Monday, 11 April 2016
Grateful Dead "Shakedown Street" (1978)
Grateful Dead "Shakedown Street" (1978)
Good Lovin'/France/Shakedown Street/Serengetti/Fire On The Mountain//I Need A Miracle/From The Heart Of Me/Stagger Lee/All New Minglewood Blues/If I Had The World To Give
"Don't tell me this album ain't got no heart - you just got to poke around!"
From the outside 'Shakedown Street' looks like it's going to be one of the Dead's more down to earth albums, located in a place that's clearly a few blocks down the 'wrong' side of town, the sort of place littered with bikers, police arrests on every corner, pimps and prostitutes and random disco dancers (it's eerily like my near-home town of Skelmersdale actually, with which Shakedown Street seems to be twinned - aside from the random disco dancers, though; arguably they would brighten the place up a bit). 'Shakedown Street', as per the cover, couldn't be further away from the elaborate complexity of 'Terrapin Station' and is in pure image terms the closest thing the Grateful Dead have come to depicting the Haight Ashbury years since they left the place (note that this isn't the insult it might seem: though 'Shakedown Street' is the sort of district that looks as if it turns violent when the sun goes down everyone here is smiling, even the cops; actually can I remove that link to Skelmersdale now? On second thoughts Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bleecker Street' is probably closer). However the music inside is a shock: even compared to the first side of 'Terrapin' this is a little, erm, different to anything the Dead have done before. Though fans had spent the first thirteen years of the band's existence assuming if the band ever tried to go 'middle of the road' they'd probably fall down a manhole cover, this one is - gulp - quite a mainstream record. Actually it's a very mainstream record: nothing too slow, nothing too fast, everything commercial, everything too polished...If this record had come with a 'Leo Sayer' or a 'Brotherhood Of Man' credit I'd have believed them. Though the cover (by 'Fabulous Furry Feak Brothers' cartoonist Gilbert Shelton) is punk, the music inside is pop-disco - and a million (no hang on we don't get that many hits...all eleven of you) have vowed to never go anywhere near this album in case it's contagious.
Which is not to say that 'Shakedown Street' is bad (well, not entirely), just misguided. Once again Warner Brothers have asked the band to have a go at doing something a bit commercial and, well, the Dead aren't the sort of band to go halfway down a street if they can get lost down to the end of it and build a whole new extension of their own. It's the same idea as 'Terrapin Station': put the Dead with a big name producer whose personality is 'stronger' than theirs is and you're bound to have something that will sell to the general music public. The only problem is, Deadheads aren't like most fanbases and even if the record did inspire a small handful of new people to invest in the group the old hands left in droves, with the album peaking outside the American top 40 (despite everything that's been said about the Dead being a 'cult' band, it's worth noting that this is the first studio Dead album to miss this traditional benchmark of popularity since 'Aoxomoxoa' nine years before). On paper this album should be better than its predecessor: Jerry Garcia's back to writing songs rather than suites and producer Lowell George, once the mainstay of the band Little Feat, knew about rock and roll far more than the band's last producer Keith Olsen ever did. But Lowell has been given an assignment to make the Dead sound more 'commercial' and that's what he does, making even the unlikeliest song sound catchy and polishing everything in sight.
Not that this album is all Lowell's 'fault'. Heck, the much discussed outtake from the album where the producer even sings lead on the cover of the Dead's old Pigpen favourite 'Good Lovin', is far rockier and earthier than anything Bob Weir does to the song. Of the Dead's writers Jerry is mainly down to writing simple ballads and folk song re-tellings a world away from his recent epic self, Bob is writing pop-rockers (and not many of those - at only two writing credits this is Weir's lowest amount since the early days), Phil is absent completely, the drummers come up with a two minute percussion instrumental and there's lots and lots of Donna Godchaux on this album, far more than before (not coincidentally, this is also her and her husband Keith's last Grateful Dead album). If most Dead albums are sumptuous banquets to be relished and studied ('Terrapin' at least was on the title track side - the likes of 'Anthem Of The Sun' and 'American Beauty' are so stuffed with things to contemplate they mean you'll never go hungry again), then this one feels like fast-food: here to fill your ears up but not exactly here to give nutritional value. 'Shakedown Street' is the first Grateful Dead record that could probably fit on a plate, not fill up a room. And a small plate at that. In short, this album needs a miracle.
What it really doesn't need for an album that's yearning so hard to sound 'contemporary' is so many glances back to the past. There are no less than three songs here that the Grateful Dead had been doing for years, all of them covers - and one of them had even appeared on record already. 'Good Lovin' had once been a raucous Pigpen number, turned into a fierce rocker that could go anywhere on different nights. By the time Bob revived the song in Pig's memory in 1977 it's become as static as the band has, sung rather than roared and static rather than manic. 'New New Minglewood Blues' was another song there from the 'Pigpen' days and can be heard (minus a 'new') on the band's first album. This time round it's rather a relief that the band have slowed the tempo down from the manic pill-popping energy of the original and a now-31-year-old Weir is better, umm, 'experienced' to play the part of a womaniser with hundreds of conquests notched up on his bedposts. However there's such a thing as too slow and the song is arguably at 'half speed': though the two songs feature the same number of verses and choruses and a similar amount of instrumental linking parts, the 'new' song comes out at over four minutes and the original barely lasted for two. The odd one out is Jerry's beloved tale of gangsters 'Stagger Lee', a song which hadn't been around in 'this' Hunter-fied version for long but had been a favourite old folk tale of Jerry's since the early years and existed in some form since the Victorian era. The fact that all three 'old' songs are given the same disco white-suited coating as everything else just makes the album sound even weirder; so much for sounding contemporary!
There is, though, something to be said about hearing the Dead trying on new clothes for a change, even if the ones they wear here are rather ill-fitting and don't hide the unique 'Grateful Deadness' of the band that well. The best moments from the album - and there are many of them - come from the band working out a way to share something of their 'real' selves in this new antiseptic musical world. Beautiful emotionally charged Garcia guitar solos are two a penny on most earlier Dead albums, but here where they peek out through an occasional tiny hole in a shirt-sleeve or a hole in a sock they sound all the more beautiful - and 'real'. Weir, too wears these clothes pretty well and his long journey from so-much-0of-a-misfit-even-the-Dead-kicked-him-out to pop music trailblazer, ready to embrace anything the music world has to offer, is one of the Dead's most interesting stories. Anyway, as his many female fans will tell you, Weir looks good wearing anything - musical or otherwise. Phil Lesh, for too long too quiet, completely nails the funky throbbing disco bass line of the day in the title track, which has no reason to be as good as it is given the ingredients that are in the mix. Lowell George has a better understanding of why the band have two drummers than Olsen ever did and the Dead interpretation of the typical disco beats of the day (big noise, lots of things going on) is closer to their usual style than many fans will admit, while with the difference that instead of being artificially double-tracked Billy and Mickey are really interacting and throwing curve-balls at each other where possible. Donna, the most maligned member of the Dead, really isn't that bad: though her song 'In The Heart Of Me' isn't up to 'Sunrise' it's still better than most drippy heartfelt ballads of the period and her vocals work well against Bob's preening across the album. There aren't many lyrics you'd want to write on a banner and hold up at a Grateful Dead concert, but there's still more than you'd get on a more 'typical' album of this sort: the under-rated 'If I Had The World To Give' for instance is a rare example of lyricist Bob Hunter writing from the heart more than the head (or both together).
Then there's 'Fire On The Mountain', as classic a song as Garcia/Hunter ever wrote. Even though this version is a little too earth-bound to rise to the peaks 'Mountain' will often enjoy in concert, this re-write of a song first delivered 'rap' style by Mickey Hart is so perfect for everything the Grateful Dead were and are and ever will be that it's the one song here that's so Grateful Dead it comes wearing it's own 'Pigpen' T-shirt. Moreover, it sounds like a commentary on the album (though Hunter almost certainly wrote it as a warning to his now drug-befuddled old friend): a long distance runner whose spent so long trying to catch his breath he's lost sight of why he was running in the first place and is in danger of losing the race and of being consumed in the flames of apathy (or inspiration, depending on how you interpret the song). The narrator has woken up to find himself playing 'cold music on a bar-room floor', a world away from the 'community' spirit his songs used to invoke and where once he would soar over and direct the music it now 'takes all you got just to stay on the beat'. In many ways it's a song about the changing musical landscape too, divided between the punks the Dead used to be versus the mainstream that they've become - and need to stay if they're to have any chance of being popular enough to make another album (surely the inspiration for the 'dragon' come to burn the town down, as all good punks promised). The Dead, music's perennial losers-done-good-in-the-end-anyway (who else would mess up both their Monterey Pop and Woodstock shows in front of their biggest audiences and still have a career bigger than 99% of bands?) admit that they've run out of steam and have never had you rooting for them more. If ever an album was worth buying for one song alone (and even then not the best version of that song) then it's this one, as the band both accept and refuse their fate of oblivion, dreaming of moving forward out of their rut but not sure how. Would that all music made in a band's twilight years have been quite as self-aware as this one.
This song does, however sum up two of the main problems with this album, both of them connected. The line 'caught in slow motion in a dash for the door' is rather a good summary for what's going on here, where the production manages to sound both like the easiest thing the band could be doing and - by smoothing out the edges - makes the whole record sound like it's playing in slow motion. The Dead are a band born for interaction, telepathy and exploring the unknown. That's why there's so many blooming archive Dead CDs out there: fans love the fact that the ship of the Dead went into slightly different waters every night and couldn't wait to explore the further edges of the map, even if it occasionally meant being 'eaten' by the sea creatures that lived in the 'unknown' bits. 'Shakedown Street', by contrast, is a cul-de-sac where we instantly know where the band is going to stay because it sounds like every other flipping album from the same period. There's almost no interaction on this album, which is an early venture into the art of overdubbing and strangely enough for a band as loose as the Dead traditionally are, making them keep to rigid time structures (with the drums amongst the first things added) makes the song sound as if they keep getting slower and slower as the song progresses.
Why are the Dead breaking the habit of a lifetime by playing singly or in pairs or threes? Well, the Dead isn't in the best health. This is the point where Jerry Garcia's drug addiction moves from being a hobby to a full-time career, with music a distant second. Like so many AAA stars, what used to bring freedom and open doors back at the beginning of Jerry's career is now closing the guitarist in so that he's spending less time functioning and making music and more time away from the band, his life experiences limited to drug taking and memories. That's not to say Garcia is incapable - the few times he's called on to play a guitar part his runs are as fine as ever - but after so many years of being the Captain-of-the-ship-who-didn't-want-a-captain (and doing so quite brilliantly) Garcia is now a little lost and by association the band are a little lost too. Jerry has always been the one with enough ideas flowing through his head for half a dozen bands and music flowed as easy as breathing (hence the amount of extra-curricular work he always did): now, suddenly, Garcia is having to work at his music and his ideas and can't just come up with inspiration at the drop of a hat (hence perhaps why he came to add most of his stuff for the album 'later', after the backing was in place, so he could have multiple goes). It didn't help that Jerry had already released a (nearly) all original solo album earlier in the year and didn't have much left over (in fact more songs from 'Cats Under The Stars' ended up staying in the Dead's setlist than from 'Shakedown Street', which sadly sys it all). Most Dead fans have a different stop-off point listening to the live shows: for some the only Dead that mattered ended in 1969 when the songs stopped getting longer; for others it's the death of Pigpen in 1973; for yet more it's the natural breaking off point of the eighteen month rest in 1974-75, while there's more than a handful that savour every Dead line-up and every single tour up until the end in 1995. For me the quota of bad shows starts outweighing the good ones in 1978 and while the Dead were always too extraordinary to ever be reduced to sounding merely ordinary, great live music became something you were lucky to find from this point on rather than something you could guarantee (minus 'bad vibes', the wrong 'acid' or problems backstage anyway - the Dead were always influenced by their environment more than most bands, which might be why so many of their albums use place names in this period).
Usually when Jerry's having a bad day Bob and Phil can fill in for him - but Bob is having his own problems in this period and his solo record 'Heaven Help The Fool' was released even more recently, while Phil seems to be 'written out' after a three-album writing streak (though why the Dead didn't revive his charming 'terrapin' outtake 'Equinox' instead of the three cover songs or 'France' I have absolutely no idea). As for Keith and Donna, there's too much of her (with Godchaux, once an 'additional guest' member, now heard on seven of the album songs) and not enough of him, on the husband and wife team's last Dead record. Poor Keith is by now suffering every bit as much as Jerry, with drugs causing an alarming decline and fall in his once brilliantly natural playing to the point where his only really audible parts on this album ('Good Lovin' and 'France') sound so simple even I could have a go at playing them (I wouldn't dare have suggested this even a 'Terrapin' ago!) While I've always had a soft spot for Donna, whose soulful vocals added a new dimension to old friends and helped create more than a few new ones amongst the Dead's canon, there's no song here that benefits from her presence anymore and her vocals tend to drown out Jerry's and Bob's all the time now. Even her own song 'From The Heart Of Me' could have done with either a re-take or a change in vocalist (it's worth adding that every single song on the pair's forthcoming 'Keith and Donna' album is a better song than that one anyway). It was clearly time for a break: a pregnant Donna was getting fed up of life on the road on the tour before this one, the Godchaux's marriage was in trouble, the drug pushers always round the band weren't good for a family with a new child and there was a feeling amongst both band and fans that the Dead were getting slightly stuck. The Dead clearly couldn't sack Garcia (the other player most visibly suffering) and they probably hoped that seeing Keith go would help Jerry clean up too. As it happens the split was as amicable as any break-up of musicians could be: the Dead, always reluctant to bring things out into the open, merely asked their errant players whether they might fancy doing something else apart from the Dead. Keith and Donna, not the sort of people to bring things out into the open either, eagerly accepted it as a way of leaving the band without being 'fired'. Donna remains a good friend of the surviving band members even now; so was Keith until his tragically early death in a car accident in July 1980, a mere twenty months after the release of this album. You see, AAA bands, amicable friendly splits are possible (yes I'm talking to you CSNY especially!)
Talking of places (which we were a bit ago before I started going on a bit - twice over if you count the mention of 'the decidedly Americanised 'France'), 'Shakedown Street' was at one stage set to be very different: another live record (the band's fourth officially) recorded in the weirdest location yet, the Pyramids at Giza! Against all odds it was the Egyptian Government agreed to Phil Lesh's late night wouldn't-it-be-fun-if?...idea and - keen to have a big-name group 'advertise' their site and the Dead were an obvious choice after making the Egypt-referencing 'Blues For Allah' in 1975 (and Jerry's 'Egyptian Cat' motif seen on the 'Cats Under The Stars' solo earlier in the year). The fact that the Dead were somehow persuaded to pay for the full cost of the gig themselves may be another reason they remain the first band to play there (in fact no other rock and roll band, other than local musicians, ever played there so it could well be that hundreds of others were asked and no one else was 'foolish' enough to say yes!) From the beginning a Dead live album seemed likely, with the band's usual costly equipment taken there with the intention of recording a full album (eventually released as 'Rocking The Cradle' on the 30th anniversary of the shows in September 2008). Unfortunately the Egyptian Gods were not smiling and the Dead were not on good form, missing cues and playing as if they'd never met before for most of the three shows played there (the 'Cradle' CD is arguably one of the weakest official archive CDs out so far, at least of the 1970s, but so many Deadheads had asked to hear it you can understand why their own record label put it out above so many better sets). Though of course we don't know how the never-made final running order might have looked, it seems likely that many of this album's songs would have been premiered there, as had happened with 'Live Dead' and 'Bear's Choice', with these songs perhaps written with how they sounded 'in concert' in mind even more than normal.
Overall, then, 'Shakedown Street' is an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn't want to spend too much time there. There's only 'Fire On The Mountain' that's un-missable and only the title track and 'If I Had The World To Give' that come anywhere close (all three Garcia tracks, interestingly, despite his rapidly declining health). There's a lot of promise on the other songs too and had they been recorded more Dead-style I might be adding how humorous the lascivious (and un-Dead-ly) 'I Need A Miracle' is, how charming and unexpected a romance 'France' is or what a great groove the band cooked up on 'Good Lovin'. Unfortunately, though, anything that's in anyway bland as a song on this record gets doubly punished by the bland production. It's not solely the production's fault either: that list still leaves another four songs unaccounted for that would have been pure filler on any Dead album: a tired gangster folk song inferior to all of Garcia/Hunter's own ideas from a decade earlier, an unnecessary re-tread of an early favourite that still misses what the first version got 'wrong', a forgettable Donna ballad that I can't remember no matter how many hundreds of times I've heard it now (and I say this as a fan who adored her only other Dead song 'Sunrise' - Donna's collapse as a songwriter is even scarier than Bob's or Jerry's) and two minutes of drums and percussion masquerading as a desert. Even the peak Dead of 1969-1970 couldn't have rescued that lot; the fact that some fairly promising songs and even one out and out classic ended up sounding nearly as bad thanks to a botches production doesn't offer much in 'Shakedown's Street's favour either. But there is 'heart' and worth in this record here somewhere - you've just got to do one hell of a lot of poking around because 'Street' is an album that keeps its treasures well and truly buried.
Perhaps the most disappointing song on the album is the cover of Rudy Clark's 'Good Lovin' (better known for writing 'It's In Her Kiss'). Back in the days before the Dead's archive sets, the only way of getting hold of Pigpen's time with the band was through a handful of semi-legal live albums and his small cameos on the Dead's original output, but fans with longer memories knew how great some of his covers could be. 'Good Lovin' is a good example of what alchemy Pigpen could conjure when he was on form (there's an excellent version from 1969 on 'Dave's Picks Six'), all snorting energy and lustful charisma. By 1978 it had been five years since Pig had died, just long enough for the band to get nostalgic about the sort of songs they used to do and Bob in particular revives quite a few of them in the late 1970s. Unfortunately the Dead's music had wandered so far away from the point where they started that a true blues was out of the question: instead we start to get watered down poppy version of the band's old songs, including this one. The drummers try hard to set a manic beat, but for perhaps the first time ever on a Dead record the twin set of drums is distracting, while Keith and Jerry are clearly having a bad day and sound like they're hanging on to the end of the solo and longing for it to end, instead of relishing it like even the recent 'old' days. Only the backing vocals, with Donna right on the money for radio airplay and Jerry and Phil clearly not, adding a touch of excitement simply through their uniqueness (the pair had quite a lovely blend), while Bob compensates for a dull backing track by over-singing and vamping in a bland way without the natural authenticity of Pig in his prime. For fans too young to know but who'd heard things from older Deadheads it was a disappointment - for old fans who remembered what the band's original versions of 'Good Lovin' sounded like it was a travesty. Worryingly, the best version of this song on the 'Shakedown Street' CD isn't even the Dead's own but George Lowell's rockier rehearsal version where he sounds far more in touch with the song. Though the backing track is actually identical, this version sounds as if it has a lot more 'life' to it, with Bob far more comfortable reverting back to his 'old' role as harmony vocalist and sparring partner to a bluesier bandmate. Live performances: a whacking 440!
'France', too, is something of a let down. When the Dead did romantic in the past it was usually thanks to a Garcia ballad where the guitarist revealed his more vulnerable side, though even that was a rarity (the Dead did far less love songs, track for track, than probably any other band who started in the 1960s). This track, though, is a soggy pop song recorded as a duet between a flat Bob and a shrill Donna that sounds about as un-Deadlike as any song the band ever recorded and could have been made by any middle of the road pop group. Jerry doesn't sing at all and unusually contents himself with some strummed rhythm guitar while Bob takes the lead on a 'flamenco' part, though the dominant sound comes from Keith's fluttering piano and co-writer Mickey's steel drums. Bob Hunter, always a little uncertain of himself working with the others away from Jerry, turns in perhaps his blandest lyric: apparently every lady in the South of France 'loves to dance', which if true makes me wonder why I've never seen it or heard about it on the news as it sounds a serious affliction to have. Bob H is happier when doing what he normally does when working with Bob W and turns the song into a congratulatory audience-response moment ('The club can't contain the beat, it just rolls out into the street...come on down and see the show!') but even these lines lack conviction and aren't the sort of thing any self-respecting Deadhead would write on a bumper sticker. Odder still nothing about this song 'feels' like the Mediterranean lazy setting at all: instead it's an upbeat, slightly manic track whose Caribbean flavour and slight off-beat puts you more in mind of Jamaica, albeit with Spanish guitarwork (traditionally Americans confuse most of the rest of the world together, but the Dead were better travelled than most by now). Only at the 3:20 mark does the song finally get Dead-like, taking an unexpected left turn into a tense and paranoid minor key that leads to some frantic jamming over the 40 second song fade, but even this seems out of place: are we meant to think that this French holiday has turned sour even though there's nothing to reflect that in the lyrics? Have the bars shut early? Is this a comment on crowds of people getting together and an inevitable move away from a 'Woodstock' vibe to an 'Altamont' one? Or did the band simply get fed up of trying to sound like everyone else and 'accidentally' reverted back to being themselves? Most fans prefer the end of this track to the rest of the song, it has to be said...Bob W later admitted that he considered the track one of the band's biggest mistakes, admitting 'I didn't write that one as such - it just sort of...happened. But it sure as hell didn't happen right!' Live Performances: 0, this is one of the few 1970s Dead originals to never be played in concert (to be fair Donna, co-lead vocalist, wasn't in the band for long after this track was written)
The 'Shakedown Street' title track is a better example of the Dead managing to update their traditional sound with the music of a new market and is by far the best example of the Dead sounding relevant to the market-place since the 1970 folk-rock years. Unfortunately for us modern fans, this is the era of disco and if there's ever a genre you didn't want the Dead to work with it's this one. Mind you, the problems with the song are only really heard in concert, where this song's overly simple groove tended to slow down quickly and get boring long before the band had finished noodling (I've yet to hear a decent live version on any of the archive CDs - and there are lots of versions of this song out there). Heard on record it's a better proposition, limited to just (!) five minutes of jamming and pegged in place by one of the most rigid rhythm tracks the band came up with. Phil is the real star here, keen to add something a little different to his usual style and aping the big fat basses of period disco, while having two drummers both playing the same hard beats, but with a little something different to each other alongside this, already means the Dead are putting one over on most of their opposition. Lyrically, too, this is a song that promises much with Hunter making a rare return to the sort of 'community/generational' comment he last made when the hippies were in full swing. By now the modern world is seedy, very like the one depicted on the album cover, where in a place that once was filled with joy and optimism 'even the sunny side of the street' is dark'. Perhaps with Haight Ashbury in mind, Hunter seems to be reflecting further on how distant the hippie haven now seems to where the 'action' currently is (with disco very much a major city phenomenon, particularly New York). The key line here is 'it used to be the heart of town' - heart as in the middle and 'heart' as in the emotional centre: now music has become regimented and is all about the tempo and sound, not the 'feel' and message. Hunter's sad message is that his old favourite place has seen better days, but that there is still goodness here if you're patient enough to look past the sleaze and decay that has grown there, that 'you just gotta poke around'. You wouldn't expect Hunter, one of the greatest wordsmiths of the 20th century, should be lost in such an alien world but instead he turns these flaws to his advantage writing in clipped sentences and Garcia's music seems to be tugging away at the tight reins, always looking for some extra melody and passion unusual for a disco record. The result is an under-rated track, perhaps a little too disco for most tastes (those spot-on 'Saturday Night Fever' harmonies and added 'woooohs!' are tough for any Deadhead to listen to without feeling a little nauseous) and, yes, maybe it gives us a bit much too fast, but having the Dead complain about being left behind and forgotten on a track that proves just how well they 'get' then-contemporary music is an intriguing idea and the Dead prove that they can do more than just laidback jams. Live Performances: Surprisingly, a comparatively lowly 163
Perhaps reflecting on the 'desert' modern music had become, we're next off to the 'Serengetti'; in the 'real' world the 'Serengeti' (with one 't') is a nature lover's paradise in Tanzania, Africa home to more lions than anywhere else and containing 70 different types of mammals (71 if you count humans) and over 500 sorts of bird - in the 'Dead' world two minutes of exotic percussion as a chance to give both drummers a writing credit. Though this instrumental is more substantial and interesting than the forthcoming 'Antwerp's Placebo' from next record 'Go To Heaven', it still seems like a poor man's way of re-creating the band's legendary 'Drumz' sequences (where their combined drum solos could last upwards of half an hour) on a Dead album. How much better might this track been if the thudding primal drums with their power and scale had been scaled down into the disco drums of the title track or opened up at the end into the slow-motion waddle of 'Fire On The Mountain'? Alas this song simply gets louder then quieter, because of its brevity less interesting than anything Mickey's own Rolling Thunder band were up to at the time and sounding very out of place on an album so dominated by simple disco rhythms. Live Performances: 0 under this actual name, though a few 'Drumz' sequences do sound similar
'Fire On The Mountain' returns to the album's vague theme of decay in a quite brilliant way. Fans now know the song mainly as the 'downside' to jams that began with this album's bouncy polar opposite 'Scarlet Begonias' as heard on 'From The Mars Hotel' (where the two share similar unwieldy time signatures) where it's become a sort of symbol for getting too carried away with love and beauty and getting too complacent about life, ending up with the narrator getting stuck. Heard out of context it sounds more like a cry for help, Hunter voicing the concerns he senses from best mate Garcia that he was starting to take his eyes off the ball. Fittingly, Hunter's lyric about trying to escape being caught in a rut are attached to by far Garcia's most ambitious work on this album - or indeed for the next few years, until past his coma. The song starts with a long-distance runner being urged to run and not be caught in slow motion because he still has so much ground to cover, but the song is ambiguous whether this is a friendly concern, a military order or a masochistic gym trainer. Hunter goes on to explain that he understands the problems: making music that sells ('We all got to eat'), that the band have been inspired and 'ablaze' for so long and so intensely the flame was always in danger of burning itself out and that the Dead's position as such a unique band has robbed them of being able to judge themselves by other standards ('You're here alone - there's no one to compete'). But still he urges his friend to dig deep, to make it safely down the mountainside and away from the position he's now in, 'drowning in laughter and dead to the core' - a line that given the band we're talking about might well be about how Jerry was spending more and more time with the Dead repeating Dead-style material instead of exploring his old natural curiosity and experimentation. Rather sweetly, Bob also wishes his old friend 'mercy' when the fire finally comes, adding that it's a 'business' the same as any other and he shouldn't be afraid to play on it, though he's still rather Garcia was at the forefront and pushing back the barriers.
Throughout the song the clock is ticking, as memorably summed up by Mickey and Billy's unusual metronomic drums, the sound of batons changing hands as they pass the rhythms around to offer a sense of 'movement'. The threat is the fire that's consuming the mountain, leading to a memorable chorus cry of 'fire!', a traditional symbol of danger - though there's no clue as to what that fire is. Earlier in the song the fire represented inspiration, but if so then it's the inspiration for other newer bands who've discovered the 'flame' the Dead once held and which is going out, with punk and disco acts overtaking the elder 60s generation and making them further removed from the 'pulse' of what was popular. However much the song sounds like a message from one old friend to another though (and several Hunter-Garcia songs started off this way), it's worth remembering that the first draft of this song was for Mickey's Rolling Thunder Band and that a fascinating proto-rap version (spoke-sung - actually yelled-sung - by Mickey; with a missing verse or two: 'Blind man blind man call off your dog, he lifts his leg on the fire he's hogging the log...Out of the frying pan into the fire, out of the rat-trap and into the wire') exists with comparatively few lyric changes. Hunter may still have had Jerry in mind when he wrote it of course (the track was still within the 'Dead family' after all so Jerry would no doubt have heard it) and was inspired by a genuine bush fire that started during a visit Bob made to Mickey's ranch. I still can't think of this song any other way though: 'Fire' is pure Jerry, even if for once he had to fit his repetitive, slightly paranoid melody to Hunter's lyrics for once in his career. His vulnerable, saddened vocal - a million miles better than anything he's recorded since the band's eighteen month hiatus - is fully committed yet fascinatingly raw (listen out for the hidden wobbled 'ye-eah' during the opening instrumental): this is a man who clearly saw something in those lyrics. His guitar solo too is the best in a long long time, brimming with even more sadness and frustration than the vocal and - fittingly for the song - even this drops short of his old ambitious inventive past, sadly sighing its way through some old chords before falling away as if the strain is too much. The Dead finally remember to add some real passion and fuel to the 'fire' here and suddenly this song matters, far more so than made-up songs about France or old outlaws. This song is a loved Dead classic for several very good reasons, a mountain peak in this period of Dead history. Lice Performances: Another surprisingly low figure of 254 performances, around three-quarters of them in a medley with 'Scarlet Begonias'.
Side two needs a miracle to compete with 'Fire' and sadly Bob's only full contribution to the album is depressingly ordinary. 'I Need A Miracle' does, at least, do a better job at conjuring up a real blues backing track than 'Good Lovin' did, with a genuinely tight and taut backing track that features the first Dead harmonica part since Pigpen's death (played by Matthew Kelly of Bob's solo band Kingfish). Unfortunately John Barlow's lyrics, usually a source of Hunter-like depth and imagery, are reduced to rockstar preening and sexual predatory lyrics that to the modern ear sound rather unsavoury. At least the song kinda knows how daft it is, with hilarious lines that the apparently weedy narrator is longing for a girl twice his age, height and weight, while trying to cover up for any loss of face with some huffing and puffing. Sadly apart from that the song is just a list of stereotypes as the narrator dreams of 'breaking each and every law' with a woman who also combines 'nobility, gentility and rage'. The lyrics then get more and more innuendo prone as the narrator 'rides her like a surfer running a tidal wave'. The result is a song that's certainly unforgettable compared to most of this by-Dead-standards bland album, but not necessarily in a good way. That said, at least Bob Weir sounds like he's having great fun on this one and really nails his weedy-and-seedy-but-needy narrator well and there's a brief bit of interplay where he and Jerry compete for who can do the best impression of a heavy metal guitarist. Live performances: an impressive 272
Donna Jean's second and final song for the Dead is another ballad, but sadly [ ] 'From The Heart Of Me' is no second 'Sunrise'. A confusing mix of metaphors (Donna is, to be fair, the only band member still writing lyrics and music at this stage) combine old age mountains with 'voices' that spread across the world in harmony. The rest of the song is more of a love song - the natural assumption for the inspiration would be husband Keith, except the pair aren't getting on too well by this stage and we know from 'Sunrise' how heartfelt Donna could be when singing about someone she respected (such as Bill Graham). This song is pretty big in scale lyrically after all (if not musically), the narrator noticing the sheer scale of planet Earth but still leaving it behind to run for home 'and your arms', while the twinkling stars are 'out shining for you and me'. Keith, naturally, dominates the sound suggesting he had a small hand in the track, which is the closest in style of any of the Dead's work to what the pair will do on their one and only solo album (an intriguing mix of blue-eyed soul and laidback country-rock). Donna sounds very comfortable here and delivers a delicious vocal without any harmonies from the rest of the band, but sadly musically this song doesn't have the same scope as the rest of the words and seems content to stick to some rigid and much-used chords rather than reaching out for the heavens and up to the mountains. Still, even if the song is a disappointment after the stunning 'Sunrise', it's not as poor a song as many Deadheads claim and its worst sin is being forgettable, not boring like 'France' or 'Stagger Lee' or weird like the album cover songs. Live Performances: 26
Talking of which, Jerry's re-telling of long-dead gangsters were always my least favourite part of the Dead's stage act. All cowboy stories tend to sound the same to me and somehow Hunter's lyrics tended to reduce all these characters to similar ciphers rather than the fully three-dimensional characters he came up with on his own. [ ] 'Stagger Lee' sounds a bit of a pest to be honest, not the hard-done-by sympathy character of 'Dupree Diamond's Blues' or the likeable bandit of 'Jack Straw' fame. Stagger Lee ('Stacker Lee' in the original 1895 version) rows with Billy DeLions over a card game in which he loses everything, including his beloved Stetson hat and murders him. Billy's wife Delia (missing from the original folk tale) complains to the sheriff who replies that he can't do anything as 'Lee is twice the size of me!' She gets her own back instead, shooting him in a, umm, rather uncomfortable place where, incapacitated, he can be arrested. The problem is, though, that this is all just a narrative: there's no feeling for any of the characters, no sense that Stagger Lee was a brute who had it coming, a sympathetic loser who was conned into a card game he never should have played or that Delia was seeking genuine revenge for her husband's murder. That's unusual for Hunter, who usually makes us feel for his characters every time they open their mouth, but then this song is tied in closer than most of his lyrics to the old traditional folk tune (the Dead's 'Stagger Lee' is, for instance, a lot closer to the 1895 original than 'Casey Jones' is to 'The Ballad Of...'). Bob has admitted too that some of the facts are a bit questionable, updating the tale to 1945 for no apparent reason (the date gets set back to 1895 for his solo versions, suggesting it was Jerry's idea to place it round the time of his birth) and that the facts are blurry: 'All I know is somebody shot somebody that night and a legend grew from it!' Jerry sounds as if he's having fun and turns in a twinkly vocal that almost makes up for the lack of melody and the sheer repetitiveness of this six-verse chorus-less song. Many fans seem to like 'Stagger Lee' but this track really doesn't belong on a Dead LP - as for me, I'm pressing criminal charges! Live Performances: Billy got murdered 247 times on stage!
The 'new' 'New New Minglewood Blues' is a little better than the revival of 'Good Lovin', but for me can't compete with the sheer sped-up innocence of the original version as heard on the 'Grateful Dead' album eleven years earlier. The band's sound has changed by almost all recognition: Weir again sings lead but in a swampy confident vocal a million miles away from his jittery 20-year-old self and the track sounds more like a victory lap as anything else, with the band enjoying their position of respectability and statesmanlike standing in the musical world. Unfortunately putting Bob's roar, the best thing about this re-make, so far down the mix was a bad move and slowing the tempo down to a half-crawl is another, something that doesn't make the song menacing (presumably the intention) so much as dull. Blues player Noah Lewis probably wouldn't have recognised what the Dead had done to his tune; chances are most of the Deadheads who last heard this track in 1967 didn't recognise it either. The Dead even mess up the false ending, something their old selves would never have done. To be honest this version is a bit too 'new' and not enough 'Minglewood Blues' for most tastes. Live Performances: 431
One other song from this album that's always had a bad reputation is the last one, a final Garcia-Hunter song of the decade so poorly received that it was only given three performances (the lowest of any of their originals that actually made it to record - and no 'The Barbed Wire Whipping Party' doesn't count!) However I have a soft spot for [ ] 'If I Had The World To Give', which may not be the best or most memorable song the pair of writers ever came up with but whose very humble, understated charm is fully in keeping with the lyrics. In comparison to Donna's narrator, who casually believes the stars are there for her and her beloved, Hunter's narrator is far more timid: he can't give much at all and yearns to give more, but by golly he's going to give what little he has to give 'long as I live'. There's a typically lovely Garcia middle eight too ('But I would have what love I had to give...') that moves the song out of its 'content' phase and makes the act of giving seem like a real effort. Garcia's paper-thin voice is perfect for such a simple, yearning song as he also promises to sing any song his beloved likes - lullabies, a 'plain serenade...', anything that will reflect his lover's emotions. In a way it's as if Hunter has moved on from 'Fire On The Mountain', adjusted his sights from the band used to be doing to what they still can do - deliver songs in touch with characters and their feelings, whatever they might be. The stripped down backing (with Keith finally waking up for his last track as a member of the band with his best piano playing of the album, simple as it is) does make the song at risk of being forgotten in amongst the noisier songs that come before it, but I'd rather hear something heartfelt and humble like this than all the shouting in the world. Only a slightly anonymous Garcia solo truly lets the side down: actually 'World' is one of the Dead's more under-rated songs, especially from this forgotten period. Live Performances: 3
'Shakedown Street', then, isn't really the place where the cool guys hang out: its contemporary disco sounds are far more embarrassing to modern Deadheads than anything the band used to play in their natural style and the band are uninspired for the most part, with only Garcia and Hunter occasionally breaking out of the apathy that had beset the band. However if you can avoid the blind alleys and unnecessary trips down into memory lane there's enough here to suggest that even at one of their lowest points the Grateful Dead were a band to be reckoned with and which still had more than enough ideas to sock it to the music buying public. If only both Jerry and Bob had delayed their solo albums, swapped some of the better songs from each around and then delivered this material to someone more concerned in staying 'hippie' than 'hip' then this album might yet have been a rewarding experience for band and listener. Instead it's another 'nearly' album like 'Terrapin Station' and 'Go To Heaven' to come, though perhaps lacking the former album's grandiose vision and title track and the latter album's consistent mood and feel. Better than many fans remember, if not as good as by rights it ought to be, 'Shakedown Street' feels trapped in no man's land, under-written and over-produced, where 'too much of everything is still not enough'. However every fan needs to own 'Fire On The Mountain' and most will want to own the other two 'proper' Garcia/Hunter songs - and by most AAA standards in 1978, especially band's celebrating their fourteenth year, three integral songs out of ten isn't actually that bad odds.
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