Monday, 26 October 2015

Not Just Me, Then

Narrow Quay hoarding, Bristol

Talking of ancient music and tribes, which I was a couple of posts ago, one phenomenon I could never understand was the cult of the Grateful Dead.  This may be a peculiarly British blindspot or prejudice, although I have known a few fervent Brit "deadheads", including an otherwise very admirable friend who arranged for "Box of Rain" to be played at his own memorial service.  Younger readers may not know the cult whereof I speak, so I direct their attention to this video on YouTube.  Ignore the dire animated intro, and then marvel at this live recording from 1974.  Not at the band, but at the audience.  Honestly...  All those hysterically-grinning, hand-waving fools...  Yes, if you're American and under 40, those may well have been your parents.  It's nothing but Billy Graham Beatlemania shifted into a different groove.

Obviously, the idea of the Dead had a certain appeal.  To have been the house band at Ken Kesey's "acid tests", to have ingested such prodigious amounts of various illicit substances and yet still manage to find their way on stage (never mind figure out which way up a guitar goes), as well as having acquired such a fanatically loyal fanbase, who would travel to the ends of the earth to be present at any Grateful Dead manifestation...  It's a legend to match those of the Rolling Stones, or Bob Dylan, or The Who.  Apart from one thing.  The music.

Oh, man, the trees ... They're just ... machines!
(Millennium Square, Bristol)

Oh, that music.  I suppose if you like homogenized, chug-along, boogified blues, with all the edges smoothed off, and with some portentous grab-bag lyrics about nothing in particular floating on top, all sung in the same limp harmonized vocals, with plenty of directionless guitar noodling ladled over everything, then you might not turn it off if it came on the radio.  But I have never been able to understand how anyone ever experienced a Damascene moment by listening to that feeble whining noise with its pasted-on ain't-we-got-fun rictus, however stoned they might have been at the time.

Why, you might justifiably ask, is there then no similar cult around, say, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (come on, they all had to be on something to remain so relentlessly upbeat), or any other outfit of inoffensively bland toe-tappers?  Though, on reflection, I believe it's true that muzak-meister and "party king" James Last did have a devoted and multitudinous following (Hansi-heads?).  I suspect in the case of the Dead it's a "sizzle vs. sausage" thing: like that other storied outfit from a rather different corner of the USA, the Velvet Underground, it seems the myth-making, publicity and back-story far outshine the "product", and will probably outlast it, too.  Rather like Swinburne or Byron, with their eternally fascinating "life and legend", and unread, mostly unreadable poetry.

Which means I was gratified to read this post on veteran music journalist David Hepworth's blog.  So, not just me, then!  Let the hate-mail commence...  I do not stand alone!

Mind you, I do feel very much the same about The Smiths.

Millennium Square, Bristol: giant mirrored ball


milldave said...

Hi Mike,

Each to his own, I guess, but I'm definitely with you on this.
And the Smiths, to me, produced some good music, but allied to the most pretentious twaddle for lyrics and the inability of the lead singer to sing that twaddle, the result was "Music to vomit by"!
And this from an area that produced the Buzzcocks and John Cooper Clarke!!
(His album, "Snap, Crackle & Bop" has some sublime lyrics allied to some even better music; a snarling Salford delivery which, today in my dotage, gives me a thrill in bland, anodyne Canada!)
I'm glad you decided to retire when you did; the work coming through is your best to date, in my humble opinion, and I like the direction it's going.
Keep the good work and the blog coming - -you, Kirk Tuck, Mike Johnston and Andrew Molitor are few and far between, it seems, in the ocean of mediocrity that is photography on the web.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, David -- there's nothing quite like being tailgated by Time's Winged Chariot to spur you on... I'm sure there must be more than four readable photo-blogs out there, but can't think what they are just now.


stephen connor said...

Totally with you on the Dead and the Smiths. As for Herb Alpert, have you seen "The Wrecking Crew"? Good documentary on the real musicians behind a lot of the music of the 60s. Herb shows up, and shows a lot of class.

Mike C. said...


I can't remember whether the Wrecking Crew were the guys at Muscle Shoals, or the Motown guys. Either way, I've seen a couple of documentaries that amazed me by revealing that the session guys behind any number of soul hits -- even Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett -- were a bunch of rednecks in drip-dry shirts...


Martin Hodges said...

The Grateful Dead might be viewed with the same degree of bemusement as Morrissey having his life story published as a Penguin Classic.

Mike C. said...


Yes, that has to be one of the most pusillanimous publishing decisions ever. You'd have thought Penguin, of all publishers, had the standing to tell him where to go and what to do there. Not what it was, publishing...

Or music come to that... Even nostalgia is not what it's cracked up to be (ba-dum)...

"Heaven knows I'm miserable now" (always cheers me up to think of that).


Zouk Delors said...

I'm not sure I'd even heard of the Grateful Dead till I went to university, where I discovered that public school stoners didn't listen to Progressive Blues, but something called "West Coast". Thereafter I heard plenty, though in that genre I would rate Jefferson Airplane/Starship streets ahead.

I did once attend a Dead concert though: the 1978 (was it?) Pyramids gig, which was local for me at the time. I went on the first night of three, but having been the one to make the "special" flapjacks, during the course of which it was necessary to keep testing the mix, I passed out shortly after the band took to the stage. However, since the event only attracted about a hundred each night -- mostly Deadheads who had flown in specially from around the world -- and there was no security, I was also able to attend without paying on the third and final night and even got up on stage to take a few photos with o trouble. I think I've still got them somewhere though I couldn't find them last time I looked.

The day before that (or was it the day after?), I and a few friends were making our way through the backstreets of a certain quarter of Cairo (Al Batneya) to restock when we ran across Jerry Garcia, presumably on a similar mission. We invited him to come with us to partake at the best little hash den in town, but his "guide" got rather agitated and he declined the offer.

Mike C. said...


I think I *had* heard of them, but only by seeing their album covers on those marathon cover flipping sessions in W.H. Smith after school. In fact, there are very many performers whose album covers I recall vividly, but have never heard ("Th Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death", "Things May Come & Things May Go, But The Art School Dance Goes On For Ever", etc.).

"Jerry Garcia declines pipe, shock".