Blair’s Golden Road Blog—In the Shadow of the Moon: Terrapin Station at 35
The 35th anniversary of the release of the Dead’s Terrapin Station album on July 27, 1977, got me thinking about that magical year and how—or if—that disc fit into that time, and the ways it represented the Grateful Dead to the outside world.
First, a little background. By 1976, the Dead’s brave attempt to break away from the music business establishment by starting their own record labels (in mid-’73) and handling their own publicity, booking and travel arrangements, was weighing them down and causing undue amounts of stress. It turns out “hippie business empire” was an oxymoron. But the Dead were successful enough that there was plenty of interest in them from conventional labels, so when they went looking for a new situation, following a semi-disastrous interim distribution arrangement with United Artists, there were several potential suitors (in suits) waiting for them.
The most appealing was the boss of Arista Records, a successful new label formed by record biz legend Clive Davis. He had desperately wanted to sign the Dead back when he was president of Columbia Records, but couldn’t pry them away from Warner Bros.’ tight contract. He personally courted the band—especially Garcia, whom he admired tremendously (and had tried to sign as a solo act earlier)—and managed to convince the group and their managers that he was the guy who could take them to the next level. Clive believed that lurking underneath that loose, shambling, hippie exterior, lay a chart-topping band with unlimited commercial potential. Delusional? Perhaps. But you gotta love that kind of optimism.
Clive did have one major request. He wanted the band to work with an outside producer for the first time since the boys ran Dave Hassinger off the ranch back in the early stages of making Anthem of the Sun at the end of 1967. What, are you insane? The Grateful Dead? Amazingly, the band agreed, and after scoping out Clive’s list of potential candidates, settled on producer/engineer Keith Olsen, who was hot in the industry at the moment after making Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous breakthrough album. (He had previously worked with such disparate acts as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Dr. John, and the James Gang.) Olsen and the band hit it off right away, and in the winter of ’77 the band headed down to L.A. to begin recording Terrapin Station at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Olsen’s recording headquarters.
A genuinely nice guy and easy-going on a personal level, Olsen could also be quite the taskmaster, and he wanted something from the Dead that no one had ever asked of them—perfection! He toiled with the group endlessly, trying to break them of what he saw as bad musical habits. He had Mickey and Bill orchestrate their parts in a way they never had before—having Mickey play hand percussion mostly, rather than traps—and he made sure every vocal harmony was completely on pitch, every guitar part in service of the pared-down radio-friendly songs. With the exception of the 16-minute suite dubbed “Terrapin Station, Part 1,” no song even reached 6 minutes; two were 3:30 (“Dancing in the Street” and “Samson & Delilah,” which in that era typically ran to about 15 minutes and 7 minutes respectively in concert), and one, “Passenger,” a mere 2:48. It was quite a change from their previous studio album, 1975’s Blues for Allah.
When the album was released, it seemed quite shocking, especially to those of us who had seen “Terrapin,” “Estimated Prophet” and “Passenger” develop and grow live over a few months (and in the case of “Dancing” and “Samson,” a full year) before the record came out. Not only had the songs been seriously truncated in a clear attempt to gain radio airplay, Olsen also had added innumerable production touches that fundamentally changed the sound of the band: sax and lyricon parts to “Estimated”; horns to the disco-fied “Dancing”; strings and horns to “Sunrise” (Donna’s moving ode to fallen road crew chief Rex Jackson); and a full orchestra and British chorale to the “Terrapin” suite. Most of those extra parts were added to the album by Olsen while the band was touring in the spring of ’77. But the group ultimately signed off on the album, deferring to their producer’s vision and whims.
I won’t lie—I was horrified at first. I wrote a review of Terrapin Station for the San Francisco Bay Guardian (8/18/77) in which I lauded the album as “the cleanest-sounding record the Dead have ever made” and complimented “the power and instrumental depth Olsen was able to get out of the Dead,” but slammed the “heavy-handed (or is that lead-fisted) production.” “Sunrise” was “buried in symphonic rubble,” the orchestra on “Terrapin Flyer” “churns out a nauseating melody that alternately sounds like the score of a James Bond movie and a soundtrack of a Bermuda travelogue,” and with the appearance of the choir, “Hunter and Garcia’s stunning piece has been slaughtered by an overzealous producer! For the first time ever, the Grateful Dead actually sound pretentious.” (Hey, BJ, mean people suck!)
The record sold fairly well, though not spectacularly, and certainly not up to Clive’s expectations. The hoped-for “hit single” remained a mirage. It didn’t seem to attract a new audience particularly, and it never gained much traction outside of the Dead world, even with the concession to disco, the glistening harmonies and short songs. It didn’t give a true picture of who the Grateful Dead were, and, as usual, it didn’t fit in with other prevailing pop music trends, from prog rock to new wave.
In interviews, some of the band members were critical of the album’s grandiose production—particularly Mickey, who was apoplectic about what Olsen did to “Terrapin Flyer.” Bob, however, was so enthusiastic about the recording experience that he immediately went back into the studio with Olsen to make Heaven Help the Fool. I’ve always believed that working under Olsen’s benign whip at least made the Dead a better band, and that the spectacular spring ’77 tour—the first after the studio sessions—is proof of that.
Once I got over my inflated expectations for what I felt the record should have been, I started to appreciate Terrapin Station on its own merits—as an example of what a producer with big ideas and commercial inclinations could do with an idiosyncratic outfit like the Grateful Dead.
Recently, after not having heard the album in several years, I gave the disc a serious, headphones-cranked listening, and I came away from the experience quite impressed. It helps that I know much more about both music and recording than I did in 1977, so now I can admire the obvious craft that went into making the album. The precision in the playing doesn’t sound so antiseptic to me; rather, it feels thoughtfully arranged, with great attention paid to mixing different guitar tones within each song (octave divider, envelope filter, half-speed tape manipulation, etc.), varying the percussion track to track, and using keyboards sparingly—mainly organ, rather than piano—just for color, rather than as a constant rhythmic element throughout. The backing vocals are carefully layered with multiple Donnas left, right and center, blending with Weir and Garcia (also doubled or more in places) to create a creamy whole. This was the era of producer Roy Thomas Baker’s audacious and highly influential vocal experiments with Queen (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” etc.) and, of course, Olsen had worked wonders with the stunning vocal trio of Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie in Fleetwood Mac. There was no way he was going to wrangle that sound out Jerry, Bob and Donna, but he did succeed in giving their harmonies an appealing commercial glow. He also used different reverbs in creative ways on everything from drums to vocals. It’s a beautifully made record.
The orchestrations I rather cavalierly derided in my original review sound subtle and sophisticated to me today. (OK, “Sunrise” is still a bit bombastic.) The way the woodwinds and strings smoothly assert themselves at different points in “Terrapin” makes sense from an arrangement standpoint—if you’re willing to accept the notion that this is a studio construction not meant to mirror the way the Grateful Dead sounded live. I still don’t care for the chorale that comes in at the end of the “Terrapin” suite and warbles in the best Queen’s English until the final fade—it’s a bit precious, isn’t it? But on this latest listening I noticed something I’d forgotten: that the song actually concludes the last second before it fades out, with a final sung “Terrapin!”
I’ve always loved the studio version of “Estimated” (I never had a philosophical problem with Tom Scott’s sax taking the solo after the verses rather than Jerry), and “Passenger” remains one of the group’s all-time hottest rock tracks. “Samson” is a bit compact but still effective, and “Sunrise” beats most of the live versions—Donna was always a strong studio singer. I never warmed to this “Dancing in the Street.” The vocal arrangement lacks punch, and without the incredible instrumental jams that were part of the live versions, there’s really not much to it.
Terrapin Station remains a singular curiosity in the Dead’s catalog. It’s probably going too far to suggest it’s the Dead’s Sgt. Pepper (Aoxomoxoa fits that better), but it was definitely a bold stab at something unorthodox, a new way of presenting their music not tied to their performance persona. In the process, however, they lost some of their identity and diluted their essence. Still, its excesses were quickly forgiven and forgotten by the die-hard fans who never embraced it. For them, the real “Terrapin” was that one from last night’s show, or maybe the next to be played.
I always hoped that we’d eventually get to hear some of Olsen’s beautifully recorded versions of these songs stripped of the dross and gloss, but so far he has not assented to letting any of the work tapes leave his studio vault. What was “Terrapin Flyer” like before the flute and strings were added? More like “King Solomon’s Marbles”? Someday, perhaps, well find out.
As a younger Deadhead my initial exposure to Terrapin was a little different than most of you. It was the third studio album I got after Mars Hotel and American Beauty, I chose to get it before some of the chronologically earlier albums or the more commercially successful In the Dark, because as stoltzfus said the cover art is awesome (personally it's my second favorite cover art for the studio albums behind only the American Beauty rose). This was in the spring of 2007. By this time the most widely available CD versions all had the bonus tracks on them. So when I think of the Terrapin Station album I always think of Jerry singing the Catfish John bonus track, which for whatever reason resonates with me on a level the rest of Terrapin never quite did.
In the futile attempt to explain the GD to non-heads (mind you -- only when asked; I never voluntarily engage in most futlile endeavors or at least I like to think so;-), especially about the GD) -- If ya dig it - great, if not, cool -- more tix for us), one thing that always comes back to me which I try to explain is that the GD is melting pot of virtually all genre's of music --true America in the form of a "rock-n-roll band". "What about classical" I'm often hit w/ to which my response is invariably: "Terrapin Stay-a-yay-shun!"
Always considered the live tune classical music done w/ 2 guitars, bass, 2 drummers and keyboard player rather than full-on symphony or ensemble. All the more true for the suite, especially, the album/studio version.
BTW -- all the genres which our boys incorporated into their music turned out to be the spring board for me to explore all these gener's of music which, but for the GD drawing from them, I never would gone out and sought out -- like Wagner, bach, Vivaldi, Rahsaan Rolin Kirk, Miles Davis, Coltrane and the complete list of allstars in blue grass/old timey, blues cats like Howlin wolf, etc., Completes the never-ending circle -- the boys bring it in from the source and we go out to the source to see/hear what else the source is all about . . .
A True American Melting Pot (and not pot that melts, unless . . . )
Terrapin Station overall was listenable at first but ultimately not really valued by me, nor were Shakedown and Go To Heaven. They achieved a sound as good as that on Mars Hotel, but such low grade material.... good tracks matched and more by the weak, and there were too many other good records coming out at the same time. So, the Dead's late 70s and 1980 studio records were relegated -- not party music, not as good as the average GD tape stash or the Stones' latest LPs, and not nearly as interesting as new wave and punk. None of these GD LPs grew on me over time. You could, however, make a GREAT disc with a few tracks from each (e.g. Althea) and I am not sure I would use Terrapin side 2.
Q: Is there a hot single set from 1978-84 or so that includes Terrapin, Shakedown and Fire On The Mountain? I'd like to hear that one.
GD never did the whole thing; 3/18/77 was the only time they played the cool opening of "At a Siding," but Jerry never sang it live.
Me -- I just love the fact that Furthur is adventurous enough to go for the whole shambam live -- and do a fantastic job at what has got to be an amzingly difficult stunt to pull off -- and they do! I love it. Wish the GD did it . . . of did they at one point or another?
Take it Furthur, boys!
Living in and around NYC back when the album came out, one of my fondest memory of Terrapin Station was making sure my radio was on and tuned to WNEW-FM 102.7 every Friday afternoon at 3:00 because for weeks (maybe months) Scott Muni would play Side 2 all the way through. Great kick-off to late 70's weekends.
Fondest memory was hearing Hunter play Terrapin Station all the way through (his Jack O'Roses version, solo acoustic) at Town Hall in NYC in Feb. 1980. Stunning and spectacular. Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee opening up was just bonus.
sometimes i understand its charms, while other times i find myself asking "why did they release this?"
i remember a positive predawn experience with it, Eugene 93, with little red rooster of all songs ("too lazy to crow the day"). proof positive that ANY GD belongs in the GD universe. (still waiting for Wave to the Wind to prove itself, however).
right now it sounds pretty fine.
another fine example of tasty GD cover art, too.
there's jerry playing some hot guitar
choir: terrapeeen, ahhahhhaaaaahhh!!!
they should have used the monolith vocals from 2001: A Space Odyssey instead. THAT would have been something special.
Estimated is fine.
Dancin' is playing right now...ick. the live ones are good, some even great, with the jams that are played after the lyrics.
Passenger is fine.
Samson is one GD song that I have never liked much (extremely repetitious.)
Sunrise is ok by me. If Donna could have sung like that all the time at every show, how nice it would have been. (I love you, Donna Jean.)
Like i said earlier, i enjoy side two a great deal.
Oh, the GD.
both front and back