Friday, February 10, 2012

Antwerp's Placebo (Hart-Kreutzmann)

"Antwerp's Placebo" could easily win a competition for "most obscure original Grateful Dead song," "least performed Grateful Dead cover version" and many similar designations. Indeed, most Deadheads do not even realize there is even a Grateful Dead song called "Antwerp's Placebo." More importantly, if they are reminded of it or if they pay attention to it, they aren't interested. "Antwerp's Placebo," actually entitled "Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber)", appeared as track 3 on side two of the 1980 Arista Grateful Dead album Go To Heaven. It was a 38-second percussion duet, full of odd clicks and sounds, that provides a brief musical transition between "Saint Of Circumstance" (track 2) and "Easy To Love You" (track 4). The purpose of this post is not to explain the inclusion of this odd little percussion track on the album, but rather to give some informed speculation as to why the track was given a title.

The front cover of the 1980 Grateful Dead album Go To Heaven (Arista Records)
The Grateful Dead Go To Heaven (Arista Records 1980)
Once the Grateful Dead moved to Arista Records at the end of 1976, they made a conscious effort to make commercially viable albums that would make the band a lot of money. While this was Arista label head Clive Davis's reason for existence, I do not think anyone's arm was twisted. The Grateful Dead were a commercial organization, and the revenues from successful albums like Workingman's Dead and American Beauty must have been welcome indeed. The Dead must have recognized that they were somewhat out of step with the times, and seemed willing to work with outside producers. Terrapin Station had been recorded with Keith Olsen, who had produced Fleetwood Mac. Olsen had also produced Bob Weir's solo album Heaven Help The Fool. After an interesting if incomplete attempt to record an album with Lowell George (John Kahn had to finish Shakedown Street), the Dead decided to record their next album with producer Gary Lyons.

Gary Lyons was best known for producing the 1977 debut album of the group Foreigner. The album had scored huge hits with the songs "Feels Like The First Time" and "Cold As Ice." Even though teenaged rock snobs (like me) felt that Foreigner was just a poppy knockoff of groups like Free and Spooky Tooth, there's no question that Lyons clean, sharp production made Foreigner's catchy songs instantly memorable. In 1979, Lyons had also produced most of the Aerosmith album A Night In The Ruts, so he was a hot commodity in the record business.

The Grateful Dead album that was released in April 1980 as Go To Heaven was produced by Lyons, but recorded at Le Club Front in San Rafael, with Betty Cantor as the chief engineer. Thus the album was a compromise between the Dead recording in a comfortable environment while handing the board over to an established professional. Also, there had to be a financial advantage to have the Dead recording in their home studio. By working with Lyons, the Dead were making an implicit choice that they wanted to make an album that would get played on FM rock radio stations (known as "Album Oriented Rock" stations). That meant a punchy drum sound, crisp guitar solos, and memorable hooks and choruses. I don't think anyone twisted the Dead's arms: if they had managed a Foreigner sized hit, or even a half-a-Foreigner, it would have resolved a lot of economic pressure on the band and the various band members.

"Antwerp's Placebo" is a somewhat pale shadow of some old-style Grateful Dead weirdness, a pushing and pulling sound with some odd clicking noises. I suspect it was supposed to be reminiscent of a plumber cleaning out a pipe, but I can't really say.  I think the material was included as a touch of the strange to remind listeners that the Grateful Dead still had a sense of fun and experimentation, even if the songs on the record were typical AOR fare like "Althea" or "Saint Of Circumstance." Although--honestly--"Antwerp's Placebo" sounds dumb to me, it might have sounded good on headphones, and may have been included for that reason.

Mechanical Royalties
One reason that most Deadheads were not aware of "Antwerp's Placebo" was that the song title did not even appear on the back of the album. The back of Go To Heaven only lists eight songs. However, if you were a loser graduate student with no life or girlfriend--just to take an of-course hypothetical example--you might actually take the time to compare the record label to the back cover and discover the additional track. The actual record label credits "Antwerp's Placebo" to Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann as songwriters (so to speak). What would the advantage have been to assigning an extra track to specific composers, rather than simply leaving the excerpt as an instrumental introduction to "Easy To Love You?"

An article I read some decades ago in Musician magazine, no longer directly accessible to me, explained many peculiarities of the music industry in the 1960s and '70s. Most rock fans thought of "royalties" from record sales as some sort of monolithic annuity, but in fact the entire process was multi-faceted. The royalties for album sales, typically about 8-10% of each record sold, were shared amongst band members and other stakeholders. Royalties were not paid until the band's portion of them exceeded costs associated with advances, recording and promotion. Expensive albums like Aoxomoxoa probably did not make the Grateful Dead any money for a long time. Typically, many rock band members saw nothing but an advance from albums that they had made.

However, there was another source of revenue for band members, known as mechanical royalties, and knowing how 'mechanicals' worked goes a long way towards illuminating some of the motives of the record business in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Music publishing was originally just that, as sheet music was published and sold, and the revenue was split between the publisher and the writer, similar to a book. A knowledgeable person explained to me that mechanical royalties stemmed from payments associated with mechanical 'player' pianos in the early 20th century. When records came in, the concept of mechanical royalties was extended to record sales, radio play and other forms of public performance. The record companies paid mechanical royalties to the publisher, who split the proceeds between themselves and the songwriters (or, technically, the songwriters copyright holder). Songwriters also received royalties for public performance rights.

Two clearing houses handled most of the publishing payments, BMI and ASCAP (the Dead's publishing company, Ice Nine, was handled by ASCAP). The subject is too byzantine even for this blog, but suffice to say ASCAP and BMI act to collect royalties for composers. Radio stations and other licensees, like concert halls, paid money to BMI and ASCAP who in turn paid them to composers, by some sort of formula. Although publishing companies received some money directly from record companies, payment to their writers was not dependent on debts being repaid to the record company, so regardless of how unlikely a band might be to get money from their record company, songwriting royalties could provide another income stream in the event of a hit record.

One of the strange rules delineated by this long-lost Musician article was that songwriters received royalties for up to 10 tracks per album. If an album had more than 10 tracks, the money was divided up somehow. However, if the album had less than 10 tracks, the songwriters did not receive additional money. Have you ever wondered why so many 60s and 70s albums had exactly 10 tracks, no more, no less? That's the reason. The rule didn't apply in the UK, by the way, which is why British albums by the Beatles and Rolling Stones were different and longer.

Thus, 60s bands who recorded lengthy tracks had a vested interest in having 10 tracks. One reason that side two of Anthem Of The Sun has those made up song titles and writing credits was clearly so that members of the band could receive some royalties. If the band had simply entitled side two, say, "That's It For The Other One" and assigned the writing to the whole band, they would have all received less money. Now, it may not have mattered so much for a modestly selling record like Anthem, which received very little radio airplay, but for a hit album the returns were enormous. When performance (ASCAP and BMI) royalties were combined with songwriting royalties from album sales, the returns could be huge.

When an album became a hit, even if it was due mainly to one song, all the songwriters on the record benefited from the album sales. In an extreme but revealing case, the English songwriter Nick Lowe, after decades of wonderful but relatively obscure records, performed a song that he wrote on a hit soundtrack album ("Impossible Bird" from The Bodyguard). Some time later, he went out to his mailbox to find he had received a check from his music publisher for over one million pounds. Thus having fewer than 10 songs on a potential hit album was like giving money away. From that point of view, it's clear that "Antwerp's Placebo" was given a title on Go To Heaven in order to collect revenue that might otherwise be left aside.

The back cover to the Go To Heaven lp
Songwriting and The Economics of Band Politics
In the 60s and 70s, artists generally signed contracts that were hugely slanted towards the record companies. In a few instances, a well-managed major artist could get some leverage and get a better contract, but the system greatly favored the record companies. Prior to the Beatles, bands were more like performers, with other people providing the songs and sometimes recording the songs as well. But the Beatles were self-contained, and they were artists, not just performers, and their perception of their own work was different. Bands like the Grateful Dead wanted material success, but they saw themselves as compatriots as well as business partners. The contracts that record companies demanded from musicians, however, were often tailor made to insure that bands were not going to survive success.

In general, the musicians who wrote the songs ended up making considerably more money on a hit album than the ones who didn't. In fact, the authors of the "B-side" of a hit single made as much money as the A-side, so that too was often a big surprise. Since songwriting royalties were not identical to artists royalties, the songwriters often got paid more and quicker than the other band members. Many 60s bands suffered when one or two members got very wealthy from songwriting, while others were still scuffling. Jerry Garcia and to a lesser extent Bob Weir would have received considerably more money than the other band members from the Dead's albums, and it would not have gone unnoticed.

Bands dealt with the conflict over songwriting royalties in different ways. Some bands, like Led Zeppelin or The Doors (and more recently REM), simply assigned all songs to the group itself. It's worth noting that those groups had considerably fewer fights over money, whatever other problems they had. Other bands dealt with it by letting everyone in the band write at least one song on every album. This worked out fine with, say, The Beatles, where George and Ringo had a lot to contribute, but throughout the 1970s every Jefferson Starship album was full of a lot of filler due to overly cooperative songwriting policies. Such a policy was admirable on a personal level, but it made for a lot of dud tracks.

Typically, the Grateful Dead seemed to have dealt with the songwriting issue by assigning certain tracks to the entire group. Since the Dead released numerous live albums, they could always label part of a jam with a title and assign it to the whole group. This would explain, for example, while jams on the original Europe '72 album were given titles like "Epilogue" and "Prelude." Now, double and triple albums had different rules about how many tracks received royalties, but the basic principle was still the same: there was a certain number of songs that meant more money if there were enough of them. Thus all those tracks like "Feedback" and "Mud Love Buddy," whether on Live/Dead or Dick's Picks, insured some kind of payout to every band member at the time of the recording. As it happened, the Grateful Dead never had a hit live album on the scale of Frampton Comes Alive, but if they had hit it big, everyone in the band would have got something.

From a royalty point of view, "Antwerp's Placebo" makes perfect sense. The band and Gary Lyons had a musical reason for producing the quirky percussion interlude, but having produced it the composition was assigned to Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Go To Heaven was designed to be a hit album, and if "Alabama Getaway" had swept the nation, Mickey and Billy would have gotten a nice check, along with Jerry, Bob and Brent (while Phil would have been SOL). Of course, most of the Dead's revenue came from touring, and that appeared to have been shared equally, so the credits were less important than they were for some bands, but the presence on the label of "Antwerp's Placebo" shows that the Grateful Dead were preparing for success.

Aftermath
Go To Heaven sold modestly well, but the album didn't really capture the ears of FM radio listeners. I like the songs on the record well enough, but they are minor songs in the Dead canon, with nothing iconic that would have gotten into high rotation, like a "Casey Jones." Mickey and Billy must have gotten a little extra, but the album wasn't huge, so they didn't get a massive payday out of "Antwerp's Placebo." The fact that the song was labeled, however, shows that the Dead had high hopes for the album, even if they were not met. While my explanation of the economics of the song's likely inclusion are simplistic--to some extent on purpose and to some extent due to gaps in my knowledge--I am confident that I am close enough to justify my line of reasoning.

As to "Antwerp's Placebo," it remains obscure, and rightly so. There does seem to be a San Francisco-based Grateful Dead style band called Antwerp's Placebo, but I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't even perform the song. At some point, the track was added to the back cover of at least one cd release, but by this time I think even graduate students without girlfriends didn't even notice, and the song remains on the fringes of the Grateful Dead's history.

11 comments:

  1. I think you had a post last year where I commented that Garcia's income would have been much higher than the rest of the Dead's, possibly causing some friction in the band - can't remember which one, though.

    It's always underestimated how much the band TRIED to have a hit album, long before In The Dark. They downplayed this ambition in interviews, but it was there. Nonetheless, the Dead were frequently unhappy with the results.
    I can't remember the source, but in 1987 Mickey Hart said of the band's earlier Arista albums, "That music is not what I call Grateful Dead. It was produced by twits and plumbers; it was a shame and a travesty."

    There's a bit more to the royalties issue. You just looked at this one example, but actually their first three Arista albums all had a Hart/Kreutzmann spot: they had a piece of Terrapin, and "Serengetti" on Shakedown Street - plus "Milkin' the Turkey" on Blues For Allah also had a Hart/Kreutzmann credit. So "Antwerp's Placebo" was yet another example of these drummer interludes.

    Nonetheless, the Dead did not regularly try to split the royalties on every album. Usually, the song credits are quite accurate as to who the main composers were, and tend to be not only fair but truthful.
    For instance, it makes musical as well as financial sense to credit jams on the live albums to the whole band. In any case, the Dead only did that rarely - the Other One on Skull & Roses, for example, is only Weir/Kreutzmann - and most of their live albums did not feature those open-ended types of jams. (Hart, for instance, gets no credit on Without a Net!)
    Though I haven't done a thorough check, there are many Dead albums where some of the bandmembers get no song credits. (Lesh in particular is left off quite a few!)
    So ironically, for their big hit In The Dark, no one in the band would get songwriting royalties except Garcia, Weir, and Mydland... Same for Built To Last. So the Dead's royalties philosophy may have changed by '87 - or the drummers just stopped caring!

    I know today that songs over five minutes have a different mechanical royalty rate - rates have gone up, so currently I think it's 9.1 cents for a 5-minute song, or 1.75 cents per minute for a longer song - thus an artist receives a better royalty the longer their track....something with obvious implications in the Dead's case! (Under this rate, Dark Star off Live/Dead would get a 40-cent royalty - with, of course, the whole band credited.) I don't know what royalty rates the Dead had, though.

    And finally - you mention the "10-track" royalty cap for albums. But note that the Dead did not have ANY albums with ten tracks until American Beauty - not even Anthem with all its divided credits - and (aside from the double albums) it was rare thereafter, too - through their career they averaged about 7-8 tracks per album. Go To Heaven, for instance, had only 9. So that's one rule the Dead clearly paid no attention to - perhaps they just never had enough songs! - though otherwise they did sometimes scrape out more credits for more royalties.

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  2. LIA, thanks as always for the great perspective. I hadn't even thought to consider the other Arista albums, but it does seem that the Dead made a distinct effort to ensure drummers royalties. If Terrapin had been a hit like Fleetwood Mac 'Rumors' it would have made a big difference.

    The Grateful Dead were a willfully contrarian band, often doing things there own ways and putting music ahead of everything else (and bless them for that). Nonetheless, they were still a commercial entity, and they made sensible concessions to the reality of the music industry. It's a good point that they only had one "10-song" album, for example, a sign that they didn't just add tracks for an extra buck. The Jefferson Starship, for example, always had 10 tracks and the drummer always had a least one (as a co-writer), and their albums suffered for that reason. The Dead could have put an unfinished version of "Mason's Children" on Workingman's, and chose not to, which helped the integrity of the album.

    On the other hand, given that the Dead were choosing to make albums that were driven by more artistic than commercial goals, they were alert to making them commercially sensible. The long jams on Europe '72 are the best part of the album--well, they were to me--so they at least had the foresight to not forego revenue by assigning a different writing credit.

    Thanks also for the interesting information about the change in royalty rates. It's funny that by the mid-80s, the Dead had settled into making their money touring, and unexpectedly had a best selling hit album.

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  3. Great insight into the music industry mechanism. I always wondered why there were some small interludes credited Hart/Kreutzman on some of the studio albums (I guess this might also explain some of the not-so-great Godchaux singular contributions on Wake of the Flood, Terrapin, and Shakedown Street - either that or nobody else had any songs ready)

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  4. Thanks for the lesson. As for the "odd clicks and sounds", I have always thought of it as those noises that your belly makes coming down in the quietness of the wee hours after the show.

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  5. > nothing iconic that would have gotten into
    > high rotation, like a "Casey Jones."

    rather than 'iconic', i would use 'stereotypical'. as in 'then the grateful dead are played on fm radio, the songs you typically hear are 'trucking' or 'casey jones'. unfortunately, that is what they are remembered for.

    I-)

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  6. I think "Antwerp's Placebo" was just a bit of improv that was caught on tape and turned into something, with those mechanicals as one objective and also, as you noted, to inject a bit of welcome weirdness into a mostly conventional record. I seriously doubt it was composed.

    BTW, I'm also pretty sure I recall Mickey Hart referring to Gary Lyons as a "plumber" in a conversation many years ago.

    Where does Hunter's wonderful "Dilbert and the Plumber" story fit into this chronology?

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  7. How bout a post on the track France? Just a thought.

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  8. Some more info on Dead song royalties in the seventies:
    According to Rolling Stone's 11/22/73 article on the Dead, "the group has just adopted a "Plan C," under which royalties are not distributed exclusively to the composer and lyricist—the parties of the "original creative flash," to use Jerry's term—but a percentage also goes to all members of the band, to acknowledge their part in the finished version of the song."
    I don't know how long that arrangement lasted (or how much the "band percentage" was), but it's certainly an equitable way to share song royalties - most of which would have been going to Garcia/Hunter at the time.

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  9. Thanks for this post. I've often wondered what happens for something like a Dick's picks release. Being that it's a live release do they each get an equal cut or do the songwriters get an extra share? And what happens for a 1973 release? Does Mickey not get a share of the royalties becUse he didn't play on that particular show?

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    1. The songwriting royalties and the performing royalties come from different pools of money. One of the reason that jam tracks are "named" (Mud Love Buddy, etc) is so that performing band members get a little taste of the royalty money from the songwriting pool.

      I should also add that different members own different amounts of Ice Nine, and their share of the publishing royalties--itself separate from the songwriting royalties, but from that pool of money--so that varied as well.

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  10. "Milking the Turkey" is not simply a drum jam. It's actually very complex, the arrangement goes through a number of key changes and the guitar uses middle-eastern sounding intervals, although they follow a western beat structure. It's been played by post-Dead bands and isn't emblematic of other (possibly) royalty-based drum inclusions on other records.

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