Saturday, August 8, 2020

Adding to the List - Progressive Rock


It's more a tradition than a policy that AM look only positively on what is reviewed. I post about the core of a band's halcyon days. Led Zeppelin's treatment, for example, starts at LZ1 and continues through Physical Graffiti with just a smattering of Presence and In Through the Out Door. For ELP, I don’t mention Love Beach at all (and act like it doesn't exist). Pink Floyd's The Final Cut – I just leave it alone, often referring to it and The Wall as Roger Waters and Guests. That's about as derogatory as it gets.

So, what to do when an LP is simply sublime on one side and just yuck on the other? Such is the case with the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station. Side One is not a total loss, particularly "Estimated Prophet," but "Dancin in the Streets" is simply awful (amazing that the Jagger/Bowie version is worse!). Mostly I pretend there is no Side One and move on to the 16-minute title track on the flip side.

When a few months back I listed the ten greatest prog LPs, I excluded Zappa (I tend to look at the Mothers as psychedelia rather than prog), which left ten British LPs. Face it, prog was, in its classic days, a British venture (and please don’t say Styx or I'll have one of those little throw-ups in my mouth). That said, The "Terrapin Station" Suite is among the best-produced prog pieces out there. Wait, the Dead is prog now?

Back before their mid-70s hiatus, I was listening almost exclusively to progressive rock – add in a little Led Zeppelin and Bowie, but prog was the focus. I stumbled across Grateful Dead at the Mars Hotel and it fit very nicely into my ’74 groove. "Unbroken Chain" was as proggy as Marillion or Can, so it didn't surprise me the first time I heard "Terrapin Station" in 1977. If you have never heard it, you're lucky – I wish that I could hear it again for the first time. Robert Hunter's literary book and Garcia's melody and voice are only the core of a prog masterpiece that utilized a half-dozen British studios from Abbey Road to Air to Trident to achieve the nuanced layering of tracks that include a full orchestra and choir (the core of the production was at Sound City in Van Nuys).

Each section of "Terrapin Station" begins with an invocation to the muse who is asked to hold back despair. With that, Hunter is off into verse that evokes the early night sky and a million crickets. There are metaphor and simile and assonance and allegory, and the title itself suggests Native American origin mythology in which a turtle carries the earth on its back.

The first part, "Lady with a Fan," is based on a traditional English folk tune called "The Lady of Carlisle" and features a theme of seduction and foolish bravado with an intricate harmonized guitar lead in between Garcia-led verses. The next three sections are more upbeat and climatic while pleasant and melodic and reeking of fairy tale. During "Terrapin Transit" the jam breaks into a psychedelic motif with synths, bass and percussion by Mickey Hart, while "Terrapin Flyer" features lush production over the percussive motifs. "Refrain" includes an opera-like chorus as the final act of our adventure. The suite was actually Part 1 of a two-part composition, the second of which was never recorded or performed by the Grateful Dead. "Terrapin Station" is a love letter to the art of storytelling and the muse that lives within us all. It is one of the band's shining moments, and one of prog's, as well.

Go back and explore my best of list on prog and find that while I stand behind it, just how many times can one listen to "Close to the Edge." Albeit a lot, I save it now for when I am truly in the mood and able to listen - then it will make me cry, but over the years I've expanded those prog horizons and now there comes a day periodically when Can replaces Camel or The Power and the Glory replaces Octopus. I'm not replacing anything with Terrapin Station (particularly based on Side One), but give it a listen, you will be rewarded.

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