The Grateful Dead remained on a hiatus from touring that began in 1974 for over 20 months. This near two year hiatus ended in June of 1976 when the group decided to return to touring. The Dead released the live album Steal Your Face in 1976, but the band was hemorrhaging their finances and decided to resign with a major label. Their personal label, Grateful Dead Records, folded and they signed with the newly formed Arista Records. As a result of their negotiations with Arista, the band was required to use an outside producer for their next studio album. The label would go on to choose Keith Olsen, who had just produced the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album. Fleetwood Mac’s comeback album had become a No.1 hit in the US and Olsen’s mainstream influence became clear on the Dead’s latest release. The album, Terrapin Station (1977), would incorporate the sounds of many mainstream acts at the time.
The beginning of Terrapin Station upon first glance seems to be where the real meat of the album is, with the second side consisting of a singular medley. However, side one serves as a real reflection for the band’s latest forays into incorporating new genres. The first track, “Estimated Prophet,” kicks things off with a reggae-funk melody and heavy wah in the guitars. The whole track has this awkward 7/4 time signature, but the vocals are so catchy that it would be nearly impossible to realize it unless tapping along to the beat. Instead of the usual Garcia solo, the band chose to have an odd saxophone solo instead. The horns not only give the track a heavy ‘70s sound, but now seem out of place by a band that doesn’t have a saxophone player in their touring band. The Grateful Dead frequently covered songs by other musicians and the next track is their take on Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 hit record “Dancing in the Street.” The Dead’s rendition, titled “Dancin’ in the Streets,” gives the track a funky disco flavor. The track is horn-heavy with prominent rhythm guitar from Bob Weir. The back beat is also worth note; Mickey Hart’s hand drums being more prominent in the mix than Bill Kreutzmann’s traditional drumming.
The Dead’s ability to take inspiration from other genres is prominent again in “Passenger,” an Arena Rock/Country track written by Phil Lesh. Due to a vocal cord issue Lesh couldn’t sing, allowing Bob Weir to take lead vocals with Donna Jean Godchaux alongside him. The track gets a nice country rock flavor thanks in part to the inclusion of slide guitar, but the flavor is muted by the Fleetwood Mac-inspired heavy rock chorus. Weir again takes lead vocals alongside Donna on “Samson and Delilah.” The gospel-blues track, which Weir learned from Reverend Gary Davis, is a traditional song about the Biblical story of Samson, his feats, and his inevitable betrayal by Delilah. The modern gospel song is a standout track with powerful Weir vocals, dynamic back and forth from the percussion and drums, and a organ that invokes a Sunday church service from Keith Godchaux.
The last song on side one is “Sunrise,” written and vocally-led by Donna. The pop ballad has a Fleetwood Mac style blend of acoustic guitars, arena rock guitar solos, and sweeping string sections. The track is truly the most bizarre from the group that so many put the label of “‘60s psychedelia” on. “Sunrise” is a thinly veiled attempt from Arista to turn Donna Jean Godchaux into the group’s own Stevie Nicks. The track is completely forgettable, almost begging that the record be flipped over.
Side two contains only one track when viewed on digital formats. The track “Terrapin Part 1,” which now just appears as “Terrapin Station Medley,” is a 16 minute track that fuses Jazz and Prog-Rock in seven parts. Part one, “Lady with a Fan,” is four minutes of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter collaborating at their best. The track has this echoey and tactile guitar that touches the heart strings during his solo. Garcia does what he does best in this first part, taking full command of the group and proving his place as their leader. A keyboard solo by Keith followed by Donna’s harmonies lead into the second part, “Terrapin Station.” This section contains some of Hunter’s best lyrics and features moving strings to amplify Garcia’s emotional performance. The two minute portion of the song also explains a bit what “Terrapin Part 1” is about, this journey to get to the fictional location Terrapin Station. The third part, “Terrapin,” is a two minute section where the guitars and drums build up, then crash. The whole section, echoes the melodies of the prior section. Part four, “Terrapin Transit,” is a Hart and Kreutzmann composition featuring beautiful strings, chimes, and gongs, transporting the song into a cosmic dimension. Garcia rips through this dimension with a powerful solo, echoed by the horns and strings. Garcia vocally re-emerges on part five, “At A Siding.” This section’s freeform jazz sound only furthers the listener being lost in the cosmos until Garcia let’s them know they will be in Terrapin again. The minute long part transitions quickly to “Terrapin Flyer.” This instrumental section features an african-influenced rhythm, which becomes completely overshadowed by the disco inspired strings. In this section different instruments go on runs. Caribbean steel drums, Garcia’s guitar, flutes, and the strings all wildly move through scales. This extended drum-led jam echoes the suite from the Dead’s prior album, Blues for Allah. This is continued as the final part, “Refrain,” begins and a chorus sings “Some will rise, some will fall, some will climb, Just to get to Terrapin.” The album concludes on this area rock high note.
“Terrapin Part 1” is a continuation in what has become a tradition for the Grateful Dead. The track is the third installment in a series of medley/suites from the group. Like “Weather Report Suite” or “Blues for Allah,” the group once again use their combined talents to take listeners on a profound journey. This time they eschew the country-rock or Arabic-inspired jazz, for a jazz-prog fusion. This medley is the perfect finale to an album that starts out sounding like an album by a completely different band. It also proves again why Hunter is the most talented writer in the group, creating this lyrical journey which is more thoughtful and moving than any other track on Terrapin Station.
Terrapin Station is not a perfect album and certainly not the finest moment for the band. With the exception of “Terrapin Part 1,” the whole album feels overproduced. The frequent horn-heavy or string-heavy tracks feels like a radical departure from the free-from jazz that the band exhibited two years prior. Clearly new producer Keith Olsen was experimenting, trying to make the Grateful Dead sound more like Fleetwood Mac. This strategy of trying to turn aging ‘60s bands into ‘70s mainstream rock acts didn’t work with the Dead. This left the group sounding like a whole different band. This isn’t a bad move when it’s clearly a conscious choice by band to move that way, but album doesn’t echo that sentiment. Terrapin Station exhibits a sound that is chosen by a producer or executive at Arista Records, in order to have a mainstream appeal and the Grateful Dead didn’t need to have mainstream appeal.