Speaking In Tongues

On April 11th, 1972, the United States Conference of Roman Catholic bishops was opened to the press for the first time and 75 reporters turned up to the meeting in Atlanta to hear Cardinal John Krol deliver his speech. In Latin.

The Cardinal told reporters, “We told you we’d let you in. We didn’t tell you what language we’d talk.” Pranksters can be found in the most unlikely of places, it seems.

There were also language issues when the Grateful Dead buses headed up to play the Newcastle-upon-Tyne City Hall on the same day, expecting that it wouldn’t be until they sailed across the North Sea that they’d have difficulty understanding the locals….

Fortunately, music is a universal language.

I’ve picked the rendition of China-Rider from this concert. There’s a tenuous link between the above story and the incomprehensibility of Hunter’s lyrics but, more importantly, it’s another beautiful piece of free-wheeling Grateful Dead magic. It is subtly different to the Radio Luxembourg version I posted here which is, as far as I can tell, down to Billy’s drumming: this version has an almost Latin feel under its myriad tunes. (It’s discoveries like this that justify listening to a whole tour: had I been living in the States in the seventies, I can see how I would have spent large parts of my life following them from town to town.)

Apparently, Eric Burdon’s Mum went to the concert, hoping to find someone in the band or crew who had met him. One of them, Rosie McGee, had spent some time with Eric recently in LA and so she sat with Mrs Burdon in the balcony for a while. At one point, Mrs B leaned over and, inaudible over the music, mouthed the words: “They’re very good, you know.” What better endorsement could any band want?


21 thoughts on “Speaking In Tongues

  1. I’ve just watched Mike Leigh’s Life Is Sweet on YouTube and been much amused by the anguished comments from Americans who can’t understand what they’re saying. Must remind myself not to tell Matt off for sounding American when I go over to Texas in a fortnight.*


    *nor to use the word ‘fortnight’ when I get there.

  2. Both versions were beautiful, Chris.

    I am at the point where I m (at last) ready to properly investigate the music of the Dead. I’ve been interested for a while – starting way back with the album covers actually! So, could you point me to the right album to start with, if you would be so kind as to do that? There seems to be lots of advice out there, and much of it conflicting. Obviously I am not going for a huge collection like you. I just want to explore modestly! Any advice for the novice most welcome. And thanks for sparking my interest with your posts, enthusiasm and total joy in the music.

    • I’d love to help, SR, but I don’t think there is a ‘right album to start with’, although Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty are both albums of essential songs. Maybe more of a ‘right line-up to start with’ is a better approach, as the way they played and sounded changed according to the personnel (and drugs).
      From 67 to 70, they were quite raw and adventurous with two drummers and Pigpen up front. Lots of extended jamming, due to a paucity of songs, that could just as easily jump the tracks as blow the audience away.
      From 71 to 72, they lost one drummer and gained a pianist and his singing wife. They played many new songs and reduced the number of all-out jams.
      From 72 to 74, they lost Pigpen and all his R’n’B songs/raps and became more ‘jazzy’ in the jams.
      From 75 to 79, the second drummer re-joined and they became less flexible, with the jams becoming more of the conventional solo-over-backing variety. Garcia discovered heroin and his voice started to change.
      From 79 to 89, the Godchaux’s were replaced by Brent Mydland, a singer/keyboard player who sounded quite Doobie-like. Garcia became more variable, although 89 was a good year.
      From 90 to 95, Mydland was replaced by Vince Welnick (of The Tubes) and, for a while, Bruce Hornsby. Garcia in terminal decline.

      Spotify has almost all the Dead’s official releases. I’d suggest you dip into a few albums from each of these time periods and see what you like the sound of (maybe listen to how they play China-Rider for comparison purposes). Then explore. Dead.net also posts concert extracts from different eras each week in their Taper’s Section: that may help guide you.

      As you can no doubt tell, I’m very fond of this tour: it has the combination of good songs, mature playing, flexibility, adventure and Pigpen that I like. There are plenty of later songs and performances that I love although, all too often, the drummers could get overpowering, Mydland could get too smooth and Garcia could get too out of it.

      Does this help or confuse?

      • Ron was given the name when he was a rough, dirty, slightly scary 18-year old, after the Peanuts character. He was actually quite a sweet chap, they say.

      • I’m sorry I can’t be more prescriptive, SR, but the Dead were a performing band, rather than a studio band, so how they played was generally more important than what they played. They only produced 12 studio albums in 30 years and 10 of those came out in the first 16 years.
        They attracted masses of new fans in the late eighties (on the back of Touch Of Grey) who obviously loved what they were doing then but I don’t like much of that later stuff at all; I suspect many of the new fans couldn’t get their heads around the early psychedelic stuff, which I love. Similarly, many older fans rate Blues For Allah as a high point (it was one of Garcia’s favourites, too): I don’t think it works. My favourite troll thinks they did nothing of value after 1970 and is distictly unimpressed by Workingman’s Dead; whilst she’s obviously wrong, I remember struggling to come to terms with an album of short, country-ish songs after Anthem Of The Sun and Live/Dead.
        I’m going to have to quote a Dead song here (a Deadhead habit I usually try to avoid):

        There is a road, no simple highway
        Between the dawn and the dark of night
        And if you go, no one may follow
        That path is for your steps alone

        Ripple – Robert Hunter

    • Well, I like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty a whole lot…plus you could always Like the Dead on Facebook, where there’s a version of this same song(s) just been posted – from July 31 1974.

  3. Hi Chris. I can imagine what it would have been like as I started my concert-going at the Newcastle City Hall way back in 1970. I saw, at various times, Pentangle, The Kinks, ELP and Van Morrison, before I gravitated to London to go off to Poly. The sound on this track is stunning and I never heard things so good when I was there. Fabulous playing, magical music.

    This is a great way to start the day for me as I often open the Spill up when I arrive at work and I’m lucky to be able to access ‘non-work’ internet in my job.Please don’t stop.

    By the by, I saw Eric Burden, backed by a bunch of oustanding young tyros, a couple of years ago at the Maryport Blues Festival standing in for an unwell Taj Mahal. He was still in excellent form, his voice as strong as ever and they did a great rendition of the Animals back-catalogue.Brought tears to an old Geordie’s eyes hearing We’ve Gotta Get out of this Place belted out in all its glory.

  4. Liked the track a lot too. ‘Freewheeling’ is just about the best adjective to describe it….it sounds laid back, but brings the listener along for ride too.

    • A very acute observation there, panther. You’re definitely close to defining what I find so attractive about them when they’re on form. The musical development of every song is organic, unforced and inclusive of the listener; it seems like a shared adventure. And it’s never exactly the same twice.

  5. Some lovely interplay between the guitars, bass and drums in the transition between the two songs …. great drumming, which reinforces the question I’ve often asked myself: ‘quite what (apart from a friend and a healing of old wounds) did they get when Mickey Hart came back into the band?

    Back in the early 70s I was obsessed with all things Dead and waiting for a new album to come out was sweet torture. But try as I might I found it hard to enthuse about Wake of the Flood, Blues For Allah or Mars Hotel … (I gave up after that point). Each of them has some great songs but there’s a fair amount of, dare I say, dross … many reasons for this, I guess (drugs, Pigpen’s death, the Godchaux’s, 70s’ prog rock (!), Brent Mydland, who knows what else), but if I was going to point to a period when they were really at their peak I’d say start with Aoxomoxoa (for a touch of glorious psychedlia) and then work your way through to Europe ’72. Beyond then there’s definitely stuff to be enjoyed but for me it was never the same ….

    What has really got me back in to the Dead has been the release/increasing availability of a huge archive of live recordings (official and fan-taped). There are many that are well worth listening to … pick the era you like and have fun!

  6. Pingback: The Story So Far « What Another Man Spills

  7. This is exactly what I love about The Dead. You go to places with them that you can’t get to with anyone else. There are versions of most of their songs that are sublime, China/Rider being a great example and Playing In The Band is another.

    As they sang in Truckin’

    “What a long, strange trip its been”

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