|Reputedly the entrance to Mickey Hart's ranch, somewhere in Novato (photo: JGMF)|
Sometime in late 1970, a studio was built on Hart's ranch, in the barn. At this time, home studios were not really viable propositions, so a band member having his own studio was a radical concept. Having a home studio in a room big enough to include a whole rock band was even more radical. The Dead's finances were even worse in 1970 than they were in 1969, so how the studio was financed is also in question. JGMF found some evidence that Columbia Records helped to put down some money for it. My own thesis was that producer Alan Douglas was romancing the Dead on behalf of Columbia president Clive Davis, in the hopes that the Dead would sign with Columbia when their Warner Brothers Records contract expired. [Update: McNally said that Dan Healy provided the designs for the electronics, and former Carousel Ballroom carpenter Johnny De Foncesca Sr actually built the renovations.]
Mickey Hart left the Grateful Dead in February, 1971, but he didn't leave the Grateful Dead orbit. Hart's studio, alternately called The Barn or Rolling Thunder on the backs of albums, was the first studio facility that was completely in control of a member or members of the Grateful Dead. It was followed by the studio in Bob Weir's garage (usually called Ace's), and then by Club Front.
In the early 1970s, recording studios in San Francisco were doing big business. Places like Wally Heider's, Columbia Studios and many others were making a lot of records. However, while those studios were excellent, they were also expensive and had to be booked far in advance. Hart's Barn in Novato offered a low-key alternative for the Grateful Dead and their friends and fellow travelers.
It's my contention that the Grateful Dead's ill-fated but fascinating effort to go independent in late 1972 was predicated on the availability of Mickey Hart's studio. Something like a Jerry Garcia solo album could be recorded at a major studio, but some of the more quixotic projects that the Dead were involved in had different financing and scheduling issues, and The Barn was perfect. This post will review the various album projects that appear to have been undertaken at The Barn from 1971 through 1976, considered in the context of Round Records and the music industry, rather than specifically with reference to the music that was produced. For clarity, I have chosen to refer to the studio as The Barn rather than as Rolling Thunder.
The Grateful Dead's plan to have their own record companies, Grateful Dead and Round, was years ahead of its time. The idea to have a dedicated studio at The Barn was also years ahead of its time. Both plans were too far ahead of their time to make economic sense. A few decades later, many acts had their own record companies and worked out of home studios, recording whatever they liked--David Grisman is a great current example--but the Dead started the train rolling before the track was finished. This post will look at the Dead's effort to be a forward looking, independent music company from the point of view of the album projects recorded at The Barn in Novato from 1971 through 1976.
|The cover to Mickey Hart's 1972 Warner Brothers lp Rolling Thunder|
Warner Brothers gave Mickey Hart a three-album deal in 1971, soon after he left the Grateful Dead. Why would a record company give a three-album deal to a drummer, one who had neither sang nor composed with his prior group? I have written at length about my theory that with the Grateful Dead's popularity rising and their Warner Brothers records contract expiring, both Warners and Columbia were trying to offer incentives to sign with them. Warner Brothers had offered solo deals to Garcia and Weir, and by offering one to Hart they probably figured that the Dead would be well-disposed towards them.
In Fall '72, the Grateful Dead shocked the industry by going completely independent. Warners released Hart's first solo album, Rolling Thunder, while the Dead were still under contract to them. Probably Warners still hoped that the Grateful Dead could be talked out of their madness. Rolling Thunder is a fascinating album and period piece in many ways, but it did not have a radio-friendly sound and it rapidly disappeared.
Rolling Thunder was apparently recorded over a period of 18 months, and features an All-Star cast of San Francisco-based musicians, including Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Stephen Stills, members of the Jefferson Airplane, the Tower of Power horns and many more. Although the record was recorded in The Barn, it was mixed at Alembic Studios in San Francisco. Alembic, at 60 Brady Street, had formerly been known as Pacific High Recorders. The Dead had recorded Workingman's Dead at PHR, and the room had a reputation as a particularly fine venue for mixing tapes. The Barn was designed as a place to record, rather than as a place to finish off albums, a task more suited to the equipment of full-time studios.
"Fire On The Mountain" album project-Mickey Hart (1972-73)
For the second album of his deal, Hart produced a more conventional album. Although its impossible to know for certain what was intended, a circulating version has about 13 tracks, and the first song is an early version of "Fire On The Mountain." The vocals appear to be by Robert Hunter, and they are sung in a sort of chanted rap--not exactly Gil Scott-Heron, but definitely spoken rather than sung. Presumably, "Fire On The Mountain" was intended as the title track of the proposed album.
The rest of the prospective album had fairly conventional songs, with few of the strange sonic and musical experiments (like "Insect Fear") that had characterized Rolling Thunder. Vocals were by the likes of David Frieberg and Barry Melton. A few other Hunter compositions turned up on the tape, as well, such as "I Heard You Singing." The musicians were part of the same Marin County suspects that had played on Rolling Thunder, but somewhat less high profile players. The "Fire On The Mountain" tape that I have heard would have made a much better record than Rolling Thunder, but Warner Brothers rejected the album.
By mid-1973, the Grateful Dead had fully left Warner Brothers, and presumably Warners had no corporate interest in a loss leader project that supported the band's now departed drummer. Since Warner Brothers didn't hear an obvious hit on the proposed album, I presume they simply passed. Hart probably recognized the reality of what was happening.
[Soundtrack album for 'The Silent Flute' film]-Mickey Hart (1973)
The third album that Hart submitted to fulfill his contract was the soundtrack to a martial arts film. Supposedly this tape was rejected by Warners without being listened to, but the story may be apocryphal. I have to assume that Hart expected them to reject the album anyway, and that he simply submitted a tape from a project he was working on. I'm sure Hart made interesting music for the film, but I have to doubt that Warners would ever have been truly interested.
Does anyone have any idea of the title of the martial arts film? Was it even released? Was it a Bruce Lee type action movie, or some sort of documentary or training film? I know that Hart was interested in various kinds of martial arts, so his connection isn't surprising, but it's fascinating to think that there may have been some late night Kung Fu flick that has "Soundtrack-Mickey Hart" in the credits.
Update: thanks to a Commenter, we know that the album project was called The Silent Flute. A tape circulates, featuring ambient music played by Hart, Garcia and others. Thanks to another Commenter, we know that there was a1973 Bruce Lee project called The Silent Flute, which was halted when Bruce Lee passed away. The project was remade and released in 1978 as Circle Of Iron, with David Carradine (of Kung Fu fame) in the starring role. Was Hart's Silent Flute music intended for the Bruce Lee project?
|The cover to Area Code 615's 1970 Polydor album Trip In The Country|
A tape has circulated that was made concurrently or shortly after the "Fire On The Mountain" project, generally labeled as "Area Code 415." At the time, the entire Bay Area was area code 415, including the East Bay (now 510), Contra Costa County (now 925), the Peninsula (now 650), San Jose (now 408) and the Santa Cruz area (now 831). Thus all Bay Area musicians would have used area code 415.
A band of Nashville session musicians had made some excellent country rock albums under the name Area Code 615, which was the area code for Nashville. Some heavy Nashville session men, led by guitarist Wayne Moss, who had played on many rock albums such as Blonde On Blonde, had decided to record as a rock group. Area Code 615 released two albums, Area Code 615 (1969) and Trip In The Country (1970). The albums were not huge hits, but they got played on FM radio and were well known amongst musicians and industry pros. Area Code 615 only toured a little bit, since they all made so much money from recording, but they did open once at the Fillmore West from February 12-15, 1970 (Country Joe and The Fish and The Sons topped the bill). Many of the members of Area Code 615 went on to form the group Barefoot Jerry, who had a sort of FM hit with the great song "Watching TV With The Radio On."
Thus, a tape of Bay Area musicians working together in a loose aggregation could be called Area Code 415, and locals and industry professionals would have gotten both the joke and the business concept. I have to think that the tape we know as Area Code 415, which is about 22 songs, including some from "Fire On The Mountain" and other projects on this list, was at least informally circulated amongst record companies for possible release. If so, their must have been no bites. While I find the Area Code 415 material enjoyable, it has a flatter sound that was a bit dated compared to 70s acts like The Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan, who sounded much brighter.
|The cover to an Old And In The Way live cd, recorded in October 1973|
The most interesting, most mysterious and completely unheard project recorded at The Barn was the Old And In The Way studio album, apparently recorded in March or April of 1973. The recording can be dated by a reference in a review found by JGMF. The timeline suggests that Old And In The Way got together and recorded an album almost immediately after forming, perhaps thinking that they could get an independently released album out within a few months. Yet the tape has never surfaced, in any form. At various times, members of the band have alluded to the fact that they were unsatisfied with the results. Ultimately, Owsley recorded Old And In The Way's next-to-last show live, and those tapes were the source of both the February 1975 album and two archival cds released in the 1990s.
What was wrong with the Old And In The Way studio album? Of course, if it was recorded in March or April 1973, the band had only been together a short time, and some of the arrangements may not have been fully fleshed out. (It's my current hypothesis, by the way, that lacking a fiddle player, Old And In The Way brought in the great John Hartford for the recording, thus accounting for the peculiar situation where Hartford is constantly referred to as a former member although there seems to be no evidence of a gig where he played live.)
Nonetheless, for experienced musicians, bluegrass arrangements come quickly. Bluegrass is recorded live--it wasn't Terrapin Station. Are we to believe that not a single take of any song was worthy of release, even as a bonus track 20 years later? I believe there were no contractual problems associated with anyone in Old And In The Way, so no lawyers would have gotten in the way of a release. Why have the Old And In The Way studio tapes disappeared?
The most plausible explanation for the Old And In The Way studio tapes staying in the vault would be that the actual recorded sound was very unsatisfying. Musicians are considerably more bothered by poor recordings than civilians, and if the band members didn't like the recorded sound, they would have simply buried the tape. In general, tapes recorded at The Barn had a kind of tinny, 60s feel to them. Sometimes a thin sound can be very effective on a recording, such as on Electric Music For The Mind And Body, Country Joe and The Fish's 1967 debut album. Mind And Body didn't have the sheen of Revolver, but it had an immediacy that makes the record very powerful.
If the sound for a recording is wrong, however, no amount of studio trickery can really fix it. Up until this time, no truly acoustic project had been recorded at The Barn. Notice also that the Old And In The Way was the first genuine Garcia project recorded at The Barn. Garcia had been involved intermittently with Rolling Thunder, but Old And In The Way would have been his first full project. Given that the Dead were self-financing in 1973, working at Mickey Hart's studio would have been a lot cheaper than recording in San Francisco at The Record Plant (I am confident that Hart was paid for the use of his studio, by the way). I would note, however, that the Old And In The Way project was Garcia's last project at The Barn before they got a new mixing board (see below).
I think The Barn was falling behind as a professional studio in 1973, and it was a particularly poor room for acoustic music. I think both Garcia and Grisman, and probably one Mr. Owsley Stanley, were very unhappy with the sound quality of the Old And In The Way recording, and seem to have buried it where it can never be found. I hope it remains intact as part of Owsley's taped legacy, whatever its quality.
|The cover to Barry Melton's 1975 album The Fish, a UK only released on UA Records|
Betty Cantor engineered and produced a Barry Melton solo album at The Barn entitled The Fish. By the time the album was released in 1975, however, it had been entirely re-recorded in Wales. I take this chain of events to suggest that the record industry did not like the sound of tapes recorded at The Barn, and the history of The Fish is one of the indirect reasons that I hold to my theory that Garcia, Grisman and Owsley rejected the sound of the Old And In The Way tapes. I have speculated at length about the history of the recording of this album, so I won't recap it all here.
|The cover to Robert Hunter's 1974 album Tales Of The Great Rum Runners, the first release on Round Records|
The first release on Jerry Garcia's Round Records label was thoroughly unexpected, as it was an album by the Dead's hitherto mysterious lyricist Robert Hunter. I have quite a lot to say about the reasoning behind this release, but that is a subject for another (no doubt lengthy) post. Since Tales Of The Great Rum Runners was released in June 1974, the album must have been recorded at The Barn earlier in 1974. Jerry Garcia and a few other Grateful Dead members make appearances, and numerous other Bay Area locals--the Area Code 415 crowd--play on it as well.
Then and now, Tales Of The Great Rum Runners was a fascinating if flawed album. One of its major flaws was that it just didn't sound that great by 1974 standards. Jerry Garcia mixed the album, but over at Alembic. Hunter's semi-electric music may have been more amenable to the sound of The Barn than Old And In The Way, but it can't have been completely satisfying. Round Records was independent, however, so working at The Record Plant wasn't really a financial option.
Roadhog album project (1974)
A recent and curious tape has surfaced of what appears to be some sort of album project for the band Roadhog. Robert Hunter played around the Bay Area with Roadhog in 1976, but the band had existed for sometime before that. A 39-minute, 15-track tape has surfaced that features mostly Hunter compositions, recorded by Roadhog. Hunter himself sings lead on several of them. Six of the tracks were different versions of songs that turned up on Rum Runners, and a few more songs are now known from later Hunter albums or performances. A few tracks, like the song "Roadhog" itself, were unheard up until now.
Where do the Roadhog tapes fit in with Tales Of The Great Rum Runners? This, too, is mysterious, making my upcoming Rum Runners post even longer. Did the Roadhog project precede Rum Runners, and get superseded? Was it a parallel project, with the idea that Hunter would write the songs for Roadhog as well as the Dead? JGMF found an ad for Roadhog at the Inn Of The Beginning on September 27, 1974, where they are listed as playing "songs by Robert Hunter." All quite fascinating material for contemplation.
For the purposes of this post, however, it's simply worth noting that the Roadhog recordings have a demo tape feel. I wouldn't be surprised if the Roadhog tape was also shopped to record companies with no bites. In any case, Roadhog are thanked on the Rum Runners liner notes, which confirms that the band already existed prior to the record, so there must have been some parallel development, but that will have to wait for another post.
|The cover to Robert Hunter's 1975 album on Round, Tiger Rose|
I believe that Mickey Hart's Barn studio was intended as an important linchpin in the Round Records plan. In order for the members of the Grateful Dead to record the albums they wanted to make, their had to be an affordable, friendly studio. Local studios like The Record Plant, Wally Heider's and Columbia Studios were fine facilities, but they were expensive to use and heavily booked. The Barn had seemed like a perfect solution, but it's hard not to look at the recorded evidence and think that the sound quality of the recordings at The Barn were not up to 1974 standards.
At some point in 1974, Alembic Sound sold Alembic Studios to producer Elliott Mazer. Alembic was a sound company that was intimately connected to the Grateful Dead, though in fact a separate business entity. Alembic had purchased the old Pacific High Recorders studio at 60 Brady Street, where the band had recorded Workingman's Dead, and re-named it Alembic Studios. Alembic was generally only used for mixing, rather than recording. Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead mixed "Skull And Roses," Europe '72 at Alembic, and Garcia had re-mixed Anthem Of The Sun and Aoxomoxoa there, as well.
Alembic had decided to get out of the studio business, however, and focus on making instruments and other live performance equipment. Mazer would upgrade the studio's equipment and re-name it His Master's Wheels. Many albums were recorded at His Master's Wheels, including the Jerry Garcia Band portions of Reflections. As part of the upgrade, however, the old mixing board was sold off, and it ended up in The Barn. I don't know what the financial arrangements were--were old mixing boards desirable commodities in 1974?--but there's no question that the sound of albums recorded at The Barn improved after that. I'm sure other technical changes had been made as well, which would be way beyond me, but I like the synergy that the board used for Workingman's Dead became the platform for recording several projects on Round Records.
I suspect that Tiger Rose was the first project recorded on the old PHR board. I suspect that it was an implicit condition of Jerry Garcia acting as the producer and arranger for the album. Notwithstanding Garcia's fine musical contributions, the sound of Tiger Rose is far superior to the Barn-recorded albums that preceded it. It can't have been an accident.
|The cover to the album Seastones, released in 1975 on Round Records, recorded by Ned Lagin and members of the Grateful Dead, including Phil Lesh, Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart|
Keyboardist Ned Lagin had come out to California in 1973 work with Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and others on a variety of electronic music projects. The "Seastones" performances with Phil Lesh and the accompanying album on Round were just a portion of what was recorded, much less what was intended. For record company reasons, a sticker on the album cover presented Seastones as a joint collaboration between Lagin and Lesh, and that was apparently a bit misleading, though not incorrect. The project was really Lagin's, but Lesh's name was attached to it to make it into a "solo album." Lagin did not object, by any means, but Garcia and Hart played big roles in the composition, development and recording of the album as well, and that has apparently been somewhat lost over time. A two cd set of Seastones is due sometime, and that should help lend some clarity to the scope and intentions of the project.
Seastones was not a typical recording project in any way, so it is all but fruitless to compare it to anything else. Nonetheless, The Barn seems to have been one of four recording studios for the work. Lagin had spent some time in California earlier in the 70s, and some recording on Seastones related projects had taken place at The Barn in 1971-72. The project re-started when Lagin returned to Califronia in 1973. In some personal correspondence, Lagin alluded to studio time being rushed and limited by record company finances, so that is one way I have been able to assume that projects recorded at The Barn were paid and paying work, not just larks. Of course, there were three other studios, one of them in Bob Weir's garage, so there may be some other nuances to this as well.
It's hard to compare Seastones to, say, a Hunter album, but I have to assume that Lagin aslo appreciated the upgrades associated with the PHR mixing board. Seastones was mixed in Quadrophonic, the hi-fi of it's time, ironically enough at His Masters Wheels.
|The cover to the Round Records album Pistol Packin' Mama, by the Good Old Boys, recorded in 1975 and released in 1976|
Jerry Garcia produced a bluegrass album for Round, featuring New Rider David Nelson and three genuine bluegrass legends: Frank Wakefield (mandolin), Don Reno (banjo) and Chubby Wise (fiddle). Limited evidence suggests that the album was actually recorded in about February 1975, even though it was not released until March 1976. I think the Grateful Dead's financial problems intervened, and there was not enough cash to release the album until the Grateful Dead had signed a distribution deal with United Artists Records at the end of 1975.
Pistol Packin' Mama is a beautiful sounding album, bluegrass like it should be recorded. With musicians as accomplished as The Good Old Boys, the key for the producer was simply to record the music as clearly as possible, and Garcia and engineer Dan Healy seem to have achieved that. I have to assume that the long lost Old And In The Way studio album did not sound nearly as good as Pistol Packin' Mama, and I have to think that a variety of technical upgrades must have made all the difference. Without knowing much about recording, I have to think that the mixing board from PHR was a big part of that.
|The cover to the 1976 Round album Diga Rhythm Band|
Throughout much of 1975, Hart was apparently working on his Diga Rhythm Band project. The album was finally released in early 1976, but I do not think United Artists was very happy with it. When they agreed to distribute Grateful Dead and Round Records, UA must have been thinking about Garcia and Weir solo albums. They did get Reflections (RX 107) and Kingfish (RX 108), but UA can't have been happy about an electronic music album best heard in quadrophonic (Seastones), an album of cover tunes in a nearly forgotten country subgenre (Pistol Packin Mama) and finally a percussion album that you can't dance to (unless you are very, very limber). Hart apparently spent a lot of UA's money re-mixing Diga to get it just exactly perfect.
In June, 1976, the Grateful Dead returned to full-time touring, with Mickey Hart back on board. By the end of 1976, Grateful Dead and Round Records were no more. By the middle of 1977, "Le Club Front," which was initially the Jerry Garcia Band's rehearsal studio, had become the primary in-house recording venue for the Grateful Dead and its members. The Barn studio receded into the background. Once in a while, if Hart was not on tour, it seems to have been put to good use: a local Marin band featuring future JGB drummer Johnny De Foncesca recorded a demo there in 1978, and some Rhythm Devils sessions were held there in March, 1980.
In general, however, I have to assume that The Barn at Hart's ranch simply became Mickey Hart's home studio, available to put down ideas or record jams as the mood struck him. At some point the studio was dismantled, although I don't know the exact story. A fellow blogger interviewed Hart and Hart not only confirmed the fact that the PHR mixing board went to his studio, he commented on its own aftermath. Sometime in the 1980s, apparently, the mixing board was donated to a studio in Hunter's Point in San Francisco that was run as part of the San Francisco Public Schools. Somewhere out there, in the aether where there is a Kung Fu movie with a Mickey Hart soundtrack, there are some tapes by aspiring teenage rappers in San Francisco in the late 80s with a whiff of Workingman's Dead on them. As far as I know, the actual barn itself that housed the The Barn studio has since been dismantled.