Grateful Dead: In the Wake of the Flood (Grateful Dead records, Import)
New Riders Of The Purple Sage: The Adventures of Panama Red (CBS, Import)
America: Hat Trick (Warner Bros.)
Steve Miller Band: The Joker (Capital, Import)
WHATEVER HAPPENED to West Coast rock?
It seems only yesterday that I could be found, my youthful visage untainted by the jaded pout of the rock writer, staring wide-eyed into “Musicland” or “One-Stop Records” at the latest selection of imported albums by California bands.
Surely you can remember when it was the main squeeze to be seen carrying the latest Steve Miller album on import or, when confronted at hippy gatherings and asked who your favourite combo was, to reply, with that perceptible glint of cosmic knowingness in your eye, “The Grateful Dead, man, Who else?”
Anyway, after no less than 6,567 boring live albums, The Grateful Dead have decided to release their first studio effort since the moderately excellent American Beauty, and it’s absolutely dire.
The details? Why, certainly. To start with, the first side is quite unlistenable. ‘Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo’ appears to be an aimless attempt at rag-time blues which finds Jerry Garcia choosing the most boring chord progressions at his disposal to match Robert Hunter’s lyrics (which always seem to sound authentic and profound without saying or meaning anything). The piano-player and the horn section sound like they’re drunk, which may or may not be a good thing.
‘Let Me Sing Your Blues Away’ is just half-way decent but still far from acceptable – while both ‘Row Jimmy’ and ‘Stella Blue’ are so turgid and laid-back you keep expecting vocalist Garcia to expire at any moment.
Give him credit, Garcia does pull out some new chords on the latter tune, but the pace is so harrowingly funereal that it literally defies description.
Side Two fares a little better. Just a little.
‘Here Comes Sunshine’ sounds like a cross between ‘Playin’ in the Band’, without the latter’s sparkle, and a slowed down version of ‘Baby, You’re a Rich Man’, without the Dead really knowing any of the song’s chords. Draw your own conclusions.
‘Eyes of the World’ has a Latin cocktail-lounge sound coupled with “heavy cosmic awareness” lyrics and, finally, there’s Bob Weir’s ‘Weather Report Suite’ which starts off nicely with classical guitar intro and intriguing chords before slowly degenerating into a morass of earnest poeticism completed by a manic saxphone solo.
Dead heads will doubtless find this album beautiful and compelling. I find it turgid, flat and pretentious. Next, please.
Ah, The New Riders of the Purple Sage. Now these boys are into something quite different.
Cowshit and cocaine. In that order.
You know these boys are a barrel of laffs just by reading the lyric sheet. Take ‘Lonesome L.A. Cowboy’ for example: “I’m just a lonesome L. A. Cowboy/Hangin’ out and hangin’ or…I been smokin’ dope – snortin’ coke/Tryin’ to write a song”.
But let’s mosey on down these pearly lines a mite to get to this hot chestnut of a verse – “I know Kris and Rita and Marty Mull/Are meetin’ at the Troubadour/Get in on with the Joy of Cooking/While the crowd cries out for more.” Yeee-haah.
The real killer about it is that these boys are actually serious! Just look at the picture of ’em on the inner sleeve – prime rejects from a screen-play for a Sam Peckinpah guts n’ sheep-dip epic.
The band display their doper-cool on two other cuts – ‘Panama Red’ and ‘Important Exportin’ Man’ – while showing that, just like their country cousin, The Dead, they too can get spun out on turgid, affected country ballads like ‘One Too Many Stories’ or ‘You Should Have Seen Me Runnin”.
Come to think of it, this whole album is as crass as hell. I’m just wondering which member of the band will be first to get his wooden nose.
Compared to the aforementioned releases, America’s album is positively innocuous. America are pretty innocuous anyway but that’s beside the point.
A whole album of these three young bucks’ earnest croonings is pretty unpalatable, but give ’em their due, they make great singles. ‘Ventura Highway’ was a menthol crusher of a 45 and ‘Muskrat Love’ is just as good.
For a start, it’s a samba and second it’s about the coital habits of the muskrat species. I love it.
The rest of the album is pretty bland, but I find it hard to dislike these guys. They’re certainly no worse than The Bee Gees!
Finally there’s Steve Miller – who always was an outsider of sorts. The Joker is the pick of the litter where this pile is concerned, but it still has very little going for it.
‘Sugar Babe’, ‘Shu ba da du Ma Ma Ma Ma’, and ‘Mary Lou’ are pleasant second-rate rock n’ roll numbers that are rendered instantly forgettable when something of more substance is placed on the turntable. Miller performs a strong live version of ‘Come on in my Kitchen’ while another live track called ‘Evil’ is also quite potent, but his main trick these days, as on ‘Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash’ and ‘The Joker’, is to hark back to his old ‘Gangster of Love’-‘Space Cowboy’ bragga-doccio stance, which is ultimately just as annoying as Marc Bolan’s prissy peacock strutting on ‘The Groover’.
On The Joker album, Steve Miller and his band have absolutely nothing to say, but are at least courteous enough to perform their stuff with a pleasing professionalism.
So there you have it. Four albums that came too late and stayed too long. Whatever did happen to the West Coast Sound?
© Nick Kent, New Musical Express, 3 November 1973