The Dead are in my head a lot these days, the recent 5cd charity tribute, 'Day of the Dead', justly garnering a lot of media attention and revitalising my interest and curiosity in the band. Nobody born in the late 50s or 60s could fail but to be aware of this momentous band, but fewer actually have heard that much of them or have them on their shelves. OK, I discount of course the tie-dyed masses who can still congregate at the drop of a tab and can discourse eloquently, if carefully and slowly, as to the relative superiority between different performance, Oakwood 90 versus Santa Barbara 68, say, which, for all I know exist within the vast vaults of live available recordings, legit and otherwise. (Hell, I even know someone who felt this 80 disc box set an essential. Eight zero!!) I confess I have never really got the Dead live, or, for that matter, live recordings generally. Had I ever actually seen them actually play I guess that would have been a game changer, but their trips over the pond here to blighty were few, and I was at school when they played Bickershaw festival in 1972. Listening quietly and soberly to live concerts on disc or youtube at home seems somehow, sorry, such a waste of my precious time. One day, maybe, but I'm a studio guy. I like my records tailor made for the home listening experience, without the audience attention, duff notes and drum solos.
Like so many bands I became aware of in my teens, the Grateful Dead I probably liked as an idea more than as an actuality. Like Frank Zappa and the Mothers, they were a name I was happy to drop, establishing my dude credentials, or should that be pretensions, a band for a T shirt or a name check. I hadn't even really heard that much until I hit my country-rock infatuation. The initial releases of American Beauty were flawed by pretty dodgy stereo separation but I could still identify with the strength of the songs, so it was a delight when CDs ushered in remastered versions, and I belatedly put my wallet and my ears where my imagination and affectation had previously been. Yes, a decade or so late but that's me, always late to the party. My first trip to the U.S. resulted in the necessity of buying a Garcia T shirt and the latest record by the band, maybe purely so I could say where I bought them. Man. (Actually, Orlando, so maybe not so cool.......) This was 'In the Dark' in 1987, a patchy record but one that contains this, my favourite Dead song, one that even now I am thinking of how I can make seem appropriate to play at my funeral. (This is a habit of mine, making playlists for events I may not even be attending myself.) Since then I have cherry picked their studio catalogue, finding songs I like alongside one that, frankly, I don't so much, but an enjoyable trip anyway. (I am so not going to say long or strange within the context of this piece!)
So finally to the song in the title. I didn't get around to hearing this until probably only a year of so back, probably not until the release of this recommended double studio retrospective, which makes it last year. Sure, I had read about it, and was aware of the vitriol poured upon it. Indeed, the idea of the Dead do disco did always seem to smack of some bizarre desperation, and I hadn't wanted to hear the depth of the described disgrace. And I am 100% sure that, in the day and at the time, I would have been as horrified as the next hipster, sucking disco being anathema to me until I begrudgingly let Blondie and Roxy Music sneak some into my consciousness. But do you know, I really rather like it. In fact, I'd go further, I love it. Add the fact that it is an ear worm of such persistence that I find myself humming it all over the place. It is cheesy, cheerful and chock full of a chutzpah that, damn it, just ought to make the sanctimonious nay-sayers smile and celebrate. Maybe a bit like the shock of other icons and idols of yesteryear playing Sinatra songs, unthinkable in the day, but, you know, it works. Likewise, contrary to my above comments, I did take a wander through the youtube, browsing the live spectacle, and, if anything, the clip below adds to my pleasure. Garcia is smiling. I am now old enough to dispel the notion that rock gods should not smile during the serious ritual of performance. I love to see musicians enjoy their art rather than suffering for it. It's here
I mentioned the charity record at we started. It's too long, there are too many indulgent and lazy re-runs of lesser known songs, the sound is muddy and it is bloody brilliant. How is that my conclusion? Well, probably because between the reedy vocals and wibbly meanderings there are out and out gems. In particular those featuring the National directly and indirectly shine, arguably unsurprisingly as twin brothers, Bryce and Aaron, both of that band, curated the whole project. But Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Orchestre Baobab, an afro-cuban band from Senegal of all places, throw in a couple of doozies. Even the reliably much reviled Mumford and Sons give a not half decent version of my second favourite Dead song, 'Friend of the Devil'.( War on Drugs take on 'Touch of Grey' hits my spot, too.) As for the version of my title song, thus by default my third favourite Dead song, this is by Unknown Mortal Orchestra and is pretty handy too, adding only a little extra funkiness. Below is their performance of it on Conan:
I'm am not going to send you to the big river this week, nor point you to the original recording. In the spirit of the whole, do some good, buy the charity set direct from the label.