Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead have little in common. But forty years ago this week in 1977, both bands played what many people consider to be the finest concerts in their long history within the space of 24 hours.
They had both had been on tour for months – the Floyd since opening the “In The Flesh” tour in Germany on January 23, the same day the band’s new album ‘Animals’ appeared in record stores. The Dead’s 1977 tour kicked off at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, California on February 26, but in truth, Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and company were on a never ending tour decades before Bob Dylan trademarked the phrase.
The Dead had a new album ready too, titled ‘Terrapin Station,’ but it would not be released until July 27. In the meantime, the band was on tour refining new songs like “Estimated Prophet,” “Passenger” and the epic 16-minute title track, which would fill an entire side of the album.
‘Terrapin Station’ was slated to be the Dead’s first album in a lucrative new deal with Arista Records and the band was looking forward to focusing purely on music after the distractions (and financial consequences) of trying to run their own record label. Arista boss Clive Davis insisted that the band must work with a producer for the first time in nearly a decade; Keith Olsen, the man of the moment in the mid-70s after scoring a Number One with Fleetwood Mac’s eponymous album from late 1975, was drafted in.
Deadheads bemoan the slick, orchestrated production of the ‘Terrapin Station’ album. But Olsen whipped the band into the best playing shape of its career. From the start of the 1977 tour in February through a three-night run at Winterland in San Francisco in early June, the Grateful Dead ran like a well-oiled machine. And for whatever reason, it all peaked at Barton Hall on the campus of Cornell University on the snowy night of May 8, 1977.
Pink Floyd, meanwhile, was embroiled in transition. The recording of ‘Animals’ had come easier to the band than its previous project – ‘Wish You Were Here,’ which was an unheard of 2-1/2 years in the making prior to its September 1975 release. But barely half of ‘Animals’ was truly new, “Dogs” and “Sheep” updated from their trial live performances throughout late 1974 and early ‘75 with new lyrics by Roger Waters to create a trilogy of songs loosely based on the novel “Animal Farm” by George Orwell.
While the recording of ‘Animals’ itself may have been fairly simple, the dynamic within the band was anything but. Waters had been writing all of the band’s lyrics since 1973’s breakout hit ‘The Dark Side of the Moon,’ but his perspective turned increasingly personal and political as the decade progressed. When ‘Animals’ was written, he directed his venom at politicians, greedy businessmen and the corrupt system they created for their own benefit.
Never a prolific lyricist, David Gilmour found his influence waning within Pink Floyd. Yet despite having only one writing credit (for the music of ‘Dogs’) ‘Animals’ was an album very much carried by Gilmour and his guitars. It’s laughable that the guitar-dominated “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” is credited solely to Waters, especially when the fact that Gilmour played the song’s iconic bass solo is taken into consideration.
By the time the Floyd tour reached America (Miami Stadium on April 22), Waters’ unhappiness with the increasingly large venues that Pink Floyd was forced to play began to take its toll. He began shouting out a number during “Pigs,” which observers quickly realized corresponded to the number of gigs the band had played so far on the tour. With Waters on board, Pink Floyd was never a particularly joyful band, and with the moody bassist now nearly fully in charge of the proceedings, the air of gloom only deepened. By the mid-80s, the Waters/Floyd relationship was completely destroyed and he left the band.
Unlike the Dead, Pink Floyd played the same set every night, with the music carefully choreographed to match the accompanying video and light show. Dating to their beginnings in London in the mid-1960s, the Floyd were pioneers in terms of the visual presentation of a rock and roll concert; for the ‘Animals’ tour, the band’s trademark lights, mirror ball and smoke machines were joined by an enormous inflatable pig that floated out over the audience during (appropriately enough) ‘Pigs,’ the first set closer. Over the course of more than fifty shows between January 23 and July 6, the Floyd performed the ‘Animals’ album in its entirety as the first set, the ‘Wish You Were Here’ album as the second set, and “Money” and sometimes “Us and Them” as an encore.
On one occasion – May 9, 1977 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena – Waters allowed the band a rare deviance from the norm, leading the band through the first (and only) version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” played since October 1973. The entire concert represented a high mark for the tour, with tight musicianship and even a little bit of laughter between Waters and Gilmour as they harmonized on the title track from ‘Wish You Were Here.’
For music collectors, the one common denominator between Pink Floyd’s May 9 concert and the Grateful Dead’s show recorded 2,800 miles away a day earlier is the sound quality of the bootlegs. For an audience recording, the Floyd show has astounding clarity; it has frequently been mistaken for a soundboard over the years.
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Contrary to popular myth, the Dead didn’t let tapers plug directly into the soundboard. But by the mid-1970s, the band opened up an officially sanctioned “taper section” where those holding the proper ticket could set up pretty much any equipment they wanted to capture the performance.
The Dead was well aware of the underground tape trading community that had developed and occasionally leaked soundboard recordings into circulation. Unlike Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead diligently recorded every concert, and over the years, the band’s recording engineers, including Bill ‘Kidd’ Candelario and Betty Cantor-Jackson, became major stars in the Deadhead community. While bands like Pink Floyd worked hard to prevent bootleg recordings of their concerts from gaining wide circulation, the philosophy of sharing the music was a key factor in the growth of the Dead’s fan base.
When I started collecting tapes in the 1980s, my favorite Dead concert by far was the Cornell 5/8/77 show. Aside from the fact that the sound quality was better than any other show out there, the performances of many of the songs were simply phenomenal. Hardcore Deadheads rate the versions of “Dancing In The Streets,” “Scarlet Begonias > Fire On The Mountain” and “Morning Dew” played at Barton Hall as the absolute best performances of those songs in the 50-year history of the Grateful Dead. And the rest of the show – shorter, non jam-vehicle songs like “Jack Straw” and “Deal” and new tunes in development including “Estimated Prophet” – was equally hot.
Now forty years after it happened and more than twenty years since the Dead started marketing its most popular shows from the so-called Vault, Cornell 5/8/77 has finally been made available through official channels. “Get Shown The Light: May 1977” brings together four classic Grateful Dead shows from New Haven, CT (May 5); Boston Garden (May 7); Cornell (May 8) and Buffalo, NY (May 9) in an eleven-CD box set. “Cornell 5/8/77” is also available individually spread over three CDs.
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The Dead’s Vault releases come warts and all, which means the occasional flubs like Bob Weir coming in a little early for the vocal on “Dancing in the Streets” that helped musicologists identify and label bootlegs are present and accounted for. Since high-grade bootleg soundboard recordings of the Cornell show were available for many years, there are no great advances in sound quality, but the Boston and Buffalo recordings sound significantly better than the best versions I had sourced over the years. With tight musicianship and a sneaky disco groove, May 1977 is considered by many to be the peak of the Grateful Dead, and thankfully, fifteen of the nineteen concerts the band played during that magical month of May 1977 have been officially released via CD or download.
Pink Floyd fans should be so lucky. The fortieth anniversary of ‘Animals’ would be the perfect time to release an expanded edition of the original album, with studio outtakes and a live show from 1977. That’s not going to happen, but thankfully, Oakland 5/9 and a few other audience recordings from the tour exist to keep the memory alive. In addition, Roger Waters is set to release his first full album of new material in 25 years in June, and David Gilmour is believed to be close to announcing a DVD of his 2016 concerts the ancient coliseum ruins in Pompeii where Pink Floyd recorded a landmark live performance movie in 1971.
Some will argue that it was all downhill for the Grateful Dead after Cornell; drummer Mickey Hart rolled his Porsche in June, causing the band to cancel its 1977 summer tour. They returned to the road in September, but the quality of the Fall ’77 shows and indeed everything the Dead did thereafter never came close to approaching the peak they reached in the Spring of that year. Jerry Garcia reportedly began using heroin in the second half of 1977, and the negative effect it had on his voice and his playing intensified until the day he died in 1995.
Pink Floyd didn’t have drug problems, but the members of the band could simply no longer tolerate each other. Waters grew increasingly frustrated and unhappy through the rest of the 1977 tour, screaming at fans who lit off fireworks inside Madison Square Garden during the band’s July 1-4 run and finally unloading a huge gob of spit on an overenthusiastic kid in the front row of the tour finale in Montreal. Waters channeled his unhappiness about playing stadium shows, along with other autobiographical influences, into his personal masterpiece, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall,’ released in 1979.
Both bands continued on the live circuit until the mid-90s, when Garcia’s death should have put an end to the Grateful Dead and Gilmour chose to retire the Pink Floyd from touring duty. Seeing either band in their latter years was still quite the visceral experience for concertgoers of any age, but nothing will ever match the music they produced in their heyday forty years ago.