more - especially during the 'gap' of 1975/76 - as Bob has always enjoyed working with other musicians just as much as Jerry ('Kingfish' was the closest he came to a second record of course but there are really only two Weir songs on that album).

The results, though, surprised many who hadn't quite realised that the overt commercial sheen of the late 70s hadn't come entirely from the new producers Arista were making the band work with (this album, like 'Terrapin', was produced by Keith Olsen). Slick, crafted, well made yet ever so slightly forgettable, there's nothing as lasting here as on 'Ace' and the album is generally regarded even by Bobby's biggest fans as something of a mistake. Not that the album is bad - it just doesn't make much of an impact, Bob styling himself as a casual country-rock singer in an era when danger was the big thing and sweet but empty albums like this were becoming rather old hat. However in many ways it's the album Weir needed to make, a sort of busman's holiday that proved to him that he could make music outside the Dead. he spoke in interviews at the time about how exciting it was to have songs come out the way he's planned with the aid of session musicians (including future members of Toto, then preparing to release their first album), comparing the usual Dead way of working to 'going fishing' and hoping everyone else would 'bite' on an idea. However after so many years of getting used to hearing that voice and guitar work in the middle of an edgy, restless, endlessly inventive sound it's rather off to suddenly here it with the rough edges smoothed out surrounded by backing singers, slick guitar work and simple but loud drumming. The songs too don't really lodge in the memory: there's only one song here that really lodged in the Dead's setlists - the title track (although the Dead did occasionally sing 'Salt Lake City' when putting on a show there) and two cover versions of old 50s song updated in a way that would make a 50s rocker spin round in their grave at 45 revolutions a minute. Ultimately 'Heaven Help The Fool' is one of those records that's offensive in it's very inoffensiveness, in its desire to cater so hard for the casual pop market that Deadheads don't get a look in. Still, there are worse solo albums around - certainly Garcia got away with far worse in this period - so Bob can be forgiven for thinking the album should have done a bit better. Fans too often laugh at the slick Richard Avedon posh photograph of Weir on the front but actually that's about the best thing about it, capturing Bob on his knees with a guitar, desperately trying to look serious but with a flicker of laughter about to appear on his lips: it's very Weir in fact, much more than the LP itself.

'Bombs Away' is a back-in-love song where the narrator feels the power to do again ('I guess I'll change the world!') that's one of the better on the album, thanks to a nice catchy synth riff (not unlike the sort Brent will add in a few years time) and a nice strident lead vocal from Bob. Lowell George cover 'Easy To Slip' pre-dates the 'Shakedown Street' sessions by a few months but is an equally unlikeable clash of styles and rather ugly and synthetic after years of listening to The Dead.  'Salt Lake City' is better, a wordy piece about a place that 'don't sound much but what the hell's in a name?' alongside surreal lyrics that dangles lizards and Tabernacle Choirs the same way Hunter dangled Terrapins and Stations (without quite coalescing as well). 'Shades Of Grey' is just another twee pop love song, although weirdly based around the narrator's love's grey eyes, full of ambiguity rather than the usual brightness. Title track 'Heaven Help The Fool' is an ok-ish story about 'rags to riches' that has some nice self-deprecating jokes and a life 'when you can trade your soul for an electric guitar'. 'This Time Forever' is my favourite song on the album, a slow and smoky ballad that suits the artificial backing for once and a nice twist where we find out most of the relationship has been in the narrator's head where his love is 'timeless' - in reality it passed all too fast. A curio cover of 50s song 'I'll Be Doggone' follows (see our forthcoming book on The Searchers for the definitive version!) and doesn't really suit Bob's voice or this album, the song's distinctive spooky hook sounding very odd when played on a synth. Finally, original 'Wrong Way Feelin' is an anonymous sounding goodbye, albeit with some fun lyrics from Barlow about feeling unworthy to a great woman ('Honey, you're comin' on like the pharaoh's daughter!') Overall, then, 'Heaven Help The Fool' is far from a travesty - but it's even further away from being a long lost classic sadly.

Jerry Garcia  Band "Cats Under The Stars"

(Arista, April 1978)

Rubin And Cherise/Love In The Afternoon/Palm Sunday/Cats Under The Stars//Rhapsody In Red/Rain/Down Home/Gomorrah

"Breezes blow by me in the afternoon, she sings sweetly to an organ grinder's tune"

Or 'Cats Under The Stairs' as my internet information checker has mistakenly redubbed it! (That's a whole different album!) While Jerry's involvement with the Dead waned he turned more towards making the Jerry Garcia Band more than just a side-project. Hiring Keith and Donna and old pal Merle Saunders in his band alongside regulars John Kahn and Ron Tutt seems like a concerted effort by Jerry to surround himself with players who could really play and a kick-ass touring group in their own right rather than just his back-up band. Jerry spent a lot of time on the songs too, which while hardly ever seen in the band's setlist (though 'Rubin and Cherise' was played occasionally) were generally agreed to be a cut above his recent average. Donna too provided one of her loveliest moments in 'Rain', while Bob Hunter came up trumps with 'Love In The Afternoon', a one-off collaboration with John Kahn. Jerry even spent a long time working on the striking album logo with artist Stanley Mouse (who tends to be brought in for projects the band consider of the highest importance), an Egyptian cat in front of a sunset and an inverted pyramid (clearly inspired by the Dead's adventures in Egypt). This is clearly a more elegant record than either the earlier scrappier solo albums or the recent over-slick Deads albums. However despite all that care and attention this album bombed big time, being all but unobtainable until Rhino finally re-issued the whole of Jerry's solo studio catalogue in 2004. As Jerry put it at the time 'Cats Under The Stars was my most successful record - as well as being my least successful record'.

The result is a likeable record, especially for fans who enjoy the 'gospel' side of Garcia's nature, and has deservedly come to be seen as something of a jewel in his canon (as well as Keith and Donna's). When Garcia or indeed Donna are on it the record really soars: 'Rubins and Cherise' is a powerful turbulent story-song that sounds more like something Bobby would write, Jerry's take on both 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' and 'Estimated Prophet' with the same awkward angular tempos and cast of characters. A medieval love story at a carnival, where Cherise thinks she's over a boy but falls in love with him all over again when he serenades her in a mask, this is a clever poppy song that's an updated twist on the 'Orpheous' setting (a theme also heard on the last track of Jerry's previous album 'Reflections' and clearly on his mind - the tale of a Greek musician who gets so carried away with his own fame he thinks he can charm the dead and is eventually killed by those who don't understand it; yep actually I can see why Garcia would relate to that story in this era when the Dead were at their least hip). 'Love In The Afternoon' is also Jerry's most successful attempt at writing a proper reggae song, singing what ought to be a ballad with the upbeat drumming of Ron Tutt with some gorgeous Godchaux vocals soaring over the top. Donna's 'Rain' too is a nice counterpart to her recent 'Sunrise', a lovely floaty gospel song which is actually upbeat and hopeful where that song was downcast and melancholy. John Kahn's wordless two minute linking piece is also rather lovely, as if the Dead have just turned into the King's Singers for the day and decided to film some sleepy film music (even though it's a shame this is the full song and not just a lovely prelude to something bigger).  Hearing all this you can tell why the few fans who heard it were so excited for the next Dead LP and why the artistically inferior 'Shakedown Street' was a double disappointment.

However let's not get carries away. Undoubtedly 'Cats Under The Stars' is a mega improvement in terms of songs, performances and even album sleeve, but it's still not quite the Jerry of old. The four great songs listed above (one of them more of a wordless chant and two not even featuring Jerry at all) still leaves half an album to fill and at a mere 35 minutes long this album can ill-afford to have quite so much filler on it. I'd got so suckered into fans' talk of this being the greatest thing Jerry had made ever that, along with the proximity to the genius that was the title track of 'Terrapin Station' I'd got rather excited and desperate to track this album down. I was rather disappointed on hearing it for the first time - not because it was bad but because, heard back to back with 'Garcia', Jerry's lack of creativity sounds quite alarming. There are only seven years between the two, but the almost casual brilliance sprinkled over that set is only here in parts and even then it sounds like hard work (the much anticipated CD release features some truly dismal extras too, apart from a nice rehearsal of the traditional 'Palm Sunday' that being sparser works better than the finished one and a quite lovely traditional gospel cover of 'I'll Be With Thee' with lots of Donnas, ruined only by a perfunctory Garcia guitar solo). Yes Jerry is back, but he's not taking chances like he did in the past or even close to reaching his best and the greatest of these songs would still have sounded better saved for 'Shakedown Street' (instead of the hopeless 'Stagger-Lee' and ne-note 'If I Had The World To Give') performed by a band with real chemistry, rather than the talented but unrehearsed band on this album. Cats is a lovely album, true and is undisputedly reaching towards greatness, but remember this cat is still very much earthbound reaching for greatness as achieving it. That said, how great is Donna Godchaux here, finally getting a chance to show off just how well she can sing and supporting both Jerry and Keith ably with her classy free-flowing vocals on a series of songs so much closer to her own preferences. Had the 'Keith and Donna' album been more like this it might have been a masterpiece!

Mickey Bill and Phil "The Apocalypse Now Sessions: The Rhythm Devils Play  River Music"

(Passport, May 1980)

Compound/Trenches/Street Gang/The Beast//Steps/Tar/Lance/ Cave/Napalm For Breakfast/Hell's Bells

"*Ugh* That heap big jungle creates heap big drumming!"

What do you see in the 'heart of darkness'? Skeletons! Yes - that makes perfect sense! A rare case of the Dead getting involved in a film project, the re-telling of Joseph Conrad in 'Apocalypse Now' has many links with the Dead: the film massacred the principles behind the Vietnam War (something the Dead often spoke against) and Francis Ford Coppola went to a Dead gig specially to ask for Mickey's help particularly after needing to contact a reliable drummer with lots of African instruments and a love of dense textures and time signatures to make the jungle sound really 'odd' (Mickey more than qualified!) However, Hart didn't make this album alone - he brought in Billy and Phil to help out as well as a host of Mickey's drummer friends (including lots of Indian tabla players) for what became the only album ever credited to 'The Rhythm Devils', the name the percussive-based backline of the Dead went by during concerts. The soundtrack is certainly memorable and Dead fans might recognise some of the drum patterns from the band's many improvisations down the years, most of them credited to Mickey. The record makes full use of one of his inventions (of course it is - who else would think of this?) 'The Beam' - a C-shaped block containing 13 piano bass strings all tuned to the same note ('D' if anyone wants to build their own and pluck along?), with attached volume pedal and all the sorts of effects most musicians would get on synths and guitars. It's certainly atmospheric and impressive for being created in just ten days from scratch, though not perhaps what you might call a  'musical' experience unless you're heavily into your percussion. The songs do work well in the film though, making Africa out to be an 'alien' place. However nothing really stands out or changes - though listed as eleven separate tracks there aren't really that many changes anywhere along the line and while this suits the film, as a soundtrack record it's probably the most disappointing of Mickey's percussion based records. Then again perhaps I'm just being grumpy: I've never really 'got' this film or the book it's based on (which is hopeless, one long clumsy metaphor that never gets anywhere and is about as colonialist as Kipling, no matter how many university professors have tried to pout Conrad with the modern modernist universal approach), an anachronism that the Dead shouldn't have touched (even the updated 'Apocalypse Now' script is best described as patronising in places). The LP includes much longer extracts of the recordings than were featured in the film and were expanded again for CD release in 1990 with the addition of the five minute instrumental 'Kurtz'. 


(Arista, April 1981)

Dire Wolf/The Race Is On/Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie/It Must Have Been The Roses/Dark Hollow/China Doll/Been All Around This World/The Monkey And The Engineer/Jack-A-Roe/Deep Elem Blues/Cassidy/To Lay Me Down/Rosalie McFall/On The Road Again/Bird Song/Ripple

"If my tunes were played on the harp un-strung, would you hear my voice come through the music?"

With no new material or ideas about what to record, the Dead decided to pad out their contract with Arista with a live record. Having recently revived the 'acoustic set' they'd played around with in 1970 (thanks to some low-key performances in some smaller venues that fitted the intimacy of the acoustic sound), it made sense to record a double album made up of an acoustic first set and an electric second. However the band realised their songs were now so long that the electric set would eat into too much of the running time so instead they decided to cut the sets in half, releasing two double albums a few months apart. The general consensus is that 'Reckoning' - the acoustic half - is the better, simply because it's rarer and it's true it does have its moments, starting with an excellent energetic version of 'Dire Wolf' and moving on to a chilling 'China Doll' and perhaps the definitive released version of 'Bird Song', frail and yet full of wonder. There's also the welcome chance to hear three songs previously only released on Garcia's or Weir's solo records fully integrated into the Dead canon (however it's a shame that there are so few songs here from the band's own 'acoustic' albums 'Workingman's Dead' and 'American Beauty'). However in most other ways 'Reckoning' is the weakest of all official Dead releases out in their lifetime: their cover versions were always mixed bag and this set tends to go for the rarest, oblivious of quality.  This is simply Jerry and Bobby having fun rehashing songs from their childhood and while interesting to hear, once, isn't really worthy of your time. The band joked later that they spent 'about three lazy afternoons' rehearsing this material and it shows - this is too safe, too cosy, too fragile to be the Dead, with the two drummers reduced to some barely audible covers and the lack of power behind him showing how weak a singer a poorly Jerry had become in this period. In total some nine cover songs are here, all of them exclusive to this set (although a few can also be heard from later archive CDs)  which ought to be a good thing - but there's no way that the Dead would have gotten away with this on any previous release - or indeed in any previous period.

Without Pigpen to give these often twee country and blues songs some earth (as per 'Bear's Choice') there's simply no point to them: Bob's cover of George Jones' 'The Race Is On' is worthy only thanks to his sterling vocal not the hopeless backing; Jerry has no voice left for a slowed-down-to-a-crawl version of 'Oh babe It Ain't No Lie' (which add to insult to injury includes some awful feeding back problems with the monitor); Jerrys' equally shaky for the traditional 'Been All Around This World';  'The Monkey and the Engineer' is an awful song, a novelty folk tune without any proper melody and very silly words - a poor man's mixture of China Cat Sunflower set on the scene of Casey Jones; the band finally get around to releasing a version of live favourite 'Jack-A-Roe' but it's not the best by any means, with a slow blues feel and another weak Jerry vocal; ditto live regular 'On The Road Again' which rocks so poorly it isn't funny - the band may be approaching middle age but this has them in their rocking chairs. Only on the revivals of the first acoustic set 'Deep Elem Blues' and 'Dark Hollow' does the band breath any life into these songs - and even then the 'Bear's Choice' versions beat them hands down. The one exception and worthy addition to the band's setlist is the breezy folk tale of 'Rosalie McFall', who finds true love only to die soon after. Fans love this album because it features the band trying something different to usual and indeed the 'unplugged' revisitations of old favourites are a full decade ahead of their time. However it speaks volumes to me that the acoustic set was dropped from the band's shows as soon as the live album was recorded, with none of these songs lasting for much longer - the truth is the Dead simply aren't a tight enough until to do these songs justice and too often chicken out, singing the easier songs they all knew from their childhood rather than learning some acoustic covers and re-hashing even more dangerous old songs that made have made this record truly worthy (what about an acoustic 'Dark Star' or a revival of 'Mountains Of The Moon'?)

Like 'Dead Set' the 'new' songs added to the CD re-issue (extended to two discs) are actually more interesting and makes you wonder why the album wasn't released that way at the time. An instrumental version of Weir's solo 'Heaven Help The Fool' sounds rather better heard like this than on the over-click record, one of only three goes at 'Sage and Spirit' doesn't quite come off but is a worthy attempt, while the pretty folk tale 'Little Sadie' is far worthier of release than any of the covers on the album proper. Alas this set is fleshed out with several repeats that sound near enough identical to the released versions,  as the Dead's setlists didn't really change much in this period. While 'Dead Set' is far from perfect, at least that overshadowed record had the occasionally tight performances and lots of electric power - 'Reckoning' just makes the Dead sound prematurely aged and long in the tooth, robbing all but a handful of performances of their true worth. Even the welcome of Rick Griffin, who designed the 'Aoxmoxoa' sleeve, seems something of an anti-climax, with the same dead-white background seen on 'Go To Heaven' with a rather obvious 'skull' crest of arms over the top.  The result is a shabby release whose momentary thrill of hearing the band trying something new has worn off long before the second folk cover song.

 "Dead Set"

(Arista, August 1981)

Samson And Delilah/Friend Of The Devil/New New Minglewood Blues/Deal/Candyman/Little Red Rooster/Loser/Passenger/Feels Like A Stranger/Franklin's Tower/Rhythm Devils/Space/Fire On The Mountain/Greatest Story Ever Told/Brokedown Palace

"LOng distance runner what you standing there for? Get up, get on, get out of the door!...' or 'You say it's a living - we all gotta eat'

Though long dismissed as being less interesting than the acoustic 'Reckoning' and featuring a more 'normal' set of Dead arrangements, I actually much prefer this 'second' album of 1981 (the Dead's sixth official live album - in fifteen years). The songs tend to be better, less rare certainly but still containing a fair few surprises in the arrangements, especially a slowed down 'Friend Of The Devil' and the then-rare cover of 'Little Red Rooster'. This album also sees the first official release of 'Rhythm Devils' and 'Space', the lengthy improvisations common to many Dead gigs. In fact, discounting 'Live/Dead' (an excellent representation of the band live in 1969) this is arguably the closest of all the live albums to what a Dead concert felt like - the surprises, the extended jamming sounds, the warm-ups in the first set - and in retrospect it's odd that the band waited so long before releasing an album like this. Certainly the packaging is better - the clever pun in the title and the wonderful cover by Dennis Larkins of overgrown skeletons walking over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge makes this one of the nicer looking Dead albums.

However, like 'Reckoning' the elephant skeleton in the room is that this is a 'filler' album, the band eking out more of their unwanted contract with Arista as quickly as possible with another double album that the year after 'Go To Heaven' is conspicuous by featuring no new original songs (just a lot of covers). Also the band live in 1981 were in something of a creative slump - the songs had stopped coming and Brent Mydland's pushing to fill the gap with his trademark sound of gruff vocals and synth parts annoyed as many people as it thrilled. Notably he plays far less of a role on this album than on the average concert of the day (with no lead vocals) as if the band are afraid of unsettling their audience. However they should have been braver: Brent's vocals toughened up a great number of the band's songs and many of the covers he brought to their repertoire were amongst the best, all missing here in favour of old tired Garcia and Weir vocals we've heard several times over. At least he was taking some risks - the rest of the band are playing it far too safe by Grateful Dead standards as Jerry's health declines and the band run out of new material.

The result is a mixed bag. For every song that works really well (a sprightly 'Deal' with some chirpy hammond organ, a lovely slow 'Candyman', a funky 'Fire On The Mountain' that's sparser than normal,) there'll be some poor song dragged long past their comfort zone into a rambling epic that's the epitome of what every 'outsider' hates about this band (, five of Bob shouting himself hoarse over 'New New Minglewood Blues', a three minute 'Passenger' that rocks hopelessly badly sounding like a parody). Admittedly this is the Grateful Dead and fans have learnt to take the rough with the smooth, but there are far better performances than these sitting in the tape vaults from the same period of October 1980 (a busy month), even granted that this was far from a golden age for the band. By mixing the best and worst so readily this is all too convincing a portrayal as to what it was like to go to a real show at the time, when the band could go from geniuses to a hopeless pub band in the space of a few bars. The result is another wasted opportunity, albeit with more things going for it than the 'Reckoning' set as at least the Dead are in their 'natural habitat' here and at least we get four songs that had only appeared on solo records up until this time, plus the cover of 'Little Red Rooster' and the 'in concert feel' of 'Rhythm Devils' and 'Space'. Clearly its no match for 'Live/Dead' and the Dead now sound like a fine tuned band desperately trying to keep together rather than a bunch of telepathic geniuses, but there's much to enjoy that so often gets overlooked- especially in the expanded CD version, thanks to the addition of several period tracks that are a lot more interesting than what made the record (a storming 'Let It Grow', the rare cover C C Rider and a thrilling 'Lazy Lightnin' > Supplication' that's a welcome addition for every fan who hadn't got round to buying Bob's 'Kingfish' album yet which should have all been present the first time around) although again not everything if first-class (Ten minutes of the repetitive 'Sugaree' a nearly nine minute 'High Time' that's so slow it's almost standing still, and a full eleven minutes of 'Shakedown Street' that plods along aimlessly for two-thirds of the song). Spare a thought for fans who bought this album on CD the first time it came out though as a single disc with a few minutes of 'Space' (one of the big selling points) pruned back. However while the album now sounds better this lot still won't really be enough to convince anyone except truly committed fans and even some of them might feel short-changed. The third truly inessential official Dead release?

Bob Weir  "Bobby And The Midnites"

(Arista, October 1981)

Haze/Too Many Losers/Far Away/Book Of Rules/Me Without You//Jospehine/I Want To Fly Away/Carry Me/Festival

"Play for fun, play for keeps, you know they play with fire too, and comes the veil of the night - God knows what they do!'

Bob's third band was named after a section in episodic American Children's series 'Andy's Gang', screened between 1950 and 1960 (when Bob would have been three, going on thirteen, the perfect age) and including that well known catchphrase 'pluck your magic twanger, Froggy!' (and they wonder why the children of this era grew up to take drugs?!)  UK readers might want to think of 'Andy Pandy', with a puppet coming to life and having adventures, often involving movie sets and TV shows. Anyway Midnight was the gypsy violinist who played while sitting on a calliope while a mouse called Squeeky danced the night away and painted a rather rosy portrayal of life as a musician - no tunings, no rehearsals, no badmouthing managers, no disintegrating keyboard players and lots of adventures (as captured nicely by Victor Moscoso in his album cover of a winking cat in a graveyard, based on a sketch that reportedly came to Bob in a dream). You can see why Bob would have wanted to recapture that same spirit for his next side band after so many difficult years in the Dead and with Kingfish (who'd split by this time), recruiting the best of the local sessions musicians, old pal Matthew Kelly and his current Dead pal Brent Mydland. The 'cat' icon also becomes a neat contrast to Jerry's own attempts to spend more time on his solo career with 'Cats Under The Stars' (although it speaks volumes that while Garcia's is sleek and elegant but in the background so that your eye has to work, Bob's cover is in your face, actually winking at the listener, much like the two records audibly).

There's a real sense of escape in the music too, which is the closest Weir ever came to making a fully heavy rock record, with a commercial sheen that's also the closest any of the Dead came to making a new wave record. Low on subtlety but high on power, this is what the Dead would have sounded like if they'd grown up on a diet of Chuck Berry and psychedelic rock without the blues jugband and folk beginnings. 'There are nights for taking chances...we're gonna have some fun - we'll be the brightest!' screams opening track 'Haze' before it plunges into a memorable middle eight minor key part that hints at how desperate Weir is to escape. In many ways this album can be seen as response to Garcia's increasing frailty and the need within the band to slow things down a jot to slow the guitarist to keep up - this album is like an aggressive re-action to being made to walk slower than your natural pace for too long.

While clearly there are less layers and more surface than on 'Ace', I actually rather like this album. What could so easily have become just another noisy early 80s album has just enough characteristic touches within the songs (only two of them written with Barlow by the way - most are either solo songs or written with the band) to keep things interesting. Every time you think a song has surrendered to cliche and is going where you expect there'll be a curveball - a middle end, a key change, a quiet passage just to remind you that this is a band that really can play 'properly' and are just playing like this out of choice. What is a shame is that, with Jerry gone, Bob still sticks rigidly to rhythm guitar, content to let chief collaborator Bobby Cochran take the lead and while he's rather good he's also very of his time (short pinging soaring guitar bursts, of the sort everyone was playing in 1981). In short Weir now sounds like Jefferson Starship - but with the caveat that even though that band clearly aren't as good or as groundbreaking as Jefferson Airplane, treated on its own merits it's still superior to most every other album made using the same style. Highlights include opener 'Haze' (a song written for close friend and photographer Bruce Baxter), the slow-burning rocker 'Me Without You' (more like something Humble Pie would do) and the sweet piano ballad 'Carry Me' (a 'Looks Like Rain' for the 80s). Only yet another couple of  rubbish Dead reggae songs 'Book Of Rules' and 'I Want To Fly Away' lets a consistent album down. Sadly none of these songs were ever played live by the Dead, although to be fair that was probably the point - this is an album reminding the world that the band could rock, once upon a time and in different circumstances still can.

"Jerry Garcia "Run For The Roses" 

(Arista, November 1982)

Run For The Roses/I Saw Her Standing There/Without Love/Midnight Getaway//Leave The Little Girl Alone/Valerie/Knockin' On Heaven's Door

"If you got the 'Do-Re' I got the 'Mi' and I got a notion we're all out at sea"

Further sign of Jerry's declining creativity came with the last studio record of his lifetime, a record that all too sadly is summed up by the dinosaur on the cover, however ferocious it might think it is, a record that all too often sounds like 'Cats Under The Stars' weakest moments - a house cat with what sounds like a home-made synth and heavy on the covers rather than an album worthy of Garcia's reputation. Recorded in the 'missing' period after 'Go To Heaven', it's arguably the last album Jerry spent his full attention on before his coma and he already sounds like he's struggling vocally, with very little guitar playing throughout the album either. Worst of all, despite containing only seven songs Jerry co-writes just two (with old friend John Kahn collaborating with Robert Hunter on an 'extra' song 'Leave The Little Girl Alone'). The most 1980s Dead record of them all (yep, even more than 'In The Dark'), this record is about as far from the free-flowing sixties feel the band had when they started as you can get - everything sounds squeezed into little digital boxes, with no note out of place but equally no warmth or chemistry between the players. Containing surely the dumbest Beatles cover of all ('I Saw Her Standing There' with all the passion taken away) and an agonising slow version of everyone's favourite Dylan song except me (I think it's stupid) 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', this is a dog of an LP, despite the tiger on the front. How did it come to this?

Hurt by the poor sales to 'Cats Under The Stars' and knowing that the Dead were unlikely to ever use up his latest batch of songs, Garcia seems to have put as little effort into this record as possible. Two songs ('I Sa Her...' and 'Without Love') were outtakes from 1974's 'Compliments' plastered with some extra synths. Not only Jerry but reliable bassist John Kahn were deeply in the throes of drug addiction, recording more to give them something to do other than smoke rather than because of any great zeal for the material. In context it's amazing the record has even as few highlights as it does have: the title track being an actually pretty convincing pop song, mixing the groove of 'Althea' with Hunter in a 'China Cat Sunflower' mood. 'Midnight Getaway' is a typically yearning Garcia-Hunter ballad that's better than anything on the last two Dead albums which sounds to me as if it's Hunter trying to make his old friend see the error of his multiple-marital ways ('Heard you walking down the stairs, and I counted them one by one, one for each year that flew by'). 'Valerie' sounds awful in this sterile environment but heard live (and via outtakes) this will grow into one of the Garcia Band's better songs, as singalong as 'Sugaree' but with a slinkier, sexier feel. If only Jerry could have had the patience to have made the rest of the material this strong and overhauled his band 'Run For The Roses' still could have worked well. In truth it just needs some pruning - but at seven songs leaves very little left after 'deadheading' has take place.  Strangely the outtakes featured first on the 'All Good Things' Garcia box set and later when the album was released in its own right are far superior, featuring a warmer less claustrophobic sound and some great performances including a lovely 'Dear Prudence' and perhaps the best of the many renderings of folk song 'Peggy-O' doing the rounds.

 Bobby And The Midnites Featuring Bob Weir "When The Beat Meets The Street"

(Columbia, August 1984)

(I Want To Live In) America/When The Beat Meets The Street/ She's Gonna Win Your Heart/Ain't That Peculiar?/Lifeguard //Rock In The 80s/Lifeline/Falling/Thunder And Lightning/Gloria Monday

"She leaves me with no doubt that with half an ounce of effort I'd get paid"

Keeping the cat motive, but this time turning a cheeky winking ethereal feline into an ordinary house cat trodden on by human beings, rather says it all for this rather sorry follow-up. Columbia had high hopes for the first record which never really realised and instead they did that old record company thing of 'interfering' with the follow-up so that even the fans the original appealed to were put off. Surely the presence of superstar-in-the-making Bob Weir was more than enough for any band? Well no, hence this album's line-up of crudely arranged 'special guest' appearances by Steve Cropper, Brian Setzer and Kenny Gradney (making him the second member of 'Little Feat' to have worked with the Dead). The results are rather anonymous and could have been released by any half-decent pop band, with second guitarist Bobby Cochran tackling more of the lead vocals. Weir can still write a good hummable pop tune, though, and his four co-writes on the record - most of them with old friend John Barlow - are easily the best on the record, especially the tension-filled ballad 'Falling' and the 'Lazy Lightning' style Chuck Berryied sequel 'Thunder and Lightning' that's a far more convincing 50s throwback than anything on the Dead's own albums (and includes the memorable Barlow line 'Studded leather angel howling like a tabby cat in heat'). By and large, though, this record is a missed opportunity with none of the power or aggression of the debut album and very little that rises above the ordinary. Needless to say none of the originals ever made it to the Dead setlists, although the worst aspects aren't the original songs (which show some promise in composition if not execution) but the horrid cover songs. Unfortunately there are a lot of them and they're all bad: the Weir-led Smokey Robinson cover 'Ain't That Peculiar?' for instance is even worse than Byrd Chris Hillman's version from 1977 (which is really saying something!) and six cover songs on a ten-track album is a worrying sign of lost interest. This time Bobby and the Midnites are the wrong side of the start of the day, their magic deserting them like Cinderella as mysteriously as when it first came. What a shame.

 Jerry Garcia Band "Almost Acoustic"

(Grateful Dead Records, Recorded Autumn 1987, Released December 1988)

Swing Low Sweet Chariot/Deep Elem Blues/Blue Yodel #9 (Standing On The Corner)/Spike Driver's Blues/I've Been All Around This World/Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail/I'm Troubled/Oh The Wind And Rain/The Girl At The Crossroads Bar/Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie/Casey Jones/Diamond Toe/Gone Home/Ripple

Jerry's coma seemed to spur on a new creativity within him - not unusual you might think, given the amount of things that must have been going through his mind during his painful comeback. However, interestingly the need to carry on seems to have been turned into the desire to perform rather than write and just as 'In The Dark' was mainly made up of older material cut with a new enthusiasm, so this live album of covers (tapes in 1987 but not released till a couple of years later) seems to hint at a renewed vigour just to get out on the road again and make some music. This time round Jerry surrounded himself with another bunch of old friends - New Rider Dave Nelson, right-hand man John Kahn and newcomers Sandy Rothman, Kenny Kosek and Danny Kemper for an album of bluegrass favourites. Had Jerry never met Pig, become the guitarist in a jug-band and then psychedelics his career might very well have turned out like this and he certainly has a knack for the material, even if he still sounds unusually old and feeble, still side effects of the coma.

The result is less interesting than 'Old And In The Way' but still fascinating as a chance to hear Jerry in a fully acoustic setting more interesting than the one on Dead album 'Reckoning' (it's titled 'Almost Acoustic' because only John Kahn's bass is plugged in!) Completely at odds with most records out in 1987, it's as if the clock has turned back a quarter of the century and there's a nice intimacy about this set, as if Jerry is sighing a breath of relief at playing for a smaller crowd he can actually see after as hard year of touring stadiums. Once again it's a very up and down album, but some of the songs are particularly suited to Jerry and especially his new weary voice: Mississippi John Hurt (the writer behind 'Stack O'Lee' which might sound familiar to anyone whose heard the 'Shakedown Street' album) wrote Spike Driver's Blues which is a far more apt song for Jerry to re-write, full of Johnny Cash style angst and determination; the driving traditional song 'Oh The Wind and Rain' which features a nice 'Casey Jones' style shuffle beat; finally Bill Carlisle's country weepie 'Gone Home' which features a stunning acoustic guitar solo that proves that Jerry sometimes still had it in him to approach his best work. In additions fans will find many songs best known from their place in the Dead setlist: a mandolin heavy 'Ripple' is the only original, but Jerry also tackles a number of cover songs the band have often performed: 'Deep Elem Blues' 'I've Been All Around This World' 'Oh Babe It Ain't No Lie' and 'Standin' On The Corner' (a song Jerry last performed with the Dead as long ago as 1966!) However perhaps the most important addition to the canon here is a third take on the strange tale of train driver Casey Jones, this time in another song by Mississippi John Hurt (which is slow and wordy, even compared to 'The Ballad Of...' that the band occasionally played in concert but does have a catchy chorus: 'Casey Jones was a brave engineer, he told his fireman to not to fear, says all I want my water and my coal, look out my window see my wheel drive roll!').
In short, this album with much to recommend and is a nice chance to hear another folkier side of Jerry, although it should be stressed that the band don't quite gel and Jerry often sounds more asleep than he did in the Dead's live shows, as the extra concentration needed for acoustic shows wears him out. Pigpen, who would surely have been recorded something similar in his middle age in some parallel universe somewhere, would still surely have approved with that extra struggle making these often intense songs even more authentic. However this isn't by any means an easy record to listen to and the set coasts as much as the Grateful Dead ever did in this period. Another three live albums from the same tour, 'Pure Jerry Vols 1 and 2' and 'Ragged But Right', were released in 2004 and 2010 respectively and are pretty much the same - we haven't reviewed it here because if we included every posthumous release this book would be another 200 pages long!

 "Dylan and the Dead"

(Columbia, February 1989)

Slow Train/I Want You/Gotta Serve Somebody/Queen Jane Approximately//Joey/All Along The Watchtower/Knockin' On Heaven's Door

"There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief - there's too much confusion, I can't get no relief"

This live album, recorded on a joint tour of 1987, should have been sensational. An early case of two artists teaming up to potentially double their audience, there was a lot of mutual respect and admiration between Bob and the Dead. After all the Gratefuls had been covering Dylan material since the beginning (an 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue' from 1965) and will later release a two-CD set of their covers across thirty years. Dylan for his part loved the looseness and improvisation the Dead brought to his work, telling newspapers that he was impressed and that the band 'knows my work better than I do!' What's more Dylan had fun - a word not often associated with him - enjoying being just another member of the band who didn't treat him simply as a God (someone from the Dead community reportedly told him on the first day 'I'm afraid we've already got a 'Bob' and it'll get confusing, so we'll have to think of something else to call you!') On a high from the success of 'In The Dark' - and keen to help out Dylan, at something of a career low - the Dead worked up several hundred songs to play in rehearsals, but alas they fell back into old habits during the actual tour and generally played the usual stuck rota of Dylan semi-classics and standards (apart from the last night, when Dylan suddenly launched into 'Mr Tambourine Man'( a song he'd never rehearsed with the band - who looked suitably shocked!)

Alas the tour was incredibly hit-and-miss, the problem being that both Dylan and the Dead tend to be very fickle players. Whenever one would be up, the other would be down - meaning that too much of the tour tended to capture Bob in all his vocal-splitting venom-spitting glory only to be let down by a painfully slow and out of sync backing, or conversely that the Dead sounded like a monster and Bob sounded like a weak and feeble ghost. Pulling together the best of these shows - six of them, performed between July 4th and July 28th 1987 - should have been easy, especially as the live album was intended from a first to be souvenir of the two acts together rather than the sets they played apart. There is, you see, a really good hour or so live set to be found across the six gigs (ie perhaps a twelfth of what they played at those shows that month) but this CD really isn't it. On the tour the pair tackled all sorts of fascinating Dylan songs neither of them had played before: take your pick from 'The Times They Are-A Changin' 'Man Of Peace' 'Ballad Of A Thin Man' 'Stuck Inside Of Mobile' 'The Chimes Of Freedom'  'Tangled Up In Blue' 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' 'Frankie Lee and Judas Priest' 'Highway 61 Revisited' 'Tomorrow Is A Long Time' 'The Wicked Messenger' 'Heart Of Mine' 'Memphis Blues' 'Simple Twist Of Fate' 'Watching The River Flow' 'Dead Man'  'Maggie's Farm' 'Shelter From The Rain' and 'Rainy Day Women Nos 12 & 35' (yes the pair did sing 'Everybody must get stoned!') , all of which sound more interesting than what we got: a flippin' funeral version of 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door', a croaky version of 'I Want You', a passionless 'All Along The watchtower' - the sort of things done better by any half-decent Dylan tribute act. Perhaps Bob should have toured with The Byrds instead?

The tempos drag, the musicians play in their own separate worlds without ever quite meeting in the middle, Dylan is at his nasalist and most unlistenable and not one bit of the magic that ever so occasionally appeared on stage makes it to this CD. Rightfully hailed as the weakest official release in either artist's canon, it seems in retrospect like a typical piece of wry Dylan humour to allow such a shoddy collection of songs through when there are so many good alternatives out there. Additionally, you could argue that the Dead were so fed up of being 'big' after 'Touch Of Grey' that they deliberately set out to torpedo their reputation, fast. As a result the Dylan tour has gathered the reputation amongst fans of being a good idea that never ever worked - certainly this CD never works for a minute, but we humbly suggest that the Dead archive puts out a full concert from these shows (if Dylan lets them) so fans can see for themselves that this project was more than just a good idea and did work, just about, sporadically (yes 'View From The Vault' released the Dead's set on their own from the penultimate gig on the 24th, but not the two legends together). The only thing worth rescuing from all of this mess is the inspired album cover by old Dead friend Rick Griffin, a marvellous illustration of a young sunglasses-wearing Dylan and his old 'Skulls and Roses' version of the band, linked by a giant train (an image heard in many works by both bands).

"Without A Net"

(Arista, September 1990)

Feel Like A Stranger/Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo/Walkin' Blues/Althea/Cassidy/Bird Song/Weather Report Suite (Let It Grow)/China Cat Sunflower > I Know You Rider/Looks Like Rain/Eyes Of The World/Victim Or The Crime/Help On The Way > Slipknot! > Franklin's Tower/One More Saturday Night/Dear Mr Fantasy

"Do anything to take us out of this gloom - sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy!"

The Dead's official 'swansong' in their lifetime was rather predictably another live album (their eighth in all, discounting 'retrospective' archive sets) and a rather disappointing 'goodbye' to the Brent Mydland era when the band had all but regained their confidence and begun to find a new style again after a half-decade of being a little lost. The Dead had last released a live record from the early part of Mydland's run with the band and his style had changed a lot since then, so on paper a live album from Spring 1990 seemed the natural thing to do. However the band simply taped the wrong tour, one that found the band a little worn out and would end up being a tour nobody wanted a souvenir following Brent's death just after the tour but two months before the release date. Organised mainly by Phil, the album was already in the planning stages when Brent died and a hasty tribute to 'Clifton Hanger' was added on the sleeve at the last minute, the alias used by Brent on checking into hotel rooms. It's sadly not the tribute he deserved, being easily the weakest of all the official Dead CDs and all the more puzzling given that later archive releases from various parts of the tour reveals that there is a rather good triple vinyl set in there somewhere - it's just that this isn't it!

Like a lot of the band's 'compilation' live records, this just doesn't 'feel' right together somehow, even though many of these songs were played on a majority of nights. The result is just too up-tempo, with too many longwinded yet similar jams embedded together and with Brent's synths at their most irritating and shrill. The lack of cover songs and rare material seems like something of a missed opportunity too - actually quite a lot were played on this tour ('Wang Dang Doodle' 'All Along The Watch-Tower' 'Revolution' 'When I Paint MY Masterpiece' etc) so it's a shame that only rather bland versions of Robert Johnson's 'Walkin' Blues' and Traffic's 'Dear Mr Fantasy' made the cut. Even the chance to include cracking versions of the songs not eligible for a live album before (songs from 'In The Dark' and 'Built To Last') seems a bit of a missed opportunity: instead the latest songs here fate from 1980's 'Go To Heaven' (an awful lot of that album is here actually!) Even old warhorses like 'China Cat' and 'One More Saturday Night' sound a little past their best here. There is at least one shining moment though which proves how great this set could have been: one of the better (and shorter!) performances of 'Eyes Of The World' with guest saxophonist Brenford Marsalis, which finds a nicely jazzy groove that points the way forward to what the Dead could have been doing in this period. Perhaps the band should have kept that safety net in place after all because they do plunge off the high-wire rather often across this album! To be fair, the Dead were moving on, finding a new chunkier yet also more ballad-filled setlist across the year that was one of their better periods as a touring band - you just wouldn't know that from this rather odd release. The best thing about it may well be the cover, the last drawing that Rick Griffin (the mastermind behind 'Aoxomoxoa' and others) did for the band featuring skeleton clowns  and skeleton red indians before his untimely death in August 1991. Interestingly, despite being 'canon' - and an album the band claimed to be very proud of at the time - this record was not included as part of the 'Beyond Description 1973-89' box set and has not been re-released since its first appearance on CD nearly thirty years ago.

 Mickey Hart "At The Edge"

(Rykodisc Records, September 1990)

#4 For Gaia/Sky Water/Slow Sailing/Lonesome Hero/Fast Sailing/Cougar Run/The Eliminators/Brainstorm/Pigs In Space
"*Grunt* Ugh heap big stick play drum solo * Grunt* I prefer 'Space' "

More fun with drums, with the debut of what will become Mickey's ensemble piece 'Planet Drum' (although they aren't called that here yet). The title suggests this is going to be heavy and adventurous, like the 'Drums' part of the Dead show writ large, but actually the 'edge' part comes from Mickey's desire to make them sound 'soft...sparse, beautiful, serene, patient and clam'. The album doubles as a rather good impression of life in the rainforest, full of twinkling pan pipes and sound effects that like the best of his album becomes hypnotic after a while. Mickey clearly wrote this album with half a mind on his book 'Drumming At The Edge Of Magic' released the same year, a debate about how central the art of rhythm is to our philosophy, emotions and spirituality (the book starts off with the Mongols, the first culture known to make drums central to their way of life before moving back to cavemen and eventually The Big Bang). Like a lot of these albums what you get out of it depends how much you want to hear - it's clearly no substitute for the poignant emotional storytelling of the Dead at their best, but it's more interesting and made with thought than - say - a whole album of drum solos. Dead fans will be most interested in the six minute 'The Eliminator, a scary soundscape of the forest under attack from man, thanks to one of the last guest appearance of Jerry Garcia's career. The truly bonkers 'Pigs In Space' is worth a listen too, sounding like not just the fake Muppets TV show of the same name on fast forward but the weirdest psychedelic trip any of the Dead have taken since 'Seastones'. Once again none of these songs actually has any lyrics. 

"Infrared Roses"

(Recordings of 'Drums' and 'Space' from various shows between 1989 and 1990 edited together)

Crowd Sculpture/Parallelogram/Little Nemo In Nightland/Riverside Rhapsody/Post-Modern High-Rise Table Top Stomp/Infrared Roses/Silver Apples Of The Moon/Speaking In Swords/Magnesium Night Light/Sparrow Hawk Row/River Of Nine Sorrows/Apollo At The Ritz

"Ugh! Me given up playing nice rhythms now! Ugh me now try to subvert's mankind's desire for order and structure by using detailed jazz-based improvisations to break the restrictive measures of modern day living. Ugh! Actually me feel sick..."

For many fans the 'Drums' into 'Space' part of the Dead's setlist was when they used to get up, stretch their legs and join the interminable queue for the bathroom. If one of them was you then you probably won't need to buy this album, which is a precursor of sorts to the better known mash-up of 'Dark Stars' in 'Grayfolded' but using a collection of the Dead's wonkier moments recorded between 1989 and 1990. The hour-long compilation was put together by Dead collaborator and producer Bob Bralove and is certainly done with a lot of care - the album starts with the chatter of Deadheads milling about and is edited together with some skill, with each track segueing nicely into the next. The ever-creative Robert Hunter got involved during the packaging stage too, naming each of the twelve 'parts' with a host of Dead-like cryptic titles that makes these pieces seem more interesting than they really are ('Post-Modern High Rise Table Top Stomp' is so good I seriously considering borrowing it for the title of this book, while 'Speaking In Swords' is a pun worthy of any great poet and 'River Of Nine Sorrows' is one I'm surely keeping for my autobiography of working on Alan's Album Archives - get your pre-orders in now folks!') Parts of the CD do indeed point towards how good the Dead and especially the 'rhythm devils' portion of them can be ('Little Nemo In Nightlight' is the perfect soundtrack if Tim Curry ever decides to make a sci-fi film involving mutated seagulls! 'Riverside Rhapsody' is beautiful and haunting as well as very very weird) and fun can be had guessing which track the Dead have just segued from ('Parallelogram' is clearly 'Not Fade Away' while '#Apollo At The Ritz' has shades of 'Estimated Prophet'). However for all the clever packaging and editing - and not withstanding the fact that a compilation of 'Drums and Space' from the 1970s (when things were less...weird) might have worked only too well by breaking the every day rules and restrictions of music and taking it to its highest possible level, this is the Dead long past that point. It's really just a collection of self-indulgent bleeps and bloops from the Dead using the 'Drums' and 'Space' sections as down-time fun rather than getting off the stage and the 1980s technology and the lack of 'proper' songs in between each section makes listening to the whole album slightly nauseating by the end. This is one of those Dead products that separates the men from the boys - me I'm back on the bus, scratching my head, wondering when  this long strange but mainly fun trip got so weird and scary (even the cover is enough to give you nightmares, with the usual skulls so commonly seen on Dead album covers now looking huge and downright evil!)

 "Jerry Garcia Band"

(Arista, Recorded 'Spring' 1990, Released August 1991)

The Way You Do The Things You Do/Waiting For A Miracle/Simple Twist Of Fate/Get Out Of My Life/My Sisters And Brothers/I Shall Be Released/Dear Prudence/Deal//Stop That Train/Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)/Evangeline/The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down/Don't Let Go/That Lucky Old Sun/Tangled Up In Blue

"T'was then he felt alone and wished he's gone straight, and watched out for a simple twist of fate"

On paper this set looked so good - a collection of some of Jerry's favourite songs, covered by a hot and happening band of his favourite non-Dead musicians captured in concert in a rare return to San Francisco (The Warfield Theatre). With several salivating songs that Jerry ought to sound brilliant on (The Beatles' 'Dear Prudence' ought to be made for his old-man voice, 'That Lucky Old Sun' too should find a natural home in Jerry's gently jazzy hands) and a band made up of old friends John Kahn, Melvin Seals, David Kemper, Jackie LeBranch and Gloria Jones what could possibly go wrong? Had Jerry released this album twenty or even ten years before it might have been so different, but alas he's having one of his periodic low times and without the Dead to rescue him this set is sadly lethargic and noodling even if it is a highlights set made up of various shows recorded over a couple of months, with several songs pushed long past their natural endings as if Jerry's forgotten how to stop. 'Dear Prudence' especially spends so long 'looking round round round' than you sense the sun has gone down by the end of the song and she's fallen asleep waiting to be coaxed out of her hiding hole. Jerry's vocals are weak and struggling, as if he's trying to keep himself up right, and whole his guitarwork shines as well as ever there's less space for him to work in these songs, with even his beloved Dylan covers sounding under par compared to average. Whilst the band's sound veers towards pop and jazz, there's also a curious reggae lilt to many of the performances which never really suited Jerry's style. Only on the cover of old Dead favourite 'Deal' (performed with a distinct gospel flavour thanks to the backing singers) does this live album really take off, Jerry coming alive on a song he clearly knows better than anything else here, followed by the hard-rocking Evangeline and Jesse Stones' nicely Dead-like 'Don't Let Go'. Many fans duly raved about this album for showing off Jerry's eclectic range of styles from reggae to gospel to folk to blues,  but in actual fact this record shows what a hard time Jerry has in this period playing anything except his signature sound - and how wrong that same sound becomes when added to a backing that clashes with it.  The result is a shocking disappointment, like all the worst moments of the Dead's 1990 concerts put together on one disc. At least Jerry keeps his tradition of clever album covers, with a nice 'Where's Wally?' style cartoon drawing of the band on stage looking back at the audience drawn by bassist John Kahn.


(Acoustic Disc, August 1991)

The Thrill Is Gone/Grateful Dawg/Two Soldiers/Friend Of The Devil/Russian Lullaby/Dawg's Waltz/Walkin' Boss/Rockin' Chair/Arabia

"The thrill has gone - the thrill has gone away"

Jerry's longest lasting partnership outside the Dead and his own Garcia Band was with old friend David Grisman, best known to Deadheads as the ukulele player on 'Ripple'. The pair's friendship dates back longer than anyone who knew Jerry except Robert Hunter, the pair meeting at a 1964 show and occasionally getting together for concerts in the pre-Dead days. Grisman's career developed somewhat in parallel to Jerrys', undergoing all the moves from bluegrass to psychedelia to folk-rock that his friend went through although Grisman's personal taste was more for jazz. Grisman first played with Garcia in the 1973 band 'Old and In The Way', where he got his nickname 'Dawg' after Jerry kept teasing him about a stray dog that always seemed to be following him around (hence the name of this album's first recording 'Grateful Dawg', a union of the pair's natural styles). Jerry was clearly never going to give these projects the same time lavished on the Dead but he had so much music coming out of his veins even in the 1990s that he still has more leftover than most collaborators and result is pretty evenly split between the two. Fans curious to know more should look out the 'Grateful Dawg' documentary film released in 2001 which shows home footage shot by Grisman's family of the pair rehearsing at his family's house, as well as the music video shot for album single 'The Thrill Is Gone' that was never broadcast in Jerry's lifetime (it's not that interesting musically but - dear God - he's dressed in a suit and if that doesn't make you want to buy it nothing will!)

Somehow more 'adult' than most of Jerry's work, appealing not just to the bluegrass fans out there but the big band ones too, it was greeted warmly by many fans for showing a whole new side at Jerry that had only really been lightly brushed before. Certainly the album has it's highlights, including a road-weary 'Friend Of The Devil' with mandolin picking throughout and the lengthy closing suite 'Arabia', adopted by Garcia from a traditional Spanish number and at sixteen minutes arguably his one last great attempt at trying something big and bold and epic (although predictably this means sitting through some mind-numbing jams waiting for the good parts to come along - still it's better than sailing on auto-pilot). But there's something cold and unlikeable about this collaboration. Usually Dead-related projects have a certain warmth to them, some emotional power whatever the setting and an intimacy and looseness that few other bands can match. This album is a little too precise and polite, with very little jamming outside that last track and Jerry's voice is growing feebler by the minute in this period, making some of the songs ('devil' especially) painful to listen to. The sad fact is too that bluegrass and pre-war songs simply aren't that interesting, well not as interesting as what the Dead usually provide anyway (I have just come to this book after writing about endless Chris Hillman bluegrass albums in our Byrds book, which might explain why I'm being so grumpy, but this album is even more boring and characterless than there). My trouble with a lot of this period material 9and the new originals written in the same style) is that it's all about showing off, not about emotional connection between singer and audience. Jerry was usually the last person to show off but he could do it when he chose - he just doesn't want to here (or is perhaps too poorly to draw on his inner greatness, taking the easy way out). Grisman, while a great writer and performer in his own right, is left holding the baby - and he's not quite sure what to do with it, taking the softer option of doing what the plan always was anyway and coming out of the shadows only when he needs to. This pair are old friends, as close as any two musicians not in the same band can be - but you wouldn't know that from this album, where their interaction is muted and distant. While you can see why Jerry wanted to make this record (his second straight album of covers of some of his favourite songs in 1991) he's not up to making it and the idea itself is only of interest to a small percentage of his fans who actually like the music the Dead and their ilk helped sweep away in the 60s for being too polite, too twee, too empty for the modern crunch of electric power. The result is one of my least favourite Grateful Dead spin-off albums, worth owning only for the closing suite and cover of an old friend and even they only feature Jerry at his sporadic best.

Mickey Hart "Planet Drum"

(Rykodisk, September 1991)

Udu Chant/Island Groove/Light Over Shadow/Dance Of The Hunter's Fire/Jewe (You Are The One)/The Hunt/Temple Caves/The Dancing Sorceror/Bones/Lost River/Evening Samba/Iyanu (Surprises)/Mysterious Island

"*Grunt* Ugh heap big stick play drum solo * Grunt* me heap big stick play drum solo too! * Ugh let's jam! *Ugh me still prefer 'Space'!"

This time around Mickey's plan for this album was to join percussion styles from all around the world, wo this record features musicians from America, India, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Nigeria all coming together (it's kind of 'Graceland' without the songs). Like many a Mickey Hart project, this record was released simultaneously with a tie-in book featuring essays by Mickey about the different styles and cultures of drumming from around the world. The set sold surprisingly well for an all-percussion album (it was the number one 'world music' album for most of the year, not that it had an awful lot of competition) and won a Grammy award too - the first ever given out in the 'world music' category. The highlights are the moments that stop being solely about the drums (a struggle to sit through if that's not your main interest in music) and add some human touches, with some lovely vocals from guest singer Flora Purim (a Brazilian Donna Godchaux!) The result is louder than most of Mickey's albums, less about the mood and more about the relentless rhythms that just keep on coming on a wide variety of instruments, although once again the feel by the end is rather hypnotic and does feel as if you've travelled to a different place. Fans of drumming though will love it, especially the chance to hear so many different textures gathered together in one place and playing across each other contrapuntal Grateful Dead style. In short, there's no other album like 'Planet Drum', even the other Mickey Hart solo recordings tend to concentrate on one culture at a time - whether that's a good thing or not is up to how you feel about forty minutes of drumming, grunting and squawking!

Jerry Garcia/David Grisman "Not For Kids Only"

(Acoustic, October 1993)

Jenny Jenkins/Freight Train/A Horse Named Bill/Three Men Went A-Hunting/When First Unto This Country/Arkansas Traveller/Hop-A-Long Peter/Teddy Bear's Picnic/There Ain't No Bugs On Me/The Miller's Will/Hot Corn Cold Corn/A Shenandoah Lullaby

"I won't weir beige - it shows my age - I'll have to wear a foldy-roldy tildy-toldy seek-a-double use-a-cozza roll to find me!"

Well, they got that right! In an album unthinkable more than a few years before (would you really trust the Grateful Dead with the nation's youth?) this is the adult Dead turning to infants as their new audience, without ever quite being infantile. Yes, welcome to the 'Horrible Histories' equivalent of folk-song albums, featuring a Casey Jones-style song about being run over by a freight train, a man's pets all commit suicide to run away from him and a thief who gets arrested and beaten up after letting his 'guard' down when he falls in love. Most albums filled with children's songs tend to be awful - people get the wrong idea that youngsters' lives are cute and fluffy when some of the most horrific storylines imaginable have been written for children - so one up to old friends Garcia and Grisman for telling the musical equivalent of the Grimm's Fairy Tales (all of which, notably, come from America and specifically the deep South). The problem is few children are going to sit down and listen to an album this, well, polished: there's no danger in this record, no musical equivalent of the hammer blows delivered in the lyrics with this album far too prim and proper to appeal to any 'real' child. The pair were clever enough to market this album as being for more than 'just' children though - it's a collection of traditional folk songs from their own childhoods and those of their aging fading audience. Sometimes the idea is a good one: the hilarious 'There Ain't No Bugs On Me' ('Though there be bugs on the rest of you mugs!') is one of Jerry's funniest cover songs, done complete with sound effects and 'Horse Named Bill' is clever as well as funny, managing not to talk down to its audience or shorten it's words whilst still being cute ('I had a girl and her name was Daisy, and when she sang the cat went crazy, with deliriums and all kind of cataleptics') with perhaps the greatest vocal of Jerry's last decade of recordings, warm and cozy and perfect for this kind of story-telling. 'Arkansas Traveller' somehow manages to be both great and ghastly at the same time, Garcia and Grisman singing in cod-Arkansas accents as they enunciate their words on a tale that wouldn't be out of place on 'Sesame Street' ('Your trash can ain't from around these parts is it?') Deadheads too will find much to debate across this record - is the tale of the 'fool' met in Arkansas whose insulted for his stupidity before saying he'll feel 'right at home' in a state full of such idiots the figure on the front of 'Europe '72, is 'Freight Train' being driven by a man 'high on cocaine' as per 'Casey Jones' and is 'Hopalong Peter', the old man about to pop his clogs, the inspiration for Jerry's own 'Black Peter'? Hearing this record you can really tell where Jerry especially got many of his ideas from and how burned into his psyche many of these folk songs were, making this more than just a dismissible children's cover record.  Jerry's guitar and David's mandolin also work better here than on their first album, balancing each other's sound nicely.
At other times, however, this album features the pair simply seeing what they can get away with and the answer isn't as much as they think they can: this 'Teddy Bear's Picnic' is treated as a 'Friend Of The Devil' style jazz-folk gallop which is almost hopelessly wrong, 'Miller's Will' is a hideous fiddle song that seems to last an eternity not a mere three minutes, while in contrast to what we said eight minute closer 'Shenandoah Lullaby' has the worst studio vocal of Jerry's last decade on this Earth, all flat notes, shallow breaths and feebleness (hearing this monstrosity would make more children cry than any number of gruesome tales would). The result, then, is another curious Garcia-Grisman blend of the inspired and tired which is indeed a nice earthy alternate to 'Barney The Dinosaur' as Grisman hopes in his sleevenotes, but sometimes earthy just isn't as interesting or as eventful as candy-coloured cartoon chaos. Few children would choose this record out of choice - and those that are have probably been brainwashed by being brought up by Deadhead parents where this sort of this is normal - but folk traditionalists longing to recapture a childhood they never had will still find much to enjoy here. Once again the album cover may be the best thing about this record, a witty pen-and-ink drawing by Grisman of the duo playing for a bunch of toddlers - half of which are bawling their heads off and half of which are looking the other way, bored!

 "Grayfolded" (Transitive Axis/Mirror Ashes)

(Swell/Artifacts, 'mid' 1994/'mid' 1995)

Volume One (Transitive Axis): Novature (Formless Nights Fall)/Pouring Velvet/In Revolving Ash Light/Clouds Cast/Through/Fault Forces/The Phil Zone/La Estrella Oscura/Recedes (While We Can)

Volume Two (Mirror Ashes): Fold (Unlisted Track)/Transilience/73rd Star Bridge Sonata/Cease Tone Beam/The Speed Of Space/Dark Matter Problem-Every Leaf Is Turning/Foldback Time

"Shall we go you and I while we can, through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?"

Fans of the Dead's late 60s recordings often spend their time deciding how good an archive set is by how long the performance of 'Dark Star' is. Some like me had even joked that the best release the Dead could ever make would be a full CD of nothing but 'Dark Star'. However be careful what you wish for sometimes, because this nearly two-hour two-disc set containing a full one hundred performances of 'Dark Star' does exactly that and, well, it's something of a curate's comet this release. Avant garde composer John Oswald was the mastermind behind it (predictably it was fellow avant garde aficionado Phil who first gave him a call about the idea) and decided sensibly that he would cobble the performances together the same way that 'Anthem Of The Sun' had done, by gradually overlapping one performance after another so that when one version seems to be running out of steam it would suddenly rush in to another performance heading in a different direction, perhaps even another dimension. Centred around an unheard 17 minute live version (dubbed 'In Revolving Ashlight') from the 'Live/Dead' period though (which is fabulous) most of these extracts sound bitty and  scattershot, adding up to slightly less than the glorious whole fans were anticipating. It has to be said, too, that the 'Dark Star' occasionally revived in the 1970s 1980s and 1990s mutated into a very different beast altogether: more modern, gauche and somehow less other-worldly.
While some parts work only too well (generally the earlier extracts on the first disc) even these are somehow slightly frustrating, as a 'cooking' version will suddenly segue into a less appetising jamming session. The rather odd decision to have lots of Jerrys singing at once, often slightly out of sync with each other, is also weird and off-putting without being all that 'trippy'. Quite often the 'Dark Stars' will end up in the murky grey areas of 'Space', a far less salubrious place where the song tends to go 'supernova' rather than light up the skies. You can tell, too, that the project was slightly more rushed than it was meant to be, with the first batch of CDs shipped before the second disc was ready and which had to be 'mail-ordered' (although the boxes still came as a double-set). For all that, though, this is a worthy project that occasionally works only too well, proving just how many different and memorable places the Dead took one of their most famous pieces and is an experiment that no other band could possibly have tried - this is a unique experience which was only made possible thanks to the Dead's desire to go somewhere new every night and their ability to record pretty much every single journey this song ever made into space.

The sheer variety of places this song goes - ending up segueing into Dead favourites 'That's It For The Other One' and 'Feedback' as well as Simon and Garfunkel's silly '59th Bridge Street Song (Feelin' Groovy)' on '73rd Star Sonata Bridge' - and going everywhere from novelty comedy to intense atonal squeals does for once and for all show what an amazing achievement the original song was, it's two simple verses paving the way for so much 'extra', adaptable to how the band are feeling at any particular time. It's clearly done with a lot of love and care too, with some superb and very Dead titles given to the individual tracks - all of them making some reference to the song or a Dead phrase only 'Deadheads' will get. The writing credits too don't bother delving into the ins and outs of every era - instead the band writers are credited as 'McGannahan Skjellyfetti', a writing credit that hasn't featured on a Dead album since 1967! The trouble is that so many of the dead-end destinations are here, rather than the truly sublime moments when 'Dark Star' suddenly clicks into place and becomes one of the defining expansive songs of the era. Strangely the section that arguably works best - the finale 'Foldback Time' - does so precisely because the band stop noodling around and play perhaps the definitive compact version of the song, which at just four minutes adds quite a different flavour to the rest of the set. Let's just say this set is miles better than The Beatles' own mash-up album 'Love' but nowhere near as good as either 'Anthem Of The Sun' or a full classic-era performance of 'Dark Star' that hasn't been messed around with and leave it at that.

"The Arista Years"

 (Arista, October 1996)

CD One: Estimated Prophet/Passenger/Samson And Delilah/ Terrapin Station/Good Lovin'/Shakedown Street/Fire On The Mountain/I Need A Miracle/Alabama Getaway/Far From Me/Saint Of Circumstance/Dire Wolf (Live)/Cassidy (Live)/Feel Like A Stranger (Live)/Franklin's Tower (Live)

CD Two: Touch Of Grey/Hell In A Bucket/West L.A. Fadeaway/ Throwing Stones/Black Muddy River/Foolish Heart/Built To Last/Just A Little Light/Picasso Moon/Standing On The Moon/Eyes Of The World (Live)

"Got to be heaven, 'cause here's where the rainbow ends, if this ain't the real thing then it's close enough to pretend"

A fair attempt to make sense of the confusing and inconsistent Arista years, this is a generous double-CD set, despite the fact that the Dead only ever had one bona fide hit on the label! This set has clearly been compiled by or at least in consultation with a fan, because the track selection is generally spot on: four of the better songs from 'Terrapin Station' (gaining marks for being brave enough to include the lengthy title track complete, arguably the best thing here), five from 'Shakedown Street' (including clear highlight 'Fire On The Mountain'), three from 'Go To Heaven' (I'm not sure why 'Alabama Getaway' and 'Far From Me' are here over 'Lost Sailotr' and 'Althea' but 'Saint Of Circumstance' is in so I'll let that pass), two songs from the acoustic live set 'Reckoning' (including Weir's solo track 'Cassidy'), two songs from live electric release 'Dead Set' (not the ones I'd have chosen, but hey ho they're not bad), a full five lengthy cuts from 'In The Dark' ( a nice mix of the obvious and the lesser known), also five from 'Built To Last' (nice, with Jerry's songs transferred complete, but 'Blow Away' and 'I Will take You Home' should be here over 'Just A Little Light' and 'Picasso Moon') and finally the one highlight from final live record 'Without A Net'. There's nothing new here and long-term fans will probably never get this record out of the sleeve, but if you're the sort of fan who thinks the Dead dropped off around 1970 but are still curious about what came next this is the perfect guide, including almost everything that should be here and with an authentic enough flavour as to what the late 70s and 80s Dead were all about. Arguably the best Dead compilation around, making some less interesting albums seem better than they really were - even though strictly speaking it deals with the band's least appealing era.

 "So Many Roads"

(Arista/Rhino, November 1999)

CD One (1965-1970): Can't Come Down/Caution (Do Not Step On The Tracks) (1965 Version)/You Don't Have To Ask/On The Road Again/Cream Puff War/I Know My Rider/The Same Thing/Dark Star > China Cat Sunflower > The Eleven/Clementine/Mason's Children/To Lay Me Down

CD Two (1969-1974): That's It For The Other One/Beautiful Jam/Chinatown Shuffle/Sing Me Back Home/Watkins Glen Soundcheck Jam/Dark Star Jam > US Blues

CD Three (1974-1984): Eyes Of The World/The Wheel/Stella Blue/Estimated Prophet/The Music Never Stopped/Shakedown Street

CD Four (1985-1990): Cassidy/Hey Pocky Way/Believe It Or Not/Playin' In The Band/Gentlemen Start Your Engines/Death Don't Have No Mercy/Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain/Bird Song/Jam Out Of Terrapin

CD Five (1990-1995): Terrapin Station/Jam Out Of Foolish Heart/Way To Go Home/Liberty/Lazy River Road/Eternity/Jam Into Days Between/Days Between/Whiskey In The Jar/So Many Roads

"It's too weird's really too weird up here. If you'd like to spend an idle half hour sometime come up here under these similar circumstances and see what it's like: truly weird, utterly weird, beyond the pale..."

The sheer audacity of it! A five disc career comprehensive featuring early pre-fame recording sessions, live recordings and unreleased songs recorded in the studio - none of which have ever been released before despite a thirty year career and already a very large helping of archive releases! Other bands the Dead's age and length were struggling to pad out box sets with material that had been released hundreds of time over - and here were the Dead almost casually slinging away gems from all corners of their long career (especially the beginning and end!) While there are, as is so often the case with the Dead, a fair bit of head-scratching over the song selections (Is the 'Watkins Glen Soundtrack Jam' really special enough to be here shorn of the song it came out of? Why is 'Jam Out Of Terrapin' not only here at all but split from its parent song by a change of disc? Is there someone I can apply to for getting the seventeen minutes of my life back I spent listening to one of the shoddiest versions of 'Shakedown Street' around?) the surprising thing about this set is how good almost all of it is. This is after all a set of recordings either not considered for public consumption (the live recordings) or thought not good enough for a strangers' ears (a lot of the studio stuff) and yet most bands can match 'So Many Roads' for brilliance or versatility on their own best-ofs.

And I mean all: those early unreleased recordings - superb, not just historically but musically too, the Dead's country blues and especially pop roots showing more than they will later on but the music none the worse for that. The late 1960s free-flying into the great unknown with a rare 'Dark Star > China Cat > The Eleven' sequence that comes close to 'Live/Dead' style brilliance, full of that courageous charge and yet subtlety that the Dead expressed best in this period. There's an even better 'That's It For The Other One' from the Fillmore West in February 1969 that's just jaw-dropping,. turning from angelic to pure rock monster to pure blistering psychedelic telepathy to howls of ecstasy to a whole range of teasing cat-and-mouse false endings that display every reason the Dead were not just downright great but unique, perhaps my favourite Dead recording of all of them - every single thing in this book. We skimp over the country-rock year of 1970 a little, but even that era sounds great thanks to a rough but rather good outtake of 'Mason's Children' (left off 'Workingman's Dead') and a stunning 'To Lay Me Down' (eventually re-recorded for 'Garcia' in 1972 but here intended for 'American Beauty'). The 'middle' years are represented by a stunning lengthy jazzy improv version of 'Eyes Of The World' that's perhaps the best of the many versions doing the rounds and a sublime version of 'The Wheel' from the Dead's post-hiatus return in 1976 that's pure beauty, growing and evolving with every turn of the central riff's cogs. Things drop off for the first half of the 1980s but then come back with a vengeance for two stunning outtakes from the 'Built To Last' sessions: Brent's best rocker 'Gentleman Start Your Engines', an in-joke phrase given over to the band's drinking sessions turned into a dark song of menace and guilt and wistful Garcia-Hunter ballad 'Believe It Or Not' that might not say as much as some of the pair's other songs but conveys its sparse and direct approach sublimely. Finally the second half of disc five is given over to no less than seven songs intended to varying degrees of certainty for the 'final' album that never made it, heard both in 1993 studio rehearsal form and live settings. As the box says, so many roads - and yet they all sound like 'home', the Dead's three-decade tapestry nicely turned not into some diluted tasteless vanilla compilation but a package almost as complex and exciting as the 30-year journey itself.

Given the price I'd have liked to have seen a bit more done with the packaging (the box itself is very bland compared to the music within, just that 'thunderbolts' skull on a white background this time), there's sadly only one song featuring Pigpen, such a key figure in those early years (a rather ropey 'Chinatown Shuffle') and I personally could have turned this set into a four-disc version with no real harm done to the music whatsoever. But then this album's sprawlingness is also part of the fun - never a band for repeating themselves between projects (if during songs a bit of repetition is of course par for the course) this is especially fun when played to non-Deadheads who won't believe you that the work of all of these discs are by the same band. Of course by the time they've gone from the winning pop of 'Can't Come Down' to the last poignant ballads of 'Days Between' (the last great Dead song) and 'So Many Roads' (the last nearly great Dead song) they'll have become a Deadhead too. Or at least they should have done - if not then chances are who you've been playing these songs to are either deaf, moronic or saying so just to be intrinsically annoying in which case you have my very deepest sympathies. Why can't all box sets be as great as this?...

"The Very Best Of The Grateful Dead"

 (Rhino, September 2003)

Truckin'/Touch Of Grey/Sugar Magnolia/Casey Jones/Uncle John's Band/Friend Of The Devil/Franklin's Tower/Estimated Prophet/Eyes Of The World/Box Of Rain/US Blues/The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)/One More Saturday Night/Fire On The Mountain/The Music Never Stopped/Hell In A Bucket/Ripple

"Come hear Uncle John's Band by the riverside, got some things to talk about here beside the rising tide - Goddamn well I declare, have you seen the like?!"

Dead compilation number four now and another attempt to turn 30 years of music into one handy container. Clearly it cannot be done - no fans can agree on what the best Dead songs are on a single album never mind across a career - but this set does a better job certainly than the first two and gets bonus points for both lasting the length of a normal CD (some 77 minutes) and for licensing songs from both the Warner Brothers and Arista years. There are no live songs here barring 'One More Saturday Night' which is a pity - perhaps the set should have been re-named 'Best Of The Studio Dead' or better still 'The Most Popular Studio Dead Songs'? However you can't really quibble at the track listing too much, especially given that this set was designed from the first as a 'starting point' to the 'so many roads' and so can't include anything too complex or off-putting. Favourites like 'Truckin' 'Sugar Magnolia' 'Casey Jones' 'Friend Of The Devil' and 'Touch Of Grey' are all here, along with well loved album tracks like 'Franklin's Tower' 'Estimated Prophet' 'Fire On The Mountain' and 'Hell In A Bucket'. The songs are pretty evenly matched between Jerry and Bobby songs plus Phil's lovely 'Box Of Rain' and there are no cover songs, the one thing which ruined the 'Long Strange Trip' compilation. However the sequencing is a little weird: we start and end in 1970, jump forward 18 years before going back again and four of the Dead's rockier songs are all sandwiched together at the start, with the second half higher on ballads all stuck together.  If only too there could have been room for the other longer classics of the Dead genre: 'Dark Star' 'That's It For The Other One' 'Terrapin Station'... Oh and where the heck has 'China Cat Sunflower' gone, one of the more accessible and likeable Dead songs of the 1960s. You could argue a case for the lovely 'Mountains Of The Moon' too, not to mention gorgeous ballad 'Stella Blue' and the catchy singalong 'Scarlet Begonias' and the jam extraordinary 'Playin' In The Band' and outlawe song 'Jack Straw' and the classy 'Wharf Rat' absolutely has to be here and...Ok, OK...I think you get the picture - you just can't reduce the Grateful Dead to one single disc without leaving something important out. It's still about the best introduction to the band there is out there if you can't get hold of the 'American Beauty' album and wasn't meant for us obsessives anyway. Just be warned if you buy it that yet again that phrase 'very best of' should be taken with a pinch of salt and at least a five hour extension!

"Weir Here - The Best Of Bob Weir

(Hybrid Recordings, February 2004)

CD One 'Studio' : Cassidy/Mexicali Blues/Looks Like Rain/Playin' In The Band/One More Saturday Night/Lazy Lightnin' > Supplication/Feel Like A Stranger/Easy To Slip/Wrong Way Feelin'/Shades Of Grey/I Want To (Fly Away)/Easy Answers/Two Djinn/Ashes  And Glass/Wabash Canonball

CD Two 'Live' : Truckin'/Estimated Prophet/Hell In A Bucket/Me And Bobby McGee/New New Minglewood Blues/Man Smart Woman Smarter/Jack Straw/Sugar Magnolia/Throwing Stones/The Music Never Stopped/Masters Of War

"It's a rainbow full of sound, it's calliopes and clowns"
A nice collection of songs from Bob's side of the stage, this is a handy way of getting not just the best of Bob's solo and Dead recordings but the best of his spin-off bands Kingfish, Ratdog and Bobby and the Midnites too. In truth this is arguably all you need of Bob's solo career (which is a little bit up and down in terms of quality to be honest) and mixes well worn favourites with rarities and even an exclusive string of recordings on disc two (tracks three to six, all live recordings with the Dead).  The set has some hard decisions to make to fit everything in on two discs (hardly enough to fully capture the flavour of such a prolific and under-rated writer and guitarist) but gets most of them right: there are five of the eight songs from 'Ace' here, rightly regarded as his masterwork outside the band; many fans have struggled to get hold of the Dead favourite 'Lazy Lightnin' > Supplication' jam in its original form with Kingfish while only very choice (and usually right) selections of Bob's later albums are here too. The exclusive live songs are an odd touch (although it's nice to see 'Man Smart Woman Smarter' out on something official at last), breaking up the rhythm of the 'Dead' disc and meaning that there's no space for such Bob favourites as 'One More Saturday Night'  'That's It For The Other One' 'Born Cross-Eyed' and 'I Need A Miracle'. If you're enough of a fan to buy this set, though, chances are you know all those songs backwards already and the wittily titled 'Weir Here' offers a nice introduction to Bob's rarer work and a reminder that there were at least two great writers who played in the Dead, not just Garcia as everyone always thinks.


(Flashback, April 2011)

Truckin'/China Cat Sunflower/Unbroken Chain/US Blues/The Music Never Stopped/Shakedown Street/Alabama Getaway/Throwing Stones/Standing On The Moon/Touch Of Grey

"Listening for the secret, searching for the sound, but I could only hear the preacher and the baying of his hounds"

Dead best-of number four -the second since the band's split - and for once we've gone smaller, with only ten track selections, most of them apparently chosen at random. The good points are that this record was released by a smaller spin-off of record label and features their typically gorgeous packaging and show a lot more concern for the artists than most companies trying to make a quick buck and was cheap - affordable for curious fans who'd never been willing to fork out enough to give any previous Dead records a go. It's a little too soon yet to work out if this set will create an influx of Deadheads the way that the other three compilations have to some extent, but I don't see why not: the band sensibly dip back to 1969 for 'China Cat Sunflower' (currently at the peak of its fame thanks to an inclusion in the various artists 'Rock Band' game) , old favourite 'Truckin' and new favourite 'Touch Of Grey'. It's the other seven selections that bring concern: rather than 'Sugar Magnolia' 'Dark Star' and 'Casey Jones' at al we get a ragbag of songs that aren't anything like as well known. Sometimes this works: 'Unbroken Chain' certainly deserves to be and is something of a lost Dead classic, with 'Shakedown Street' a fan favourite not often included on compilations while 'Throwing Stones' is amongst the best of the latter-day Dead and 'Standing On The Moon' is a touching goodbye that deserves to be more widely known too. However is the slight 'Alabama Getaway' or the jokey 'US Blues' really the best the Dead have to offer? What the set might have done better is what it seems to have tried to do half-heartedly across the set and offer one representative sample of each Dead song, all the way through their career and digging below the usual popular choices. As it is, without even a single live song on its running order, this CD certainly isn't what longterm fans would consider a 'best-of' nor the true introduction it promises to be. *Sigh* perhaps on the fifth time round they'll get it right...

‘Live/Dead’ (1969)

'Workingman's Dead' (1970)

'American Beauty' (1970)
'Blues For Allah' (1975)

'Terrapin Station' (1977)
'Shakedown Street' (1978)
'Go To Heaven' (1980)
'In The Dark' (1987)

'Built To Last' (1989)
Surviving TV Clips 1966-1994
The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1993
The Last Unfinished Album 1990-1995
Live/Solo/Compilations Part One 1966-1976
Live/Solo/Compilations Part Two 1978-2011
A Guide To The CD Bonus Tracks
Dick's Picks/Dave's Picks
Road Trips/Download Series/Miscellaneous Archive Releases

Essay: Why The ‘Dead’ Made Fans Feel So ‘Alive’
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions