The title track of the Grateful Dead’s 1977 album Terrapin Station is arguably the group’s most intricate studio creation. Clocking in at 16 minutes, the song blends elements of folk, prog rock, baroque music and jazz, along with extensive percussion tracks and a classical symphonic and chorale finale. The multi-part odyssey features a level of studio precision that the band could never replicate on stage, which may explain why they never played the track in its entirety in concert.
Equally impressive are Robert Hunter’s lyrics. He opens in the most Homeric of terms by giving an invocation to the muses. He then pays direct homage to the folk standard “Lady of Carlisle,” telling the story of a “Lady with a Fan” who sends a soldier and sailor into the “Lion’s den.” From there, the lyrics describe a journey through the universe in search of “mysteries dark and vast” and a mythical place called “Terrapin.”
What exactly is “Terrapin?” While Deadheads would surely offer answers that delve into the metaphysical realm, the members of the British rock groups the Bombay Bicycle Club and Flyte seem to have taken a more scientific approach. The two bands recently recorded and released a cover of the monumental track in honor of World Turtle Day. For them, “the compass always points to Terrapin” literally, as the word terrapin is, after all, the name for several different types of turtles.
The groups open with a fairly straightforward retelling of the song’s conventional sections, closely mirroring the Dead’s arrangements. They sing the lyrics in a dreamy melodic tone, with lush harmonies. They replace the flowing, light jazz percussion of the original with electronic sounding beats. When they reach the open-ended experimental movements, “Terrapin Transit,” “At a Siding” and “Terrapin Flyer” the groups delve into electronic mode. On the final refrain, they replace the symphony and chorus with a series of monastic-style chants that slowly fade out.
The accompanying video features members of the bands underwater singing and playing in front high-resolution images of turtles swimming through the deep, mixed with laser lights and psychedelic imagery. It’s all a little weird and disorienting to watch. But given Jerry Garcia’s enthusiasm for scuba diving, it seemed like a fitting tribute to both the Dead and terrapins everywhere.
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