The Grateful Dead only visited England a half-dozen times in 30 years, but the quintessential American band’s relationship ran deeper than it might seem, filled with unexpected connections & fans as devoted as any Dead Heads back home, including lyric scholar Alex Allan.
Over There: The Dead in England supplementary notes
by Jesse Jarnow
The Grateful Dead first played in England at the Hollywood Festival in May 1970 and last at Wembley Arena in autumn 1990 with very few visits between. But each time the Dead crossed the Atlantic was memorable, establishing a fanbase as devoted as American Dead Heads if perhaps more “selective” in size, in the words of one semi-famous fictional British rock manager.
When the Dead performed in England in early 1981, Jerry Garcia sat for two very different interviews that revealed a lot about British music fans’ relationship to the Dead. One was published by the weekly New Musical Express, conducted by the confrontational punk journalist Paul Morley. The other was published by the folk and improv-loving Swing 51, conducted by the acoustic music scholar Ken Hunt. Both remain extremely fascinating reads.
One noteworthy British Dead fan, both for his distinguished public service and his Grateful Dead scholarship, is Alex Allan, proprietor of the modestly-named lyric and song finder at WhiteGum.com. The most authoritative source for lyrics to Grateful Dead originals, covers, and spin-offs with all their many revisions and sources. Some recent things that have surprised me are a “new” Robert Hunter song debuted by Bob Weir and the Wolf Bros. in April 2021 (“Big Sandy Creek”) and a Robert Hunter/Elvis Costello collaboration with no known tapes (“Tomorrow’s Blues”). Another incredible site that happens to be UK based is Matt Schofield’s Deaddisc.com, The wormholes are deep. Pick one and dive in.
In 1996, Alex Allan wrote an essay for the British Dead zine Spiral Light called “A Deadhead in Downing Street,” which he’s kindly let us reproduce.
A Deadhead In Downing Street
by Alex Allan
I don't imagine John Major had heard of the Grateful Dead before he met me. But he now gives a tolerant smile when he wanders past my desk in Downing Street and notices copies of DeadBase lying around-or indeed copies of Spiral Light. I don't think he quite believed it when I showed him the picture of Garcia in shorts in Issue 32!
My job goes under the grand title of "Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister." The easiest way to explain that is to say I'm Bernard in Yes, Prime Minister-and in answer to the inevitable questions, that programme is of course a wholly realistic documentary series masquerading as fiction (well sort of ...). I've managed to combine being a Deadhead and a civil servant for over twenty years now -- I joined the civil service not long after I'd seen the Dead at Bickershaw and the Lyceum during the Europe '72 Tour. My main problem has always been lack of time to listen to the music, particularly in my present job: something like "you keep me working boss man, working round the clock."
Weekends are a time to catch up. One great pleasure is walking my dog in the New Forest listening to the latest tape trade on my Walkman -- until I'm interrupted by the inevitable bleeper and mobile phone call. But I've discovered that if I have the tape on loud enough I can't hear my bleeper, which can be convenient (don't tell our switchboard operators).
I first met John Major when he was in the Treasury. When he became Chancellor I went on a visit to Washington with him, and that of course involved an obligatory trip to Tower Records for both of us -- for me to catch up on new Dead-related stuff and for him to browse around Joan Sutherland records for Norma. In those days it was easy: wander down the lift and walk five minutes round the corner from the IMF building during a gap between meetings.
When I went back with him as Prime Minister in 1993, it was all much harder. He had full Secret Service protection. So a convoy of cars with blue flashing lights stopped outside Tower Records and a huge army of agents jumped out. But inside, it was much the same: me downstairs looking for incredibly obscure Dead stuff; the Prime Minister upstairs looking at country and classical music and Mrs Major finding opera recordings to add to her collection.
As you will have gathered, the Prime Minister cannot be said to listen to the Grateful Dead much himself. But they play some covers of the sort of music he likes, such as Marty Robbins and Buddy Holly. And I did once try to infiltrate a tape into his car, carefully selecting the Dead songs I thought might appeal -- but, as always, that plot was foiled by a telephone call from the Chancellor which rather diverted his attention!
As fate would have it, I was in Australia when Jerry died. I had a mobile phone with me for the office to contact me in emergencies-and the only time they tried was when they heard the news about Jerry. Unfortunately I was on a boat off the Queensland coast and out of range at the time. I caught up with the news when we got back to Sydney, with a visit to an Internet Cafe‚ to find out if it was really true.
I find the Internet a great way to keep in touch with news about the Dead. I can often be found using my portable computer in our office at international Summit meetings in New Zealand or Canada to log on and catch up with what's been happening. When I have time, I have ambitions to get my own Web page up and running-but no, it won't be on the Number 10 Server. I'm something of a "completist" for obscure songs and their lyrics, both covers and originals. So I probably spend as much time listening and trying to decipher the lyrics to Revolutionary Hamstrung Blues, Down So Long or Equinox as I do to hearing the great Scarlet > Fires.
Combining being a civil servant and a Deadhead leaves a host of memories and images. The thrill of first seeing the Dead in the mud at Bickershaw and the intimacy of the Lyceum. Proudly wearing one of my Garcia ties to lunch with the President and Vice President at the White House. Bicycling early from the Treasury to the Rainbow to see all the 1981 concerts from right at the front. Getting really bored in a huge international meeting with simultaneous translation via headphones, and substituting a Dead tape on my Walkman and hoping no one would notice. And the relaxed, almost family atmosphere which John Major keeps going in Number 10, which means that eccentricities such as my passion for the Dead are tolerated affectionately, though with good-natured teasing when I go over the top.
I guess there's only one way to finish this article-I can't resist it:
"Ah well, a touch of grey kind of suits you any way"
That was all I had to say.
I love Deadcasts, but this is a kind of pathetic take on British experience, making us sound distant in more than one sense. Britain is not just England for a start.....at university in Edinburgh (ie Scotland) in the early 1970s there were many of us who had found the Dead, then found each other. I was on the mailing list set up after Skull&Roses in my teens. A large group of us travelled from Edinburgh to London for the Alexandra Palace shows. And I am disappointed that the role of the unix newsgroup rec.music.gdead in making the US Dead scene accessible to we Brits is not mentioned. I was part of that community from 1987, started to MO for tickets and use all my holidays for visiting the US for tours, and made lifelong nethead friends -reinforced by the number of netheads who came to the 1990 European shows. Seeing 12 - 15 shows a year from1988 to 1995 was absolutely amazing, especially as the ticket people often sent me really good seats. I lost interest in the homespun and overwhelmingly male British ' scene' after that. But trust me, there are more lifelong Deadheads in this country than the episode suggests.
We went to the five German shows in 1990 as well as the London ones. Perhaps the Dead scene in Germany would be an interesting subject for a Deadcast.
Okay... I'm going to strike at the heart of this for a moment. I'm 38, my husband and I started listening to the dead during the pandemic. We've never been to a dead concert, have had no contact with a real community, but we keep hearing people talk about this /thing/. Vaguely. This is the thing - 50 min in to the podcast: "Same thing happened to me as happened to thousands of other people. I went into that place; we started with darkstar we went into space - I listened back it was really heavy really heavy space, then they kind of went back into darkstar... it lasted for hours, then I was a changed person afterwards. Same thing that happened to may other people - I've gone to that place, and I've never left it."
WHAT IS THIS. After seeing long strange trip I thought to myself, "self, next time you're proper high with nothing specific to do sit and listen to that morning dew that made that tape truck man cry." That story is literally a zen koan: How do you capture magic? it can only happen when no one is in the truck. You can't be in the truck, you have to be present. Okay. Phil says you have to really listen. Okay. I'm just going to listen to this.
Then after seeing the sunlight, nothing is the same. My brain works differently. Bang. I know how to be happy. Can we talk about this? Directly? I read signpost. I know they're consciously doing magic. I know you know they're doing it. You told me to read signpost. Whats going on? The feeling of being turned on like that reads a LOT like leary/wilson's 5th and 6th circuits. Or like having your brain garden landscaped by Ram Dass. Where are the people talking about this openly??
I'm a Deafhead from the UK, and a co-founder of DeafZone USA back in 1989. I and many of my Deaf friends are continually disappointed that these podcasts are not captioned or transcribed. Whatever happened to equal access and respect ? More and more websites are beginning to make this possible, yet people who claim to believe in 'peace, love understanding - man' lag well behind. It's rather ironic that apparently I am actually mentioned by name in this particular episode, yet am prevented from being able to participate in that experience. 'When there were no ears to hear, you sang to me' - not !
Having come to the Dead during the musical desert of the early 1980s, not introduced by anyone else, but from seeing them mentioned in various books and thinking 'lets give it a go', I was a somewhat lonely Deadhead, no one else at my school or in Uni remotely interested. Spiral Light was an incredible way in, great writing, a whole load of mysteries. Also allowed me in to taping, I never had that many but the tape exchange was amazing and everyone on it so generous and understanding to a newbie. Never really got to say thank you, so here it is.
Thanks also for all the podcasts, great listening. Please take heed of Paddy's comments though.