Monday, October 10, 2011

The Fish-Barry Melton, produced by Bob and Betty (?)


This post is about a rather obscure bit of Grateful Dead arcana, so arcane that it is actually about a Barry Melton album. Now, I love Barry Melton's music, and this admittedly long out of print album is pretty good, but this post is really about memory, so it is more appropriate on this blog rather than others. Scholars who pursue rock history place great stock in first hand interviews with actual sources, as well we should. Scholars who pursue the history of bands like the Grateful Dead down to the day-to-day level, like I do, generally treat participant testimony as the best source to confirm the facts of long gone events. The story about this Barry Melton, album, however, is a cautionary tale that tells us even the clearest headed, best intentioned participants may provide contradictory information.

The Fish-Barry Melton
Barry "The Fish" Melton was half of Country Joe and The Fish, of course, and he had great success as a member of that band in the 1960s. Like many 60s artists, however, he wasn't as successful in the 1970s. Nonetheless, he still had a following, and he continued to record and release albums. In 1975 or '76 United Artists Records released a Barry Melton album called The Fish (UA 29908), but it was only released in England. I have heard the album, and possibly may have owned it at some time, and it's a pretty good album. Since it wasn't released in America, however, it was hardly known in America, even for the most ardent fans of The Fish himself.

Up until this time, the album's connection to Grateful Dead scholarship was a few interesting songwriting credits. One of the best songs on the album was called "Jessie James," co-written by Robert Hunter and Barry Melton. At the time the record came out, it was a complete surprise to see Hunter co-writing a song on a UK-only album. I believe that the song was performed by Hunter and Melton a few times in the 1980s with The Dinosaurs, but in 1976 it seemed to come out of nowhere. Apparently, Hunter and Melton may have written "Jesse James" in London, but exactly when would be unclear. In any case, Country Joe McDonald had already recorded the song on his 1974 Vanguard album, recorded in Summer 1973, with additional lyrics of his own (although I was unaware of that in the mid-70s).

There are also two songs co-written by Melton and Mickey Hart, "Speed Racer" and "Marshmellow Road." Neither of them are particularly memorable, but songwriting credits for Hart were such an oddity in 1976 that they stood out on their own terms. "Marshmellow Road" would have appeared on Mickey Hart's second solo album Fire On The Mountain, had it been released in 1973, but that was generally unknown at the time. Two more songs were co-written by Peter Monk ("Could You Drive Forever" and "Harbinger"). Monk (AKA Peter Zimmels) co-wrote "Passenger" with Phil Lesh, so he had a Dead connection, if a somewhat distant one. Finally, one song ("Mountains In Dreamland"), was written by Bay Area musician Charles Cockey (a few may recall his Berkeley group, Melvyn Q. Watchpocket). Thus the album had a Bay Area flavor that went beyond Melton's individual pedigree, and yet it was recorded in Monmouth, Wales and only released in the UK.

Rockfield Studios, Monmouth, Wales
Rockfield Studios is worthy of a book, so I won't go too far into the subject here. Suffice to say, Rockfield was the first studio to be both a residence and a studio, allowing bands to relax and live at the studio while recording. Incredibly, Kingsley and Charles Ward, the founding brothers, began building the studio in 1964, light years ahead of their time. The studio did not become prominent until the 1970s, but it has been a destination studio ever since, and the hit albums recorded there are too numerous to mention.

There were plenty of fine bands in South Wales, and the best and most successful of them, Man, were hugely influenced by San Francisco bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band and the Grateful Dead. This story, too, is worthy of a book, but fortunately two have been written, by Man guitarist Deke Leonard (Rhinos Winos And Lunatics, Northdown Books [1996] and Maybe I Should've Stayed In Bed, Northdown Books [2000], both indispensable rock books, if hard to find). Man were on United Artists Records, whose UK head, Andrew Lauder was a true connoisseur of what psychedelic rock had to offer. Lots of interesting, spacy bands were on UA, including Man, High Tide and Help Yourself.

Help Yourself--yet another long tale--were a great London band with a real West Coast sound. The band's drummer, Dave Charles, ended up becoming one of the main engineers at Rockfield Studios, engineering and producing dozens of albums. Thus while it may seem odd from the outside that Barry Melton released an album only in the UK and recorded in Wales, it was in fact because the label head (Andrew Lauder) and the producer/engineer/drummer (Dave Charles) were well versed in San Francisco rock. The Fish album is both in the West Coast tradition and very much in the style of English and Welsh bands inspired by San Francisco, like Help Yourself. The lineup on the album is
  • Barry Melton-guitar, vocals
  • Ray Martinez-guitar (from Monmouth, Wales)
  • Tommy Eyre-keyboards (from Sheffield--ex Joe Cocker's Grease Band)
  • Ken Whaley-bass (from Oxford--ex Help Yourself, ex-Man)
  • Dave Charles-drums (from London-ex Sam Apple Pie, ex-Help Yourself)
Betty Cantor's Version
Since I have always been a fan of the various Welsh rock bands of the 60s and 70s (Eyes Of Blue, anyone?), the narrative of The Fish album always made sense to me, even if it was obscure to the general public. However, I was recently fortunate enough to hear an extensive interview with Grateful Dead engineer and taping legend Betty Cantor conducted by David Gans. In the future, Mr Gans will spring the most amazing of the stories upon the world (and they are amazing) through the The Grateful Dead Hour or on KPFA, but one offhand remark of Betty's caught my ear.

Cantor was talking about working in Mickey Hart's barn, and how they recorded Robert Hunter's Tiger Rose and Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Band albums there, using the very same board that the band had used for Workingman's Dead. Apparently, Pacific High Recorders (by this time called His Master's Wheels) had upgraded their desk, and Mickey caught the board on the rebound, which explains the improvement in the sound from tapes recorded there from 1975 onwards. In passing, Betty remarks "I did an album with Barry The Fish Melton there." Gans asks "Did it come out? What's it called?" and she casually replies, "yes [it did], 'The Fish.'" I promptly looked it up, and discovered the long forgotten album recorded in Wales with Dave Charles.

Betty Cantor recollections are quite clear, particularly of her recordings. Her attention to detail was astonishing, as we know from her glorious tapes, so if she says she recorded The Fish with Barry Melton at Mickey Hart's barn, and that it was released, I'm not inclined to think she's making it up or having a senior moment, and yet it contradicts all the evidence. Having heard the whole interview, I can assure you that Betty Cantor is the sort of eyewitness that researchers dream of, clear about what she knows and doesn't know, but with a unique perspective that makes her insights all the more useful. What could have happened?

Possible Explanations
  • Betty Cantor recorded The Fish album with Barry Melton in Mickey Hart's barn, but Melton used it as a sort of demo tape to get signed by Andrew Lauder and UA-UK. Once signed, Lauder had Melton re-record most or all of the same material in a superior sounding studio. This would be distinctly possible, but would assume that Betty never heard the album as released. Of course, the album was quite obscure in the US, unless you lived in Berkeley in 1976, so maybe she never heard it. Still, this would certainly explain the numerous Grateful Dead related songwriting credits.
  • Betty Cantor recorded The Fish with Barry Melton in Mickey's barn, but Andrew Lauder re-recorded some of the tracks in Wales, but not all of them. There's no actual law or rule that says that album credits have to be complete or even accurate, so whichever tracks were recorded by Betty were not credited that way. That would explain why she recognized her own work, having heard it, but perhaps did not realize that parts of the record were re-recorded. It's also plausible to think that some basic tracks were retained with different mixes or overdubs, but of course Betty would have been even more likely to hear those differences, so the actual story remains obscure. 
The story of The Fish album isn't necessarily that important in the history of Barry Melton, much less the Grateful Dead. Nonetheless it points up to me how even the most settled of stories may seem to have another side to it. I thought I knew about how The Fish album came to be recorded in Wales, but there seems to be another anlge to the story entirely. Betty Cantor, in turn, clearly remembers recording the album, and knows it was released, yet what was released can at most only partially be what she recorded. The album itself has never been released on cd, and is very hard to find, so that is of little help. There is a live Barry Melton tape on the Archive from a UK tour supporting the album (recorded in Sussex on Feb 7 '76, with Ray Martinez, Ken Whaley and Dave Charles), for those who would like to hear what the music sounded like, but that tells us nothing about the recording itself. Despite an explicit eyewitness account, we find ourselves facing a mystery, and a seemingly settled piece of fact bobs unsettlingly just above the surface of the water.

3 comments:

  1. Alternate versions of most of these tracks circulate along with of a series of Mickey Hart related (and officially unreleased) albums with titles like Area Code 415, Fire on the Mountain and a Snooky Flowers solo LP. Obstensibly all were recorded at Hart's studio.

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  2. Well, I just found this in Dark Star v. 1 n. 1 (November 1975), the "Weather Report" column by a correspondent identified only as California, p. 5.

    "Surprisingly, [the album] has been done at Rockfield Studios with British musicians. Fourteen songs were recorded, from which the album will be made up. He had previously recorded some of these at Mickey Hart's studio in Novato using local musicians -- so many that the credits would read like a who's who of SF musicians. Record company politics make it doubtful if any of these tracks will be released. One track recorded, for example, was 'Jesse James' with Barry and Country Joe singing on it, but Vanguard have blocked any new material containing both Barry and Joe from being released. ... The final recording of the 'Welsh' album was completed in June after [Melton's] appearances at the Roundhouse."

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  3. The original Barry Melton demos for The Fish can be heard here: http://tela.sugarmegs.org/_asxtela/asxcards/BarryMelton1973-74DemoRecordingsForTheFishAlbum.html

    This generally confirms my hypothesis that the album was recorded in Mickey's barn by Betty Cantor, but thoroughly re-recorded in Rockfield.

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