by Michael M. Getz (with Darren Mason and Jeff Tiedrich)
This perspective is a collective attempt by the authors to try and articulate the enormous impact that the song Playing in the Band had on the evolution of the music of the Grateful Dead. In addition to trying to provide some context for the various stages in technical development that the song has found itself in, we have also tried to describe the entire experience from a more emotional point of view, focusing at times on the message that is conveyed, and the larger picture of where PITB fits inside a show. Without further adieu, read on and enjoy.
The Main Ten: The Genesis Of PITB
Playing In The Band began life as a hypnotic, ten-beats-to-the-measure jam known as The Main Ten. It was developed at a time when the Dead were experimenting with jams and songs based on odd time signatures; The Seven, The Eleven, The Thirteens, and so on. The earliest known performance of The Main Ten shows up on a tape -- which unfortunately does not circulate as of this writing -- of the June 19, 1968 show from the Carousel Ballroom, coalescing in the middle of a set-long jam. [This is 2/19/69, now available. – LIA]
The Main Ten does not appear again until November 11/8/69, appearing in the middle of Caution. From this show until exactly one year later, there were just four more appearances of this jam -- always as a spacey, sequence connecting two songs, after which Weir appropriated the jam and tucked it into Playing In The Band as the theme upon which the long, middle jam takes off on.
The Main Ten Jam had one last hurrah: it appeared on Mickey Hart's first solo album, Rolling Thunder, released in May, 1972.
Why Audience Tapes Are Kind To PITB
We have collected every circulating version of PITB from the years 1972-74 -- including those ear-challenging, family-splitting low-grade audience tapes. Are we sick? Maybe. But there is something important that you should bear in mind when trying to decide if taping something that, at first, sounds so horrendous, is worth the effort: PITB almost always sounds better than the rest of the material on the tape. Why? For several obvious, and not-so-obvious reasons.
First, it is often the case that the taper is peaking by the end of the first set, when PITB is normally called upon "All High". The taper has gotten his levels set exactly perfect, moved around to the best location, and bribed loudmouths around him with big joints to quietly shut up. Consequently, the sound by this point is as good as it's going to get, which usually is a marked improvement over the quality at the beginning of the tape.
Second, PITB only has vocals at the very beginning and at the very end. Therefore, since out of control vocals can be a significant source of distortion on a tape, the long middle part of the song is usually free of this type of flaw. And let's face it folks, this long middle part of the song is DEE SHIT in PITB. One reason for our view on this is that the PITB instrumental is, oh how can we put it, "airy". The notes always seem to be nicely separated, not intruding upon the next, or following sharply on the heels of the previous. Dark Star also fits into this mold (The Other One, however, does not, due to louder playing, more crowd, and more distortion). Of course, this observation is most relevant for the premier era for the song, when only one drummer was around. Based on conversations with others, many a head thinks that once Mickey was in the mix, the song lost a lot of its punch. This view is not ubiquitous, however. Indeed, 6/19/76 and 12/31/76 are quoted quite frequently in this regard. More on this issue later.
A third reason for PITB typically having such rich sound quality is the smooth transition that occurred between the advanced sound reproduction of the Wall of Sound in 1972-1974, and the highly improved taper recording equipment from 1976 onward. In the early days, the Wall of Sound, due to its incredible range, compensated for the inferior recording technology of the day (c.f. 3/23/74). On the other hand, taping equipment improved vastly after 1975, thereby lending acoustic merit to later AUD recordings of this song, even though the PA may have been inferior to the Wall of Sound. Indeed, there are many 76-78 audience tapes that are comparable to the Wall of Sound tapes.
Fourth and last, the crowd -- a big factor in ruining many an audience tape -- is very mellow during most renditions of PITB. Why? Well, PITB drives them inward by providing a serious backdrop of weird music to ponder their lives, their loves, their losses, their ... way to the bathroom (for some). PITB IS a listening vehicle -- whether you're dancing or not. It's intentional, meditative stuff, contemplative at the pores. And so the crowd is pretty darn well behaved.
In conclusion, with these factors taken into account, we get -- in the least a very nice chunk of relatively quiet music and an uncluttered entrance into the heart of PITB: The Jam.
A Tale Of One Drummer Versus Two
In the minds of many heads, there are really only two periods in which to assess PITB: 1972-74 and, um, the rest (1976-95). It should be noted that versions in 1971, the first one ever being on 2/18/71, had little or no jam as the band was just feeling the song out. Late '71 did feature a few extended jams on the theme -- but these were only 1-3 minutes long and are too embryonic to concern us here.
The differences between these two periods are many and we will get to them. So relax. But the chief difference is easy to identify: drummer versus drummerS. 1972-74 featured only Billy Kreutzmann on drums; 76-95 featured he and Micky Hart. So how did this discrepancy effect the music? With only one drummer the band was able to gallop much more quickly and freely; turning musical corners was a breeze -- especially given Kreutzmann's superb jazz capabilities. A subtle shift in rhythm or tempo was instantly absorbed and countered by a drummer as adept as K. was. Consequently, the other players were unrestrained and able to go any damn place they felt like without fear of disrupting the beat or leaving the drummer in the dust. The musical spaces that opened with this unlimited access were enormous and often defy description. The band simply went deeper and got weirder during these unconstrained years. There was one feature of K's playing that was particularly conducive to this evolution of song, a feature which we are not even sure how to explain. Perhaps the best description of this is drumming without a beat. Normally when a person is playing the drums, they play within an 8- or 4- or whatever-measure bar; you accent the first beat in every measure, and the rest of the band uses this as a foundation. This is standard rock-n-roll stuff. During meltdowns, if K chose to play at all, he'd get into playing certain rhythmic patterns and fills, holding a steady tempo but never accenting any particular beat. This gave the rest of the band complete freedom to be weird. Sometimes, K would even go so far as to cease playing for minutes at a time if the music reached such a place that begged for no rhythm, i.e. atonal exchanges, feedback, circle jerks, or meltdowns.
In addition to the natural freedom that a single drummer allowed the band, there were other factors that contributed to the success of this period. One reason was the demise of Dark Star as a vehicle for open-ended jamming. By 73-74, Dark Star was losing steam and not as interesting to the band as it once was. Many believe that by this time the band viewed PITB as the "next Dark Star", i.e. the next signature piece within which they could really explore open-ended instrumental ideas. Of course Dark Star hung on until 1974, but it was often times sluggish and outshone by an adjacent PITB.
Another reason, one that also explains to some extent the previous observation, was that by post-hiatus the band as a whole was becoming disinterested in the hard work needed to create complex music. Indeed, around 1977, the Dead just lost interest in the kind of on-stage concentration needed to create those moments. Maybe it was the cocaine, or maybe it was built-up fatigue -- but at some point the Dead made a collective decision to lock into one groove, changing only the tempo of songs.
To contrast this earlier period, PITB during 1976-95 was generally slower, even sluggish at times with the weight of a second drummer. This is certainly not to fault Mickey Hart. Two is just heavier than one. The music's tempo rose and fell more deliberately, with less spontaneity. This is not to say the band didn't sprint nor deliver some outstanding, erection-bending versions. They did. But much of it that steamed forward briskly, straight ahead, delivering far fewer sharp cuts than had been available with only a single drummer.
In addition, those two drummers never did cease playing except, oh the irony, as an exit route into the Drums. It was more, alas, predictable. It should be pointed out here, however, that it was not as if two drummers inherently limited the bands free-form abilities. As is well known, prior to 1971 and PITB's heyday, there were many moments of 'rhythmless' space jamming -- tucked into the Dark Stars of 2/13/70, 11/11/70 [sic], 9/17/70, 4/25/70, etc., with many formless passages, and many turn-on-a-dime polyrhythms. One can only conclude that the lack of interest scenario described above must have played a role in this de-evolution.
Finally, this period signaled the demise of the reprise, killing off the best part of PITB, the long, slow noodle back into the final, thrilling chorus. The Grateful Dead Movie captures the essence of this perfectly: Garcia and Weir, covered in sweat, staring at each other as they slooooowly and carefully pick their way through the detritus of space and gently ease back into the main ten theme. That was one of the best parts, almost sexual in its buildup to climax. Latter-day Reprises were rushed (sexual metaphor continued: like an old, uncreative married couple having mechanical sex for the ten-thousandth time before rolling over and going to sleep).
Of course, crucial in this buildup, often overlooked, and just as often noticed and abhorred by deadheads, is the telltale scream by Donna that signals the appearance of the reprise. Yes, Donna sounds awful on so many tapes (one reviewer of this group, D. Mason, would beg and plead to differ). Nevertheless, heard live, she always seemed to fit right into the experience. She never sounded off key in "real time" and Donna's pitiful wailing was always greeted with roars of appreciation. We cannot ever remember hearing anyone at a show say, "jeez, that was way off key, wasn't it?"
[Note from LIA: The Donna screams are much better appreciated on audience tapes; they’re not as loud, and audiences invariably clap along and cheer, so she fits in more.]
The Goal Of PITB: Traversing The Unknown
A. Comparison To Other Art Forms
PITB lives for adventure. It's a mini Dead show, really. The song evolved (was consciously designed?) to roar fearlessly down the 7/4 road into new terrain, into the Great Unknown. What's so "great" about it, you ask? It's New, that is why. Now, was it that the Dead were so musically courageous? Or was it their complete abhorrence of boredom that led to such risky affairs? Perhaps both. But for listeners of music who love to be surprised, and who delight in sonic adventures themselves, PITB rarely disappoints. Just that feeling after the initial verses are sung of "here we go!" when the jam begins can be enough to lift our spirits and put a gleam in our eyes -- *regardless* of the outcome to follow. This glorious moment is so exciting precisely because everything is possible and anything might happen. This feeling is most intense during the moment in a pre-'79 PITB where the Main Ten theme stops and the space starts, i.e. "the point at which the music fall off the table." Up until this point, the song progresses as lyric, lyric, lyric, chorus, chorus, main ten, main ten, main ten, and then BLAM. It's like a free fall, like being pushed out of an airplane. Instant weightlessness! Getting a hot version is icing on the cake.
When Brent joined the band, they changed the entry point to the jam. Instead of dropping off the table, they'd introduce the 'opening theme' and repeat it for a few minutes, gradually modulating from major to minor key. It was a much more predictable and a much less interesting way to present the music. Of course, there were technical motives to this change: the song was now easier to dance to, and it made it easy to jam right into Uncle John's Band without having to change tempo.
PITB is similar in a microscopic fashion to what many people report is their favorite moment at a Grateful Dead show: the moment the lights go down to start the show. This feeling is similar to opening a new book -- perhaps one with an edge, like exploring a science fiction world. The feeling of entering Tolkien's Middle Earth, Simmons' Hyperion, or Herbert's Dune, is very much like riding out the PITB wave. Each version is like a chapter in a never-ending saga. We go on the journey or the Quest with the band, share the thrill of discovering new civilizations, lost treasures, eternal youth -- well, you get the idea. It's fine fun! It can also, though, be mosquitoes and quicksand. But that's part of the risk. But just the anticipation that we might hear something extraordinary is what keeps us happily searching for yet another version of PITB.
B. Peak Experiences
We think this spirit of adventure, this willingness to explore life -- be it in books, music, films, other people or, especially, within our own selves -- might not only be ingrained naturally within us, but that it could actually be a recipe to a healthier life. It appears that people who have "peak experiences" -- those moments of feeling deeply grounded, purposeful, and fully integrated into the Moment -- and thus their pursuance of more of them, are generally happier, more interesting and more alive campers. Simply shooting for these peak experiences brings hope more of them might arrive, and that life need not be dull and dreary all the time.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow, who coined this phrase, discovered that by merely having his students discuss and recall their own peak experiences led to them having even more of them as they were able to get in touch as they were able to get in touch with the sensations and circumstances involved in creating them. Maslow was also the first psychologist who made it his pursuit to study "healthy" people. Imagine that. He instantly found a pattern. These well adjusted, happy, caring, creative people all had one thing in common: the occurrence and reoccurrence of these peak experiences in their lives. It seems that these moments provide hope and meaning to give one the energy to persevere in the face of modern life's often confusing, brutal, and callous conditions.
Perhaps this also explains a curious fact. When Garcia died there were no reports of suicides. Given the intense bond between he and his fans it was wondered if some deaths might occur from his loss. But Garcia and the Dead lived for, and shared with us, conscious attempts to create group peak experiences. And they succeeded, far beyond their wildest dreams (according to them!). But by their very nature peak experiences are just that: optimal states of mind that are taken in, fully absorbed and integrated, and deeply experienced. Deadhead's grieved the loss of Garcia. But the peak experiences we all shared didn't extinguish when he died. And because one of their chief characteristics is the feeling of hope -- his death didn't bring on any need to end their own lives. There was, you see, simply too much to live for.
C. Embracing Change, Eliminating Boredom
Along with being intent on exploring new musical realms PITB also contained the willingness to be open to change. If PITB spelunked the same cave and yanked out the same silver chalice with each excursion -- well, we would only have one tape. The band welcomed change, and the risks adherent to it, because it brought new goodies, new caves, and decreased the boredom factor. Ah, but while other musical acts hammered out night after night the tried 'n' true approach (missing only the APPLAUSE sign) the Dead bit into the occasional baloney sandwich. Baloney sandwiches come with the perils of embracing change and openness. Hopefully, biting into such a thing creates inspiration to change even more.
Our awareness that a version of PITB stinks comes only *after* its ended and we reflect back upon its quality. But even the discovery of a clunker version can be interesting precisely because we didn't know this beforehand. Taking the journey is still exciting -- even hearing them misfire and how they attempt to correct it/incorporate it by getting back on track -- however unfortunate these endeavors turn out -- can still be stimulating. With all this said it's still quite amazing that these two ingredients -- being open to change while braving the Unknown -- led to so many spectacular versions of the song.
D. Drugs And PITB
Must one be on drugs to enjoy PITB? Will hearing PITB lead to heavier, more addictive and destructive Grateful Dead music, i.e. Dark Star or Space? Must one be stoned on weed or acid, surrounded by similarly gaping, wide-eyed people, find one’s gaze surrounded by psychedelic artwork and zany lights, be led by a self-appointed Guide, all while having PITB cranked from an obscenely expensive, state-of-the-art sound system to enjoy it?Of course not, silly.