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‘Terrapin Station’: Behind Grateful Dead’s ‘Mainstream’ Rock Album
In Depth

‘Terrapin Station’: Behind Grateful Dead’s ‘Mainstream’ Rock Album

Grateful Dead’s ‘Terrapin Station’ album was a typically off-kilter bid for mainstream glory. Fans wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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By the mid-70s, Grateful Dead had made strides towards independence, setting up their own record label, their own management firm and their own touring company. So a few eyebrows would have been raised among Deadheads when the anarchic collective announced that their 1977 album, Terrapin Station, would be released on a major label, Arista.

The context: An album like no other in the Dead’s catalogue

Even more shocking, considering their track record with producers, would have been the news that Keith Olsen – hot at the time for having produced Fleetwood Mac’s hugely successful self-titled 1975 album, the first of the group’s Buckingham-Nicks era – would be manning the controls. The last producer brave enough to attempt to tame the Dead in the studio was David Hassinger, on 1968’s Anthem Of The Sun. Since then, the irrepressible countercultural heroes had employed trusted engineers for assistance, but had taken over production duties themselves.

Listen to ‘Terrapin Station’ here.

The result was an album like no other in the Dead’s catalogue – a slick courting of FM radio that barely featured a guitar solo but which flirted with disco, funk and reggae, and deployed a string section and a choir. As if to assure fans that the group hadn’t wholly curbed their experimental impulses, Terrapin Station also featured one of the Dead’s most ambitious songs yet, in Jerry Garcia’s 16-minute title track: a five-part orchestrated suite that took the already musically well-travelled Dead to new places.

Typically, the Dead’s leader was laidback about this latest round of changes for the group, telling BAM magazine in 1977, “I don’t have any preconceptions of what the Dead sounds like… It’s still the same guys. We all play together, just like we used to”.

The songs: Jerry Garcia gets orchestrated

Terrapin Station starts strongly with Estimated Prophet. Written by guitarist Bob Weir and poet John Barlow, it’s a slick, Steely Dan-like funk-rock track with strong backing vocals from Donna Godchaux and a saxophone solo from Tom Scott. But though on its surface Estimated Prophet appeared to be much smoother than anything the Dead had recorded to date, the song’s 7/4 time signature gave the track an edge – as did Barlow’s lyrics, written about the sort of Dead zealot occasionally found at the group’s live shows.

“It’s about someone who has taken too many hallucinogens and thinks they’re in telepathic communication with me,” Weir told Rolling Stone of the song. “They come up to me and start off in the middle of a rave because they think I know everything they’re talking about. By this time I think I do because it’s almost always the same. The song is trying to point out these people’s holy folly.”

Dancin’ In The Streets was further evidence of the Dead’s move towards a more commercial sound. Martha And The Vandellas’ Motown classic had been a regular part of the group’s set from the mid-60s through to 1970, when it was used as a starting point for improvisation. However, when it returned to their live shows in 1976 it was radically revamped into a slinky groove.

Perhaps with one eye on scoring a chart hit, the group added a disco element to the studio version of Terrapin Station. “It’s just the same as the Dancin’ we’re doing live,” Garcia assured BAM. “It’s slower, but that’s just ’cause it’s the right tempo. The way we do it live is usually so wired… [The album version] felt better. It felt more right in terms of making the lyrics make sense, the phrasing, the licks, and everything. It sounds like a joke when it’s going that fast on a record. It doesn’t work.”

The Dead were on more expected ground with Passenger, a co-write between bassist Phil Lesh (music) and Peter Monk (lyrics), a Buddhist monk who acted as a spiritual figure in the Dead camp. A rollicking West Coast psych-rocker, with nifty slide guitar from Garcia, the song was, according to Lesh, initially a tribute to Fleetwood Mac. “What’s weird about that song is I sort of did it as a joke,” the bassist told the Dead fanzine Dupree’s Diamond News. “It’s a take on a Fleetwood Mac tune called Station Man. I just sort of sped it up and put some different chord changes in there.”

Elsewhere on Terrapin Station, Weir’s fiery take on Samson And Delilah, a gospel-blues standard penned by the Reverend Gary Davis, was the closest the album came to the Dead’s traditional sound, the group casting the song as a loose shuffle studded with blasts of Hammond and stinging guitar. And Sunrise, a lush, orchestrated ballad sung by Donna Godchaux which closed Side One of the original vinyl pressing, was the biggest departure so far.

Still, any innovations on the first half of the album were blown away by what was to come. Co-written by Jerry Garcia (music) and Robert Hunter (lyrics), Terrapin Station’s title track took up the entire second half of the album, and encompassed movements that spanned prog, jazz-fusion and the Dead’s take on Medieval court music. The track itself is one of most enigmatic among the best Grateful Dead songs, with Hunter exploring “Terrapin Station” as an idyllic state of nirvana or inner peace, and documenting his philosophical journey on the way there.

While the Dead had road-tested the suite, it was rearranged in the studio to include ambitious orchestral arrangements, with producer Keith Olsen recording the string sections in London, enlisting Paul Buckmaster (Miles Davis, Carly Simon, Elton John) to write the score. Garcia enthused about the song’s final recorded version while talking to BAM: “Paul Buckmaster has very good ears and he’s very tasteful. The horn parts and the string parts in that whole Terrapin melody are exactly the voicings that I play on the guitar. In the last part, the reprise of Terrapin, my guitar is not in there at all. Instead, I use all the orchestra parts that play my guitar parts. So that’s them being me. That’s the orchestrated version of me.”

The release and legacy: An elemental force

Initially released on 27 July 1977, Terrapin Station may not have been the smash hit the Dead and their label were hoping for, but it sold steadily and eventually went gold in the US. Most importantly, it gifted the world the astonishing title track and gave the Dead impetus to return to the studio for the following year’s Shakedown Street. The extensive concert recordings that exist from the time show how the album’s songs came alive on the road, proving that, though Olsen might have tried, the elemental force of the Dead was impossible to confine to the studio.

Find out which ‘Terrapin Statin’ track ranks among the best Grateful Dead songs.

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