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