A Night to Remember: The Grateful Dead, Alexandra Palace 1974

Country boy hits the city – the city hits country boy, who is Grateful he isn’t Dead.

I’ve always been of the, perhaps lazy, view that experiences are best seen as an undifferentiated stew, the details of which are unimportant – it’s the overall effect that is key.  I don’t need to know how many ingredients there are in my meal  – the only test is, ‘do they taste nice’.  I’m now pretty sure that is wrong.

If my friend Pat hadn’t photographed our every Scottish sea kayaking trip then the memories would be much less clear, if not close to disappearing.  In a similar fashion, if there was a better account of my walking trips in the Highlands, then those memories might be a little clearer and not just dozens of pictures of mountains that all look unfortunately similar. Being honest and given my time again, I’d probably be just as likely to be showering, searching for food and the pub, rather than writing up a journal. We do have lots of fun though trying to remember who, what, where and when?

As with kayaking and hill walking so it has been with gig-going – except that for the last ten years or so I have taken to keeping all my tickets – I wish I had always done that. There is though one gig (or two to be totally precise) that I remember from way back when.

Having finished A-levels and being lined up to go to Birmingham for three years, we managed to get tickets to see the Grateful Dead at the Alexandra Palace in 1974 – Monday to Wednesday the 9th – 11th of September.  So my friend Steve and I set off hitching to the smoke to stay with our pal Nils who worked there.  I’m not sure it wasn’t the time I got a lift in a Roller, for a short distance, near Kendal (two best lifts ever – an E type and said Rolls Royce though unfortunately only for short distances). Hitching from West Cumbria to the Big City was always fun.

The Ally Pally with its elevated location offers a fantastic view especially at night, Deadheads were out in force and clearly, it’s a delightful building.  The Dead’s sound system would have shown Spector what a wall of sound could really look like.  Not surprisingly expectations were high.

Then, very little seemed to start or finish on time and in these days of clockwork, sometimes irritating precision, it is a laxity I sometimes miss. Apparently, the band started an hour late and then played for three hours but I only know this in retrospect because at the time I wouldn’t have known or really cared.

Nils worked in the hi-fi department of a chain chemist and had access to a stereo tape-recorder – an exotic piece of kit in those days for sure.  We took this in, surreptitiously arranged some microphones and Nils must have had the most uncomfortable night.  Imagine our amazement, as the cliché runs, when we realised everyone was at it right out in the open – no need for subterfuge at all.  Country boys in the city!

I think the night went well but various stimulants dulled our senses – though I do recall that our precious tape had some idiot calling out incessantly, “play all night” – a request that the band took seriously – something of a mixed blessing to be truthful.

I may have slept through some of it but proceedings did come to an end and we exited only to meet a local elder of challenged stature sporting a Pork Pie Hat. Friendly conversation ensued until in a gesture of mistaken fraternity I reached for the said hat intending to try it on – whereupon he caught me a beaut right on the snozz.  Blood, amazement and some laughter ensued and, maybe, the Churchillian spirit was invoked.  However, dulled my senses were they sharpened up pretty quick.  There were three of us and drunk callow youths as we were I think I would have fancied our chances – so here’s to you Guardian of the Hat, with clearly a bucketful of British pluck.

Impressed as we were with Monday nights affair we got some more tickets and returned on Wednesday when Nils was equipped with a bamboo-cane microphone boom robust enough to replace the Calvary Cross.  We may even have given a few derisory glances toward the assembled amateurs (I think there were headphones involved as well – god knows why). Make way for the sound crew! It seemed so brazen – even though everyone was at it- that we were, for some time to come, tickled pink. I wish I knew where that tape is now.

Not so much a gig, more an event really – and not equalled since.

I think ‘Dick’s Picks 7′ covers much of what we heard – well what was played to be totally accurate but you might want to be wary of, ‘Seastones’.

Here’s a link to the entire show.

Just to round our week off we went to Wembley on the following Saturday to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, Jesse Colin Young and The Band. Some week.  I think it was £2.20 for the Dead and £3.50 for the Wembley event.

About Gordon Sharpe 71 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts

7 Comments

  1. I really discovered the band through their excellent ’30 days of November’, which I would recommend to everyone.

    I’ve also just finished Dennis McNally’s ‘A Long Strange Trip: The inside history of the Grateful Dead’, 824 pages excluding notes, biobliography, list of intervieews and an index! (A major frustration of the book is that there is no clear timeline showing who was in the band over time).

    Live; sometimes out of this world and sometimes ‘out of this world’. It does seem to have been a real gamble which band you got on the night.

    As human beings they clearly were all damaged in some way or other, so it is a miracle they produced so much great music. Listen to them: yes. Meet them: not so sure!

    As you say ‘Not so much a gig, more an event really’

    • Hi Richard – In all likelihoood one of the best weeks of my life – even going to Virgin Records in Nottiing Hill was a bit of an experience (I think thats where it was?) and I can still laugh out loud when I think of the whole recording business and Nils microphone boom. Don’t think we would get away with it these days

  2. I was there and also at Wembley on 14th, having had my 21st birthday in between – what a week.
    My strongest memory of the Ally Pally experience was the aural assault that was Seastones, taking place in the so-called interval. It literally caused my then girlfriend to pass out and if I recall correctly I was able to take her behind the stage, not backstage, to recover. Not her favourite gig I’d hazard to suggest and I’d say not the Dead at their finest either but as always it was certainly an experience.

    • Hi Nigel – not sure if you checked out the recent review of the documentary ‘It Was the Music’ wherein Phil Lesh talks about his love of the avant garde – to the point whrere you would wonder how he ended up in the Dead (https://americana-uk.com/?s=it+was+the+music). Personally I would prefer Wharf Rat to Dark Star anytime. With regard to that show I am not sure I had enough knowledge to know a good set from a bad one. Still glad I was there though.

      I now live a few miles fom the site near Keele University where the Dead played an outdooor set – the Hollywood festival I think? – not one that seems to get talked about much

  3. I too was there for all three nights with a group of friends. It was absolutely magical.
    I remember racing into the hall to get to the front when the doors opened and also having some banter with Charles Shaar Murray who was in the press pit between us and the stage.He was quite antipathetic towards the band as I recall.
    I live in Yorkshire and whenever I travel to London by train and pass by the Ally Pally I still get a bit misty eyed.

    • Hi Malcolm – yes somehow modern gig going for all its precision and wonderful sound doesn’t quite match up – though i think it helped to be wide eyed and naive – just going to London on my own seemd an event – its a long way from West Cumbria even now and it certainly was then. I used to love hitching – loads of good experiences and never a bad one.

  4. One of my friends sent me this calculator which I thought amusing. Lion Light for the uninitiated was beer – but only just!

    “You tell kids today you saw CSN&Y for £3.50 and they think you’re making it up. I have developed a “pint of beer” currency for comparisons, so £3.50 was around 23 pints of Matty’s light at 15p/pint, so in today’s money at £4 a pint that’s £92…. as you can see, it’s not quite what you would pay today but it’s not a bad comparison”

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