“Sea Change” is a series that discusses an album in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style.
In 1977, The Grateful Dead were slowly drifting out of the mainstream and were becoming desperate for a hit single to increase their popularity. Though they had a cult-like following of “Deadheads,” in order to keep selling tickets and albums, the band needed to do something much more commercial and consumer friendly.
Since their debut album release in 1967, the group had drifted into and combined a plethora of genres, such as blues, country, folk, and psychedelic rock. Starting in 1970 with the release of Workingman’s Dead, the group had developed a more folk, country, jazz, and rock style that paid homage to the musicians that had preceded and inspired them but also was incredibly contemporary and “laid-back.”
On a string of albums from 1970 to 1975 (three of which were released on their own independent label), the Dead no longer sounded like an LSD driven blues band; instead, they sounded more refined as musicians and a group. While this genre-bending sound worked for a few years, the rise of disco and “dance-pop” in the late 1970s began to push out the folkies and hippies and welcomed in the polyester-suited dancers.
In hopes of returning to the spotlight, the Dead signed on to Arista Records and went into the studio with producer Keith Olsen, who had previously produced Fleetwood Mac’s
legendary 1975 release. Typical of an LA producer, Olsen expected to have a certain level of control in the studio and over the sound and production of the album; however, this was not the style of the Grateful Dead, who had been self-produced for around nine years.
While Fleetwood Mac prided themselves on their beautiful 70s FM rock production and arrangements, the Grateful Dead were more focused on improvisation and working with each other in the moment to create music rather than agreeing to the styles of a producer or record company. While Olsen was accustomed to recording many takes of one section of a song until it sounded good to him, the Dead wanted to record until it sounded good to them and then move on, which required fewer takes.
Further conflicts arose between the producer and the band over the sound and production of the record as time went on. Olsen continually added and removed sections of songs to make the album more commercial sounding without getting approval from the band, leading to further arguments and some compromises.
After seven months of recording, touring, and negotiation, on July 27, 1977, Terrapin Station hit record store shelves.
The album begins with Bob Weir’s “Estimated Prophet,” a smooth rock number about someone who believes that they are a heavenly being heading to California, which the narrator refers to as a paradise.
Despite lyrics that have a cynical, deeper meaning, Olsen’s production is one of an easygoing LA beach number and it doesn’t seem to fit incredibly well. The funky rhythm in 7/4 time and horn section, which, to my knowledge, had not been in a Grateful Dead recording before, don’t seem to fit the sound that the Grateful Dead had produced for the previous decade. The search for a commercial record had brought in the need for these additional elements and this is incredibly clear on the opening track.
In terms of overall production, right from the beginning, we see that this is the “cleanest” that the Dead has ever sounded. The bluesy country sound that had made them famous is now replaced by lush background vocals, airy guitars, synthesizers, and saxophones. They seem to have transformed from San Francisco hippies to Venice Beach yacht rockers.
The next track, “Dancin’ In The Streets,” a cover of the ’60s classic by Martha and the Vandellas, ramps up the “cleanliness” and production, creating a piece equal to Grand Funk Railroad’s rendition of “The Locomotion,” which, if you haven’t heard it, is terrible. The track is made to be a funky disco number but, as the piece continues, it slowly becomes a cacophony of keyboards, horns, guitars, bass, and vocals.
While the Dead’s style of playing as if everyone was performing a solo works for their longer jams, it clashes horrendously with disco.
The next two tracks on the album, “Passenger” and “Samson and Delilah,” can be recognized as stereotypical “classic rock.” “Passenger”‘s instruments consist of a hard hitting rhythm section and slide guitar that rings out in between verses while Bob Weir’s vocals are much heavier and louder than before. Lyrically, the song is not great; the images are a little too far-fetched and pretentious and don’t really make sense after a few listens.
The following cut, “Samson and Delilah” is a bluesy, rock reworking of Reverend Gary Davis’ gospel song. Again, we see the Dead trying their darnedest to make a hit single while sticking to their style of playing traditional pieces with a modern interpretation. Yet again, however, it doesn’t work. The syncopated, 70s pop rhythm and melody take away from and seem to bastardize this gospel standard. Though there isn’t a horn section or orchestral arrangements in this piece, the song still falls short of a hit and, at times, is intolerable.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time on these two songs since they are mostly forgettable. If you care to listen to them, here they are.
The last track on side one, “Sunrise,” is my personal favorite on this half. It is this song that, in my mind, shows that the Dead could master the LA pop form while also combining it with a new style for them, progressive rock.
Continuing the religious imagery that pops up in several tracks before this, “Sunrise” depicts a religious ceremony where a heavenly priest or godlike figure performs a series of rituals and then departs.
Donna Godchaux, who mostly sang background vocals, takes the lead and brings her melodic, beautiful voice to the forefront, juxtaposing the hard-edged vocal style of Weir.
Musically, Olsen carries over his production style utilized with Fleetwood Mac’s record and applies it beautifully to the Grateful Dead. Though the piece’s heavy orchestration and overdubbing may seem overdone as a Grateful Dead tune, as a standalone piece, the song is a great example of late 70s LA production, which was made popular by groups such as The Eagles with One of These Nights and Hotel California. Garcia compliments the orchestra with his light, soaring guitar playing that shows greater restraint than some of his other works with the group.
Among the many layers of instrumentation, one finds a usage of acoustic guitars that highlight the quieter sections of the piece, drawing on a folk style that, blended with orchestral compositions, is reminiscent of the progressive group Renaissance.
Finally, we reach side two which consists of the epic, sprawling piece “Terrapin Station Medley.”
To put this piece into perspective, I have included below a playlist of five progressive rock “epics,” songs that are more than or around fifteen minutes long that are constructed like classical symphonies with multiple movements.
The playlist linked below is about two hours worth of music but, if you’re anything like me, it will be two hours that will change your life.
According to the track listing, “Terrapin Station” is split into seven separate sections, which is common in progressive rock pieces of this length.
The lyrics for this track are the best of the entire album, which makes sense since they were written by legendary lyricist Robert Hunter, who composed some of the Grateful Dead’s best songs.
Just like other progressive pieces, the lyrics contain references to older works of literature and are filled with poetic metaphors and images that one must consider and think about during and after a listen-through of the song. Overall, from what I understand, the narrator first tells stories of men who have lost in love and of a sailor who risks his life to be with a beautiful woman. From here, after the narrator tells us that we never know the end of such stories, we move to images of a mysterious, otherworldly place that the speaker is heading towards on a train and that others commonly seek; a place referred to as Terrapin.
Though the lyrics require a certain level of analysis and are beautiful to listen to, the most important part of the song is the music.
Overall, “Terrapin Station Medley” is a progressive rock song but not in the style of Genesis or Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; instead, this style of prog rock is most similar to ELO’s style, combining orchestral arrangements with extended rock and pop tunes.
While there are sections towards the end of the song that are more jazz-oriented and similar to other progressive artists, the beginning five minutes and the choral arrangements at the very end sound as if they were an outtake from Out of the Blue.
After reading about the history of this album and examining each part closely, one begins to see that this “medley” is the result of several arguments and negotiations between the band and producer. In one minute, the Dead slip into their traditional jamming style while in other sections strings soar and everything returns to the pop progressive style that the producer had wanted to achieve.
Because of this, sections of the song work beautifully but, as a whole, the song seems a bit thrown together at the last minute and not entirely coherent when listening closely. Is this the fault of the band? It’s difficult to say. When performing live, the group would either only play the section found in the first five minutes or jam based on a similar theme, completely pushing aside the lavishly produced arrangements found on the album.
I could keep on explaining this track, but it’s best just to hear it for yourself.
Note: If you’re interested, I’ve also included a 2016 interpretation of the song by Daniel Rossen that is actually quite good.
With no singles released from the album and a sound that greatly strayed from their previous studio recordings, Terrapin Station didn’t get the commercial attention that the Dead had been hoping for (it only reached 23 on the billboard charts).
This wouldn’t stop the band from pursuing a commercial album, however. In 1978, teaming up with Little Feat bandleader Lowell George, the group released Shakedown Street, a record that was just as clean as Terrapin Station but was even more disorganized. Rather than returning to the genres and styles that had made them popular, the Grateful Dead stuck with contemporary popular styles, such as disco, and did their best to fit in, even when it produced terrible results.
At the end of the day, Terrapin Station is the product of an increasingly fading band trying to become mainstream and commercially successful. This was and is not something uncommon for musicians who were once successful and are trying again to achieve popularity.
There are those who are incredibly successful with this change of sound, such as Billy Joel’s The Stranger or Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years, and there are those who fail miserably, such as Bob Dylan’s entire musical output in the 1980s.
Though the dead released Terrapin Station in hopes of becoming more commercially successful, when listening to their live performances from this era, it’s clear that they were not a group of money-hunger “sell-outs.” Instead, it becomes clear that they were trying to become successful in order to fund what they really wanted to do in concert and in the studio, which was the same tactic used by Frank Zappa.
After several listens of Terrapin Station, it’s difficult for me to say that I’ll be turning back to it often when listening to the Dead and will more often direct myself to their 1977 live performances, which was still not as gritty as their early work but maintained the same feel and style that had characterized their early 70s material.
Jerry Garcia once said:
“We’re not a band that makes our albums. That’s just a guise we adopt to get by in the studio… I’ve always felt the Grateful Dead is a pretty bad recording band. We don’t put that much energy into developing as a recording unit. It’s difficult because as a live band, our dynamic range goes far beyond what can be accurately [recorded] on vinyl.”
In regards to Terrapin Station, the Dead’s producer tried to make the group as commercial as possible and abandon their live jamming and noodling while the Dead still wanted to keep some sense of their sound in concert. When combined together, the resulting record isn’t what the group or Grateful Dead fans wanted.
Thank you for reading this edition of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Written by: George LaBour ’17