Terrapin Station Turns 45

The most accomplished studio album by a band known for its live performances

by Marshall Bowden

Terrapin Station, an unusual record even in a discography as varied as that of the Grateful Dead, turns forty-five years old this year. The album marked the end of the Dead’s experiment with running their own record label and the beginning of a long relationship with Arista Records. Arista label owner Clive Davis wanted the band to deliver a strong ‘hit’ record.  He brought in producer Keith Olson, who ended up adding a full orchestra, a chorus, and studio ace Tom Scott to the mix.

1977 was a strong point for the group musically. In the spring the Dead toured and played some of the tightest, most musically interesting and outright celebratory shows of their career to date. That, coupled with the release of Terrapin Station, helped bring the Dead to a whole new group of listeners and birthed a marketing juggernaut that sustained the band for the rest of their career.

When the Dead signed with Arista, Davis wanted them to outlaw taping at their shows, arguing that it resulted in lost revenue. The band refused, demonstrating that they understood their audience and their brand better than a music industry veteran. This moment was the birth of the Dead’s version 2.0.

Audience recordings of the Grateful Dead go back to the 1960s, but the taping culture really took off in the 70s with the advent of high quality cassette recorders. According to band historian Nicholas Merriweather, the band’s live hiatus from Fall 1974 thru Summer 1976 meant fans were looking for taped shows with intense fervor, leading to the creation of Relix magazine, a forum for tapers and traders.

An underlying tenet of content marketing is that your free content should be so remarkable that you feel a little uncomfortable giving it away. Here the band was giving away the main product –music– yet attendance at the group’s shows grew every year, and ticket revenues spiked from $1.4 million in 1976 to $3.6 million in 1977, the year the group released its first Arista album, Terrapin Station. This despite the fact that the album had no hit singles and little radio play. In short, the elements corresponding to advertising in the music business – hit records and radio airplay-were small parts of the band’s business model.

Grateful Dead button of Terrapin Station’s back cover, courtesy of the Busy Beaver Button Museum

Taping and trading of shows was an important part of the culture that Dead fans–not the band–built up around the group’s music. When the band told Arista that they would not make an attempt to curtail the taping of their live shows, they demonstrated that they understood the audience, understood what was happening around their music, and they wisely decided to allow it to continue. Continuing to offer their shows for free, to be freely traded, created a bond with their audience that would be difficult to break.

Terrapin Station has a checkered reputation among Grateful Dead devotees. For hardcore Deadheads, the record has many strikes against it. It has too many covers. It has a disco song. It has an orchestra and a choir that get all up in the way of any serious jamming on the side long title suite. It’s part of the reviled Donna Godchaux period. Most of all it cemented the direction that the Dead had been drifting in since the death of Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, which was away from blues and country and folk, and towards amplified rock and a unique mix of international influences, including New Orleans funk, Island rhythms, and African drumming. It just wasn’t what some fans had signed up for.

According to Rolling Stone: 

“[Producer Keith] Olsen put the bandmates through their paces, making them rehearse and replay parts until they nailed them. Normally, the Dead would have bristled, but not this time: “Keith was cracking the whip, but we liked it – it made us sharper,” says [Mickey] Hart. “We became much more disciplined.”

The finished album, Terrapin Station, was the Dead’s most polished, professional effort to date, foreign adjectives that didn’t necessarily thrill everyone in the band. Hart was upset when Olsen overdubbed strings on one of his parts without telling him. With tempered enthusiasm, bassist and co-founder Phil Lesh later called the album “a fairly successful effort” that “varied wildly in terms of material.”


But if you are able to come at this record as a music listener with less investment in how Terrapin Station fits into the Dead’s overall studio oeuvre, you just might find plenty to like. This is especially true if you like the records the band self-produced and released on their own Grateful Dead Records label: Mars Hotel, Wake of the Flood, and Blues for Allah. Those records have many of the same elements as Terrapin, but they contain some more experimental tracks and they don’t have Paul Buckminster’s string arrangement for the Martyn Ford Orchestra. 

One rainy Saturday evening I slipped Terrapin Station into the CD player and let it wash over me, listening to it twice back to back. “Estimated Prophet”–that Tom Scott Lyricon solo! I remember when the Lyricon came out–it was a  big deal, a real game changer. It had the amplification and ability to manipulate sound of an electronic keyboard, but it was responsive to the player’s breath and breath control, with the attack and living voice of an acoustic saxophone. Scott, who led a band of studio musicians known as L.A. Express, was the early master of the new instrument, and this solo is one of the best known and most heard of any solo played on the Lyricon. 

Then there’s that Side One coda track, ‘Sunrise’, the most evocative vocal Donna Godchaux ever put down on tape. It’s everything: incantation, tribal ceremony, art song, coda and prelude. It is the gateway to “Terrapin Station” which constitutes the entire second side of the vinyl record. And that suite is unlike any other Grateful Dead track in the studio catalog. Featuring a full orchestra and chorus, it is prog Grateful Dead, right down to the ‘Terrapin Flyer’ section featuring Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s drums and percussion, Jerry Garcia’s guitar, and a string section. 

One of the most fascinating parts of the ‘Terrapin’ suite is the ‘At a Siding’ section. (Note: This section begins at 10:05 into the complete recording linked below)  It’s fascinating because of the music, credited to Mickey Hart, which is very atmospheric, a bit spacey. But it always reminded me of going down river on a boat in a jungle environment. The melody, sung by Jerry Garcia, has an Arabic feeling. We get some atmospheric trumpet in there as well, almost as though Miles Davis had blown a few notes over the track (he didn’t). 

Robert Hunter’s lyrics introduce a sense of creeping darkness, uneasiness, and perhaps just plain anxiety: 

While you were gone
These spaces filled with darkness
The obvious was hidden
With nothing to believe in
The compass always points to Terrapin

Sullen wings of fortune beat like rain
You're back in Terrapin for good or ill again
For good or ill again

It’s the one part of Terrapin Station that matches the more experimental qualities of Blues For Allah. The Dead never performed this section of the suite live, though there is apparently record of them doing the instrumental part exactly once. Maybe it’s because they didn’t care for it, or because it is difficult to transition out of the illbient vibe that’s created, and they didn’t want to risk sliding into a bad trip on a live show, fascinating as that could have been.

There’s also the fact that the portion of the Terrapin Suite heard on the album is only the first part of Robert Hunter’s epic poem that forms the track’s lyrics. There is another entire section. In fact, it’s fair to say that the recorded section is less than half of the entire work. And it’s a pretty good fantasy adventure epic. The Faerie Queen it’s not, but it’s pretty satisfying if you take the time to read it slowly and allow yourself to catch up with what’s going on. In fact, there are some pretty cosmic things going on, as mentioned in this piece at Dead.net.

Hunter always wanted to record more of the piece, but that didn’t happen at this time, at least in part because of the need for the band to finish the record. However, Hunter did revisit the piece and recorded a complete version on his 1980 album Jack O’ Roses. It’s interesting to note that his version doesn’t include the ‘At a Siding’ section either. 

To say that Terrapin Station is The Grateful Dead’s most accomplished and ambitious studio album means very little to fans who consider the group’s studio work to be far inferior, or at best supportive of, its live shows. When I say that I have never found live versions of the Terrapin suite or “Estimated Prophet” to be as good as those on the record, well, I am simply dismissed as some kind of antisocial maniac. Which is fine. I never was a real Deadhead though I appreciate a lot of their music and I went to a few shows and did the parking lot a few times. I mean, there are people who find Satanic Majesties Request to be a perfectly good Stones album and I have no issue with those people. 

For me, Terrapin Station is one of those perfect summer records, one that you play at the height of the season, sitting on the patio or laying in the backyard when dusk is settling in and the fireflies are ready to transport you to a magic realm through the ancient art of storytelling. Let the storyteller speak…see you all in Terrapin.

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