Friday, April 2, 2010

Embarrassing 80's Moments: The Grateful Dead

For musicians that have been playing music for as long as the members of the Grateful Dead, it is interesting to see how their current musical identities have been shaped by their collective musical output from the past 45 years or so. Considering the vast range of music that has come in and out of vogue through the years, you would think that old men like Bob Weir, who have experienced more in their lifetimes than we could possibly comprehend, have musically collected a little bit from each decade they've lived and played through.

This is certainly the case with the 60s and 70s, which was the period in which the Dead formed their musical identity. Having crafted their blues/R&B/psychedelic/folky/boogie-woogie sound in the 60's and early 70's, the band added a more funky and jazz fusion edge to their music as the 70's progressed, even touching into disco grooves come the late 70s.

But then came the 80s. The prominent synthesized, slick musical trends of the 80s couldn't have possibly been more out of sync with the Dead's homegrown musical aesthetic. As the band relentlessly toured the country throughout the decade, it was apparent that the Dead kept their music contained in a protective bubble which kept the plastic, artificial musical trends of the time at bay (not counting Brent Mydland's cheesy MIDI keyboard sounds in the mid-80s). It seemed that the Dead willingly rejected the superficiality which 80s music had to offer, refusing to be influenced by the times. Well, there are a few exceptions which I'm sure these guys would prefer to forget...

Case in point, this amazingly awful/awesome 1984 timepiece from Bob Weir's 80s side band, Bobby and the Midnites. This pop document is made even more astounding by the fact that the drummer is Billy Cobham, one of the finest Jazz Fusion drummers of his time playing drums on a silly, silly song. Bobby's crazy eyes are priceless on this one. Can you spot the acid-head in the group?

Meanwhile, in another musical universe, future Dead keyboardist Bruce Hornsby was a struggling L.A. musician, taking whatever gigs he could get at the time. This resulted in his joining Sheena Easton's band as a synth/keyboardist, and playing on some fairly popular pop hits of 1984-85. This selected track is entitled "Sugar Walls." Here are some selected lyrics from this lovely little love song:

Blood races to your private spots, lets me know there's a fire
You can't fight passion when passion is hot
Temperatures rise inside my sugar walls

(My sugar walls) Oooh (my sugar walls)
Come inside (my sugar walls) , my sugar walls (my sugar walls)
Come spend the night inside my sugar walls (my sugar walls)

Such a beautiful ode to love could only be written by one man. The author of "Sugar Walls"? Prince!!! Yes, that's right, the Prince. And playing keys on this ditty by Prince, Jerry Garcia's future musical cohort, Bruuuce Hornsby! Who would have thunk? There's a good shot of him at 2:11:

When the Dead were finally accepted by MTV and the masses in '87 with "Touch of Grey," they did it tastefully, on their own creative terms. While his musical peers and cohorts from the 60s were out there stinking it up and selling their souls for the Regan dollar, Jerry never pandered to such things like catchy synth-pop and music videos. He was way too busy doing H-bomb and tinkering with his Steinberger headless guitar and personal computer to be bothered with any of that stuff. Or was it the 80s' bankrupt musical landscape that was driving him to the junk? The world may never know...

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