EIGHT TIMES TWO: GRATEFUL DEAD LIVE 1970 VS. BLONDIE LIVE 1979 (HOMEMADE TAPES)
Two 8-tracks of concerts from psychedelic jam band the Grateful Dead and new-wave ensemble Blondie, recorded by fans over tapes of other albums.
Bracketing the ’70s: These two concerts bookend the entire decade: the Dead show is early 1970 and Blondie’s is mid-1979. But because of the artists’ chosen styles, they seem even further apart: the GD’s folkie repertoire here evokes the cowboy spirit of the late 19th century, and Blondie’s futurist approach suggests the 1980s, 1990s, or later.
Gig dates: The Dead tape features a portion of an acoustic set from Harpur (not Harper) College, Binghamton, NY, May 2, 1970, a favorite among Deadheads. The half-hour set on the Blondie tape is part of an August 5, 1979 gig in Dallas, TX.
Turning points: The Dead had recorded but not yet released Workingman’s Dead, a rootsy reversal from their psychedelic explorations but really a return to the group’s jug-band and bluegrass origins. They had played numerous acoustic sets before, but none so lengthy or elaborate as this one. Blondie was about to release their fourth album Eat To The Beat, more or less the end of its new-wave era before expanding into hip-hop and reggae styles (having already conquered disco!). Both bands previewed new material that hadn’t been released officially yet.
Fishes out of water: The bands swap regional styles, sort of: Blondie brings its New York punk to cowboy Texas, while the Dead brings its cowboy songs to New York State.
Set list (Grateful Dead): The Dead’s acoustic set is roughly half new songs (unheard by this East Coast audience) from the upcoming Workingman’s album, and half old blues and folk chestnuts they’d been playing for years; no real revelations. Songs performed: “Don’t Ease Me In” / “I Know You Rider” / “Friend Of The Devil” / “Dire Wolf” / “Beat It On Down The Line” / “Candyman” / “Cumberland Blues” / “Deep Elem Blues” (partial). (Not on this tape: “Black Peter” / “Cold Jordan” / “Uncle John’s Band”.)
Set list (Blondie): Since Eat To The Beat and its lead single had not yet been released, “Dreaming” and “Slow Motion” were unfamiliar surprises (Debbie introduces the latter as “something new for you”). The band also lays out high-energy versions of songs from the debut album and Parallel Lines, plus an amazing bonus medley and cover song (more on that later). Songs performed: “Dreaming” / “In The Sun” / “11:59” / “Slow Motion” / “Sunday Girl” / “In The Flesh” / “60’s Rock Medley > “Funtime”. (Not on this tape: “Hanging on the Telephone” / “Look Good in Blue” / “Heart of Glass” / “Bang A Gong [Get It On]”.)
Jam session: Both tapes feature great moments of instrumental interplay, though the Dead show offers less jamming than usual. Their cookin’ version of “Cumberland Blues” features a relentless boogie riff overlaid with twangy guitar leads from Jerry Garcia. The Blondie show features an incredible 8-minute garage/surf medley (including shreds of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Shakin’ All Over,” and “Wipe Out”) that culminates in a primal cover of Iggy Pop’s “Funtime.” Blondie at its punkiest!
Surprise ballad: Another highlight of the unplugged Dead gig is “I Know You Rider,” slowed down from the usual bouncy pace and featuring a solo Garcia vocal that brings out the song’s pathos. (“Rider” had been fused with “China Cat Sunflower” the year before and would stay that way through the band’s career, so this is one of its final outings as a single song.) On the Blondie show, Debbie Harry claims the next song is one “we don’t usually do too much”; the band slinks into the wistful, lustful “In The Flesh.”
Hiding place: The Dead tape was spotted amidst retro memorabilia in a Seattle vintage mall; the Blondie tape was amidst a couple dozen tapes I picked up at a Craigslist seller’s house in Oregon.
8-track recording method: As with most home recordings of the era, the Dead and Blondie tapes are recorded straight through the splices, meaning there’s no fade down and up at the program shift (ka-chunk!) as on commercial tapes. The pause is only a fraction of a second, almost unnoticeable.
Sound quality: Both are impressive, crisp and present and bursting with energy. And both are in stereo (later portions of this same Dead show were captured only in mono).
Likely source: The Dead show probably came from a vinyl bootleg, though it sounds clean and free of surface noise. It also sounds too crisp for the lo-bias cassette copies that were trading hands. Though the abbreviated Blondie gig was also issued on vinyl (the Little Doll bootleg), this seems to have been captured off the radio; as the performance ends, an announcer ID’s this as a King Biscuit Flower Hour show (a syndicated rock concert program), and we hear a brief snippet of a commercial.
Also on the tape: The Dead tape actually opens with a long, fast electric instrumental (“King Solomon’s Marbles”) from another show, the August 13, 1975 gig at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall (the “GAMH” scrawled on the label). The remainder of the Blondie tape features someone’s custom mix of favorite Waylon Jennings songs (probably recorded over when they discovered Blondie).
Donor albums: The Dead concert was deemed more interesting than Rebirth (1968), the only album by Texas psychedelic combo The Children. (8-tracks of this album have sold for $40, but listening online I wasn’t impressed.) Blondie’s gig replaced Ice Water (1974), a countryish vocal set by famed acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke. Fun fact: both Kottke and The Children covered songs by San Francisco 1960s folk-rockers the Beau Brummels.
Buy now!: Neither show was issued on 8-track, but CD editions of both shows have been legitimately released. The full Harpur College concert was issued as Volume 8 in the Dead’s Dick’s Picks live series. The Blondie show appears on Picture This Live, reissued as Live in Philadelphia 1978 & Dallas 1980 (the latter year is inaccurate). Both can also be streamed online as well. (Blondie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Nkfh2mMKn8; Dead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-VFRubBIdE )
Judgment call: Both sets on these homemade 8-tracks represent the bands in peak form. But I’ll give the nod to the Blondie show, since they’re so seldom heard in live performance: their tight, high-energy playing and singing are truly a revelation, while the Dead’s skill as a live act is well-chronicled. A big thank-you to the unknown recorders of these fine tapes, still sounding good long past their sell-by date.
You can read last week’s installment here: Cart Shopping – 8-Trackin’ In Seattle!
Join us for more of Andrew Tonkin’s 8-Trackin’ next Thursday!
More Blondie at Cherry Stereo: Playback!: Blondie, ‘Denis’ (1978)
More Grateful Dead at Cherry Stereo: This Day In ’70s Music: Grateful Dead, The B-52’s