October 18, 2011

The Dead In The Studio, 1966

Those of you hoping for a painstaking breakdown of all the instrumental takes from the Dead’s Scorpio sessions are going to be disappointed! I’m actually going to discuss a different set of studio demos the Dead did in 1966, which have mostly not been released, may not even exist anymore, were never mentioned by the Dead as far as I know, and as a result are very little-known.

Our main lead comes from Rock Scully’s book Living With The Dead:
Scully: “In July [1966] our first single comes out on a small local label, Scorpio Records: Don’t Ease Me In with Stealin’ on the B-side, both recorded in John Estribow’s attic. Estribow was a friend of the band who had a small label with almost zero distribution… We do quite a few demos in ’66 – the above plus Otis On A Shakedown Cruise, an original rocker, and the old country traditional Silver Threads & Golden Needles. We owe these demos to Dan Healy, a friend of ours who is a technology wizard and has done amazing things for Quicksilver.
Healy works at a place called Commercial Recorders, in a turn-of-the-century firehouse on Natoma Street. The studio is closed at night, but Healy sneaks the band in to make tapes… It is at Commercial that the Dead make demos of many of the songs that will appear on our first album. A few arrangements of traditional tunes, two or three of our own songs, and that’s pretty much it…
Dan Healy also has the midnight-to-six shift at KMPX, and often plays the single and the demos. KMPX does not have a strong signal at the time – the police band probably has more listeners – but this is the onset of our music being played in the middle of the night…
The band is eager to take the next step – an album! – and so we hustle up more demos. Coast Recording, on Bush Street, is a big, boomy place, a former church at which Bing Crosby once recorded. There we do a bunch of demos including Early Morning Rain (with Phil singing lead), Silver Threads & Golden Needles, and a take of Otis On A Shakedown Cruise.”

It’s well-known that Scully’s book has numerous accuracy issues – but a lot of this story has actually been confirmed. Scully tends to be more reliable in the early years of the band’s history, and I suspect many of the hyperbolic descriptions, dialogues, misstatements etc. are due to the co-author (David Dalton) creatively rewriting what Scully told him.
For instance, this is one line from the book where Scully discusses the band’s early-’66 repertoire in Los Angeles:
“They’d written a song a year earlier, Otis on a Shakedown Cruise, a 2 ½-minute rock & roller that was the B-side of their first independently released single (as the Warlocks).”
Obviously bogus. The Warlocks never released a single, let alone a B-side!
And yet, this is from an actual Scully interview (with Blair Jackson) where he talks about their L.A. trip: “They had a couple of originals, like Otis on a Shakedown Cruise, which was this wonderful song that I think Pig and Jerry mainly put together. There must be tapes of it around somewhere. We were going to put it on as the B-side of Don't Ease Me In.”
Now it makes sense. Otis is a real song (both Jerry and Phil have referred to it), and is almost certainly You Don’t Have To Ask, which is a song they put together in Los Angeles and recorded at the Scorpio sessions. (See the comments to my “1966 Songs” post.) It actually would have been a good choice for the Scorpio single, so I imagine there may have been some heated band discussion about the song choices before they ended up with two old jugband tunes…
In short, Scully can be more reliable than his book makes him appear. So how does his story about the other 1966 demos hold up when cross-checked with other sources?

Dan Healy was indeed an engineer at Commercial Records studio - he said in an interview with Sandy Troy: “Along about 1963 I moved into San Francisco and got a job in a little recording studio called Commercial Records. It’s defunct now. At the time it was the state-of-the-art studio in San Francisco. It had a 3-track tape recorder on half-inch tape. That was big time in those days, when 4 tracks were really rare… I worked days in this studio.”
Healy confirmed briefly that he did tape bands in the studio after-hours: “Because I was working in a studio which only operated from daylight to dark (8:00 to 5:00), after they locked up the studio at night we’d sneak in and record. So I would take all the bands in there. That was really a good trip.”

The book Skeleton Key also mentions: “Healy would sneak the Dead into Commercial Recorders at night, and they would record until dawn. Top 40 AM radio wouldn’t touch the tapes, because the Dead were an unsigned band, but Healy took them down to KMPX-FM and played them on his late-night radio show. Word got around that KMPX was playing some interesting music at three in the morning…”
(I don’t know what their source here is, but it’s probably not Scully’s book, since this was published over a year before Living With The Dead was.)

I haven’t read elsewhere about Healy’s KMPX radio show; but it’s not unlikely, as Healy’s first love was radio. He had built himself a little radio station in grade school, and his first job in San Francisco was maintenance work at KSFO. It’s quite curious to think of what unreleased Dead demos might have been played on the nightly airwaves as early as mid-1966…

In any case, Healy had met the Dead at their Fillmore shows of June 3-4, when they opened for Quicksilver. Being an engineer, he was appalled by the state of the Dead's PA system when he first saw them. "From working in a studio, I was used to pretty good sound… The PA for rock & roll shows was almost nonexistent; it was just terrible. On each side of the stage there’d be a little teeny box about 1 foot by 2 feet, and when the bands played you could barely tell the system was on. You could never really hear or understand the vocals."
As he told the story to Blair Jackson:
"I originally met the Grateful Dead via John Cipollina at a Quicksilver gig at the Fillmore, where the Dead were opening... It was during the Dead's set that we showed up, and the music had just stopped. There was no such thing as 'spare equipment' for the band in those days. Oftentimes, if an amp died, it could stop the whole show. I think in this case it was Phil's amp that died... So Cipollina basically shoved me up there, and I fiddled a little with Phil's amp, and it started to work. At the end of the show, Phil and Garcia walked up to me and said 'Hey thanks man' and all that, and we introduced ourselves...
I remember making some crack to Phil and Garcia about how the sound system really sucked, and Garcia sort of challenged me... I said, 'All right, you're on.' The next time they were going to play was about two weeks later, also at the Fillmore, so before that I went around to the three major places in the area that rented sound equipment, and I got all this stuff from them, and I took it to the Fillmore…" Healy patched up a new system for the Dead, which worked: "It was a horrible-looking monstrosity, but when the gig came, you could hear the singing."
(A more detailed telling is in the Grateful Dead Gear book, p. 41.)

Healy told Troy a little about his studio career over the next year, while he was fixing the amps and rigging up new sound systems for Quicksilver and the Dead:
“I was never really with [the bands] – I was actually independent, working in the studios and making tapes. I wasn’t deeply involved in doing PA systems…my career was in the recording studio… But I was interested and concerned that these guys have good sound systems and be heard, because it was cool music…It outraged me that they were being burnt off by horrible sound systems…
By [mid-1967] I had logged quite a bit of time in recording studios – three or four years of ass-kicking, everyday studio use doing a lot of commercial jingles, and some rock & roll songs. I recorded Paul Revere & the Raiders, a couple of old hit records, and obscure local San Francisco hits… I had outgrown the studio I was working in, in San Francisco. Several of the groups had asked me to take them into the studio, and I was using everybody’s studio because these were record-company situations. I would just go rent the time and take the group in. I was using Coast [Recorders], Golden State, and another small studio [Columbus Recording] that was built for the Kingston Trio… Since I was using other studios, I had quit my job at Commercial Recorders. They were into lots of commercial work, and I wanted to get more into music production… By then I was traveling with [the Dead] and doing sound live at gigs, so I went to L.A. with the band…to work on Anthem of the Sun.”

Blair Jackson noted in his Grateful Dead Gear book that there were few studios to choose from in San Francisco as of 1966, and most bands used four studios: Commercial Recording, Columbus Recorders, Coast Recorders, and Golden State Recorders.
The Dead had recorded their Emergency Crew demo for Autumn Records at Golden State back in 1965, and apparently never returned. Commercial Recording was Healy’s home studio in 1966, and where the band spent some midnight hours that year. Columbus Recorders was where they finished Anthem of the Sun in 1968. Coast Recorders was little-used by the band, except possibly for the ’66 demo session Scully recounts; Blair Jackson speculates that they may have recorded some of the Scorpio sessions there as well.

Scully’s details about the Scorpio sessions are mostly accurate, except that Gene Estribou was not really a “friend of the band.” Estribou had built a home studio called Buena Vista Studio on the fifth floor of his house – he was a local music fan who wanted to form his own record company, had good recording equipment, and had recorded some demos with other bands like Big Brother.
The Dead, though, did not have a good time recording – Weir was very irritated about hauling the band’s gear up to the fifth floor; Lesh dismissed Estribou as a “dilettante”; and Garcia summarized the sessions: “we never got in on the mixing of it and we didn’t really like the cuts and the performances were bad and the recordings were bad and everything else was bad, so we didn’t want it out…it doesn’t sound like us.”
Estribou himself also had a hard time: “It was an effort to get out of the zone of indecision, as you can imagine. The early Dead was trying to find themselves…and get a product out, when Phil wanted to do one thing and Jerry wanted to do another… So it was frustrating for everybody, but we had to get something finished rather than nine thousand hours of shit that was unusable.”
Even Estribou’s hopes for his record label came to grief when it turned out that there was already a Scorpio Records in San Francisco!
And as Scully says, he had almost zero distribution. It seems only 150 copies of the Scorpio single were printed, and mostly vanished. Garcia said, “Those records never went on sale. That was a guy who was starting his own record company, but he didn’t really have any connections, so it’s not as if that single was released to any stores apart from maybe one or two in Haight-Ashbury. The Psychedelic Shop probably had 20 or 30 of them.”

One sidenote is that Estribou said he took the band to Western Recording to finish recording for the single. But Blair Jackson suggests that, since Western Recording was actually in Los Angeles, they more likely went to Coast Recorders. This seems to dovetail nicely with Scully’s recollection that the band recorded some demos at Coast, though with Estribou at the helm rather than Healy.
(The Scorpio sessions are covered in more detail in the Taping Compendium vol. I p. 110-112, and the book Grateful Dead Gear p. 36-38.)

The final confirmation for Scully’s story came with the release of Rare Cuts & Oddities. We knew You Don’t Have To Ask had been recorded at the Scorpio sessions; Early Morning Rain had been part of the 1965 demo (and was still in their live set as of November ’66). But a studio demo of Silver Threads & Golden Needles? Impossible.
And yet, there it was, on the Rare Cuts CD, sounding nice and professional. (It’s the one track on the CD dated “late 1966,” hence possibly the only one not recorded by Bear. Where Bear recorded his studio tracks earlier that year is unknown.)

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say how much more of their 1966 demos might survive. Their reels were not well-taken care of at the time, and the survivors are locked up in the Vault with little chance of release.
David Lemieux talked a bit about his selection for the Rare Cuts CD, from a box of mostly unlabeled old reels from Bear’s collection:
“It was about 15, 20 reels of tape. Some were blank. Some were garbage. Some were what you hear… We originally focused on a two-disc set and what I was finding at that point was material that was a little less compelling, that one disc made it absolutely perfect.”
For early Dead collectors (or historians), it’s not too joyful to hear that Rare Cuts could have been a 2-CD set, but they decided one disc would be stronger! A very few more selections have also been aired on the Taper’s Section (listed in my “1966 Songs” post), but how much more remains in the Vault is a mystery.

There are a couple more circulating tracks of Pigpen’s songs that may come from the 1966 demos. There’s a very nice studio cut of Smokestack Lightning (somewhat improbably paired with the Anthem sessions on the Archive), and there is a great 1966 recording of Who Do You Love which circulated on tape, but sadly seems unavailable digitally.

Of course the Dead were not doing all these studio recordings just for the joy of hearing themselves, or for the delight of posterity. While Bear had a mania for taping the band for his “sonic journals” and playbacks, the studio time must have had a more specific purpose. What was the band doing making basically a vanity record for Gene Estribou and his tiny record label anyway?

Scully hints at the reason, when talking about the Dead’s mid-’66 demos:
“Suddenly antennae begin twitching in glass & steel skyscrapers in L.A. Corporate dogs are sent to sniff around. Talent scouts in sharkskin suits, getting on planes and showing up at the ballrooms. All of the major record labels virtually overnight establish branch offices in San Francisco. And we begin to attract serious attention from the L.A. pack. Tom Donahue…talks Warner Brothers into checking us out… Tom Donahue is making trips down to Warner Brothers himself on behalf of [his label] Autumn Records, and mentions us to them. We are a little wary of getting involved with a major label, but over the next few months we warm up to the idea. Then Warners starts sending people to come and hear us. Early summer of ’66 some executives from Burbank make several trips from San Francisco to see us play.”

This is more or less accurate (though major-label interest in the Dead and the SF scene may not have been quite so intense as early as mid-’66).
Although Tom Donahue had rejected the Dead for Autumn Records back in fall 1965, his opinion of them had gone up considerably since then. Unfortunately, Autumn Records had also gone into deep decline in the meantime, and the company ended in early 1966.
Donahue said, “We got into desperate trouble. The studio had locked us out for the $10,000 we owed them and they were holding all our tapes. So we made a deal with Warner Bros. Records and sold them all our acts.”
In August ’66, Donahue urged his friend Joe Smith (promotional director at Warner Bros) to see the Dead at the Avalon (on Aug 19 or 20). The story was recounted in the book San Francisco Nights –
Smith remembered: “They were playing this weekend at the Avalon and I was supposed to meet them late, after the gig… So there we were, walking up the steps of this startling place, and there were these kids lying around painting each other’s bodies, and all these lights and smells everywhere. Somebody wanted to dance with my wife. I told her, ‘Don’t come with me to meet the band. You must understand.’ The Grateful Dead: even the name was intimidating. What did it mean? No one knew.”
Donahue: “Joe told me that night, ‘Tom, I don’t think Jack Warner will ever understand this. I don’t know if I understand it myself, but I really feel like they’re good.’ I told him, ‘You’ve got to sign them, because this is where it’s going.’”
Smith: “I was talking to all of them. They always moved in a phalanx, and the ones I really remember were their managers, Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin. Those two were scammers from eight miles back. I could figure them out…the others were out in space somewhere. Garcia was the most visible, but he refused to speak for the group. Pigpen never said ten words, and Lesh was very nasty, constantly negative, because I was a record-company guy and he was a serious musician. We had this conversation about the right kind of equipment to record with, and I later found out that the stuff they wanted hadn’t been invented yet. Lesh felt they were selling out by not getting it… I told them I wanted them, that we were a good record company. That was before I found out that to them, every record company was square. They lived in terror of being ripped off.”

Nonetheless, both sides were interested enough to get a contract discussion going, and just a month later, September 30, the contract with Warner Bros was settled. (Though the Dead themselves hesitated to sign it until December!) The recording sessions for their first album down in Los Angeles soon followed.

So the Dead may have had a couple purposes in recording various studio demos in mid-’66. Possibly they were more eager to sign to a major record label than they let on, and wanted to have good demos available to offer (plus a nice ‘indie’ single to their name). Just as likely, they were checking out the various small, local post-Autumn Records labels in San Francisco, in the belief that they would have more control over their music and releases than they would on a major label. If so, the Scorpio Records experience that summer would have been a letdown, and may have been one reason they ended up signing to Warners so quickly. (Note Lesh’s interest in getting the right recording equipment!)
Scully suggests that even before Warners came knocking, the Dead had been hoping to record an album – at that stage, their studio disillusionment had yet to arrive, and a studio album would have seemed an obvious step. But who would record and release it? It must have seemed like a happy stroke of fate that Joe Smith would turn up shortly after the Scorpio single was dropped into an uninterested world. And the promises of unlimited studio time, complete creative control, RCA Studio facilities, and the same engineer who’d recorded the Rolling Stones, must have been quite tantalizing after lugging their amps up to Estribou’s fifth-floor home studio and sneaking into Healy’s commercial studio after dark…