Monday, November 30, 2009

October 1968 Grateful Dead European Tour (canceled)

Billboard Magazine has been the Music Industry's leading trade journal for over half a century. In the 1960s, Billboard often filled its news sections with brief articles excerpted from record company press releases, often about new record releases or forthcoming tours. Because of the lag between the creation of the press release and the advance notice of publishing, sometimes these Billboard articles were outdated by the time they were published. Thus music historians have to focus on Billboard articles as an indicator of what was planned rather than what actually happened.

A correspondent sent me a particularly intriguing example from Billboard of what might have been. Page 70 of the October 12, 1968 Billboard features the brief article "'Dead' On Tour"(above), with a Dateline of London, which blandly states
Warner Group the Grateful Dead arrive here Wednesday ([Oct] 9) for the start of a one-month European tour. The group opens at the Revolution Club, London, October 10 and follow with dates in Birmingham, Leicester and Liverpool.
From Oct. 22 to 31, the Grateful Dead will continue their tour in Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Denmark, then will return to Britain for further dates.
Unfortunately, of course, none of these things happened. The Dead stayed home in October, playing some weekends at the Avalon (11-13) and The Bank in Torrance (18-19), and Jerry Garcia and others played numerous gigs at the Matrix in various configurations known today as Mickey Hart and The Hartbeats.

The Billboard article begs a couple of interesting questions:
  • What conclusions can we draw from the fact that the article was published, even thought the tour never occurred, and
  • Why might the tour have been scheduled, and then canceled
Since the dateline of the article was London, we have to assume the Billboard correspondent used a Warners (England) press release, which would have been common practice for Billboard news items. The date of publication (October 12, 1968) would have been the last date the magazine could be distributed by mail, so the issue would have been scheduled for the week of October 6-12, and mailed on October 6. Given the time required for printing and so on, the press deadline had to be about October 1, and factoring in the time taken for mailing press releases, the Warners release must have been from mid-September, probably based on information from early September.

It was common for Billboard to publish notices of forthcoming tours that were changed or canceled by the time they occurred. Billboard's readership would have understood this, and in any case would have been just as interested in the fact that a tour was scheduled as that it actually occurred. So we can conclude that as of early September, Warners England anticipated a European tour by the Grateful Dead, with the following itinerary outlined

  • Oct 9-arrive London
  • Oct 10-Revolution Club, London
  • Oct 11-12 Middle Earth Club, London (ads exist for these shows)
  • Oct 13-21: London, Birmingham, Leicester, Liverpool
  • Oct 22-25: Belgium and Holland (approximate dates)
  • Oct 26-31: Sweden and Denmark (approximate dates)
  • Nov 1-5: England (approximate dates)
With such an ambitious plan, why did the Grateful Dead fail to go on their scheduled European tour? The Dead were always eager to try out new places, the farther out the better, so it seems unlikely that the band itself would be an impediment to going on tour. The usual reason for canceled tours was poor ticket sales, but I do not believe that to be the case, for reasons I will explain. At the minimum, the Grateful Dead were already quite legendary, and they could have sold out European venues with ease on reputation alone. Based on contemporary tours (see below), the venues would likely have been fairly small and easy to fill on the Dead's reputation.

European tours by American West Coast "underground" rock bands were a very new venture with little precedent. Given the Dead's always precarious financial situation, I believe Warner Brothers was going to finance the tour and backed out. Although I have no special knowledge, I have to assume the set up was that Warners would finance the flights from San Francisco to London for the Dead, their crew and their equipment, and the band would earn money overseas to travel around, just as they would for a normal tour. Warners would have charged back the expense of the transportation to future Grateful Dead royalties. From Warners point of view, the purpose of the tour would have been to accelerate Grateful Dead record sales in Northern Europe. To my knowledge, up until October 1968 Warners had not sponsored an American rock band on a European tour (see below).

In September 1968, according to Dennis McNally (p.278), the Dead began recording Aoxomoxoa at Pacific Studios in San Mateo, which had a state-of-the-art 16-track recording facility. By all accounts, the band recorded endlessly and rapidly ran over budget--way over budget, many tens of thousands of dollars over budget--with the endless tracking opportunities offered by the technology. Whatever plans Warners may have had for the group, they can not have been optimistic about financing even more debt for a record that showed no signs of immediate completion.

At the same time, after a tumultous band meeting in August (McNally p.276-278), Garcia and Lesh tried to fire Weir and Pigpen on the grounds of insufficient musical commitment, but with typical confrontation avoidance tried to get Rock Scully to bear the bad news (Owsley taped the meeting) and Weir and Pig, while hurt, did not quite grasp that they were fired. The Dead continued to play gigs while recording the album, with Weir and Pig onboard, and eventually their musical commitment improved and the firing was forgotten.

Nonetheless, whatever the Dead's plans to tour Europe, by the end of September the band was nowhere near finishing their next album, and there was some doubt as to who would be in the band. Warners must had some inkling of this, and the band's management may not have been anxious to push Warners when the entire enterprise was about to grind to a halt. In the pre-Internet era, news traveled more slowly, so European promoters may have been carefully planning a tour, only to find that neither Warners support nor the Dead's esprit de corps were flying high, and no European tour was forthcoming.

As it happened, the Dead continued working on Aoxomoxoa, and played some local gigs with Weir and Pigpen for ready cash. The gigs at the now-struggling Avalon and the apparently always struggling Bank in Torrance would have been easy to schedule with very little notice. Many nights in October of 1968 were taken up with gigs at The Matrix featuring Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart in conjunction with various other friends, including Jack Casady, Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield. Given that the four Dead members were the ones who objected to Weir and Pigpen's playing, its hard not to think that there was some casual auditioning going on for new members. Elvin Bishop must have been considered, whether or not he knew it, but he was an exceptional guitarist used to working with a high powered lead player and he would have fit in well. Various other rumors abound of David Nelson rehearsing with the Dead or Bob Segarini being asked to join (referred to in the liner notes to the Family Tree Miss Butters cd re-release).

None of it happened--In the end, Weir and Pigpen stayed in the band, Weir became a unique and exceptional guitarist, Aoxomoxoa got finished, Elvin Bishop, David Nelson and Bob Segarini went on to their own successful careers. Still, given the fluid weirdness of the 1968 Dead, it is interesting to speculate on how the organism would have reacted to the different scenes in London, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, given how powerful they were there less than 4 years later.

1967-68 European Tours by West Coast "Underground" Bands
Rock touring as we know it today was in its infancy. By late 1968, English bands were starting to come over to America in great numbers, but there was very little action going the other way.  Here is a brief survey of European tours prior to October 1968 by the Dead's contemporaries.

England, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark
Frank Zappa (then on Verve/MGM) seems to have completed the first European tour by an American band from the West Coast.

The Roundhouse, London, GB
Country Joe and The Fish (then on Vanguard) were flown over for two quick shows. They would return for a lengthier tour in November 1968.

England, Denmark, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden
The Airplane (on RCA) and The Doors (on Elektra) had an extensive month long tour that included the Isle of Wight Festival. I believe both bands shared the same booking agency.

Canned Heat September 3-September 30, 1968
England, France, Denmark, Sweden, Germany
In a creative arrangement, Canned Heat (on Liberty) borrowed John Mayall's van and road crew for the English and European gigs, while Mayall in turn used the Canned Heat crew in America. Canned Heat worked with the William Morris talent agency in Los Angeles.

Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France, Austria, Netherlands, England
Zappa returns for a larger and more successful tour in 1968.

San Francisco's Blue Cheer also did a two week tour of Europe in October 1968, and the San Francisco-based Sir Douglas Quintet toured Europe sometime in the second half of 1968.


  1. Excellent article and analysis! Thanks.

  2. You have some "1970" in there that should be "1968".

    re: the "firing" of Pigpen and Weir, Gary Lambert (who used to work for the GD organization, inter alia putting together the Grateful Dead Almanac) pretty consistently disputes that that is the correct characterization, based on having heard the tapes of the meeting in question. I can dig through notes to check again what he has to say about it, if you're interested.

    Great write-up, as always!

  3. I fixed the 1968-for-70 typos, thanks.

    Even if Pigpen and Weir weren't "fired"--and I agree the story is murky--the band was not in a good way, running overtime on recording and generally in debt. The kind of will needed to persuade Warners to finance a European excursion wouldn't have been there.

    The interesting part is that planning for the tour got far enough along that it appears that Warners Group England put out a press release. I have seen extant ads for the shows at The Roundhouse (October 11-12, Fairport Convention as openers).

  4. Yep ... I think your analysis makes great sense. Interesting to me, too, that the Airplane had been in Europe just before this time. I always figured that there were some parallels between JA and GD at this time, what with Jack C also dabbling with the Hartbeats, going out with Country Joe, etc. Of course, that would've been pretty par for the course for that (JA) bunch, and furthermore I guess JA would have been a much bigger draw in Europe, but still ...

  5. I think the key to touring outside a band's own area remains the booking agency they were associated with. Its very hard to track this information down, but its my belief that the Airplane and The Doors had a very high powered Hollywood agency with international connections, and that was the principal driver of the tour.

    I know that Canned Heat's manager (Skip Taylor) had been at the William Morris Agency, so that gave them the connections to get gigs in Europe.

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