Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia collaborated with several musicians outside of his work with the legendary band. While previous articles focused on an individual musician cohort, this edition in the Days Between Companions series focuses on a collective of musicians that Garcia was closely affiliated with that came to be known as the Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra (PERRO).
Convening at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco in mid-1970, the recording facility became home base for rock groups like the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, among others. Over several months, this collective of musicians contributed to scores of recording sessions at Heider’s, often cross-pollinating between studios and bands.
More Days Between on JamBase
Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner is responsible for the Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra moniker. Kantner’s science-fiction influenced solo album, Blows Against The Empire, was among the first releases to come from this era. Notable for its use of “Jefferson Starship” in its credits (which would later be used by a Jefferson Airplane offshoot), the record saw contributions from Garcia and his Dead bandmates, drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann. Others appearing on Blows were Kantner’s Airplane bandmates, Grace Slick, Joey Covington and Jack Casady, as well as David Crosby, Graham Nash, David Freiberg, Harvey Brooks and Peter Kaukonen (brother of Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen).
In a 2005 interview with Steve Silberman, originally published by JamBase in 2019, Kantner talked about the scene at Heider’s:
Kantner: We were all in the same spot at the same time, collaborating on each other’s albums. The nexus point was Wally Heider’s studio.
Silberman: What was it about Heider’s?
Kantner: The quality of equipment. Wally was very high on good quality equipment and reproduction, tape recorders, microphones and all that. Heider’s became the studio of choice because he did it right. The pianos alone were beautiful. I could sit down at one of his studio-reconfigured pianos and it would sound like Beethoven. You just hit the sustain pedal and hit a chord and it’s beautiful. Any number of us would all be working at the same time, which was critical. I’d be making Blows in one studio, Garcia would be making something with the Dead down in D, Crosby would be up in C doing vocal overdubs.
As in movies, there’s a lot of downtime, “hurry up and wait” time while they’re setting up this or that. So we’d aimlessly, on drugs, wander into each other’s studios, and listen, and say “Oh, I could add something to that.” Garcia would come in and play on a track, Harvey Brooks would play bass, Crosby and Nash ame in, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann … and all these people would just be wandering into each other’s studios.
It wasn’t planned, it just occurred, just a very natural thing that happened. Mickey’s Rolling Thunder, Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, it was a very incestuous intermingling of musical variations that was very healthy and made for some great music …
Silberman: The thing about Blows Against The Empire is that it’s not only one of your best albums, it’s one of the best recordings by Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, and many other musicians. Everyone was at a career peak when they recorded it.
Kantner: Oh God, yeah. Garcia played lovely, didn’t he? And it was almost all accidental. We had just come off the Volunteers tour and had been exposed to Nicky Hopkins. And Grace was stealing everything she could from him because he just was so good.
We were just going in to do a demo for the next Airplane album, a couple of songs. We didn’t even go to Wally Heider’s, which was our usual place, because it was overbooked at the time. We went to a place called Pacific High Studios, which was in back of the old Carousel Ballroom, Fillmore West, with a couple of Grateful Dead engineers, Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor and eventually Bill Sawyer. And really just went in to do a demo. It was one take, the whole thing. I don’t know that we even rehearsed beforehand.
I had a couple of good licks and figured we’d give those to the band and say, “Let’s expand on this,” because our band was great on expanding. Jorma, Jack and Spencer [Dryden] were just marvelous improvisational players who would pick up on anything and take it to the nth degree.
“Sunrise,” which starts off side two, was about 12 or 15 takes of Jack. We’d say, “Ooh, that’s good Jack! Do another one!” RCA was paying for all that studio time — so yeah, “Do three or four more!” I go overboard sometimes, so I said, “Why don’t we use all of them?” And in this case it worked. Magnificently beautiful constructions of overlapping, not quite in time, offset chords and sustains. It was just orchestral. Better than Bach and Beethoven for me.
Steve Silberman – What Was The Planet Earth Rock n Roll Orchestra?
Silberman spoke to Crosby about PERRO and Blows on an episode of the Osiris Media podcast Freak Flag Flying, which will soon premiere new episodes focusing on Crosby’s solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name that were recorded recently at Heider’s (now called Hyde Street Studios).
Silberman: I wanted to, in part because I want to play some of it, I want to talk about some of the stuff that you did with Paul Kantner and Grace Slick and those people, the so-called Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, which was just a name that Paul came up with probably in the studio at Wally Heider’s. Are you aware of how amazing the album Blows Against the Empire is, with the song “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite?” How did that song happen?
Crosby: Paul and I are both science-fiction heads or were. I still am, he was too. We’ were both Heinlein kids. Read ‘em all. So the space dream is very real for us. We wanted to write a science-fiction song. So we said, let’s write a science fiction song. So I think I came up with most of the words, I think I came up with all the words. We just wrote it. The thing about writing about space is, it’s like trying to write about the Eiffel Tower. You can’t go right at it. You can’t go, “It’s big and it’s tall, and it’s made out of iron!” because that doesn’t communicate for shit. You have to look at it… A guy looking in his lover’s eyes with Eiffel Tower behind her in the foggy night, the moon is coming down through the fog. You have to see the Eiffel Tower through somebody’s eyes. Then you can start to relate to the Eiffel Tower. Well, that’s how space is. So instead of trying to write about, “The glorious sun was shining, and the rings were terrific!,” I said, “Hey, you wanna come up on A deck? There’s some really great stuff to look at tonight.
Have You Seen the Stars Tonite
Many of the same musicians that contributed to Blows are also credited on Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name — Garcia, Kantner, Slick, Casady, Hart, Kreutzmann, Nash and Freiberg — with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Jorma Kaukonen, Michael Shrieve, Gregg Rolie, Laura Allen and Ethan Crosby also participating in the sessions. In December 1970, Crosby, Garcia, Lesh and either Kreutzmann or Hart, performed a brief run of shows together at The Matrix in San Francisco.
Tapes capturing the group known as David & The Dorks include a private session at The Matrix featuring the group working up the If I Could Only Remember My Name track “Cowboy Movie,” as well as “Bird Song” which would appear on Garcia’s first solo album and enter the Dead’s live repertoire in February 1971 and “The Wall Song,” which would appear on the 1972 Graham Nash David Crosby LP. David & The Dorks also performed the Dead’s “Bertha,” Crosby’s “Laughing” and “Triad” and a few other songs.
David & The Dorks
Garcia recorded his first solo album, 1971’s Garcia, in less than three weeks at Heider’s, but he only recruited Kreutzmann to play drums, opting to play the rest of the instruments himself. As noted in the most recent episode of the Good ‘Ol Grateful Deadcast podcast, Garcia likely used a small team in order to keep production costs down, as the album was to be used to repay the record label for a loan Garcia borrowed to buy a house. In addition to “Bird Song,” the album introduced future Grateful Dead staples “The Wheel,” “Deal,” “Sugaree” and “Loser.”
Garcia can be heard instructing how to play “Loser” during a studio session believed to have occurred at Heider’s in January 1971. Assembled by Heider’s engineer Steven Barncard, the tapes known among traders as the PERRO Sessions are thought to capture various groupings of Garcia, Crosby, Nash, Kantner, Slick, Casady, Kaukonen, Lesh, Kreutzmann and likely others. The recording sessions included takes on “The Wall Song” as well as the Garcia instrumental “The Epp Hour.”
Loser – PERRO Sessions
Epp Hour – PERRO Sessions
As noted on JerryBase, between July 1970 and December 1972, Garcia racked up credits on several more albums recorded at Heider’s. He appeared on Brewer & Shipley’s 1970 album Tarkio Road, which also featured bassist John Kahn and drummer Bill Vitt, who would regularly perform live with Garcia (and Howard Wales) and later be part of the first Jerry Garcia Band lineup.
Garcia also purportedly appeared on Danny Cox’s self-titled 1971 album along with Merl Saunders. Several PERRO members, including Garcia, contributed to Nash’s 1971 album Songs for Beginners, Papa John Creach’s self-titled 1971 album, Hart’s 1972 solo album, Rolling Thunder, and the previously mentioned 1972 self-titled Crosby and Nash LP.
Garcia shows up on the credits of albums recorded during this time at Heider’s by Link Wray, David Bromberg, Doug Sahm and others including Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir’s 1972 solo album Ace. The New Riders Of The Purple Sage, featuring Garcia on pedal steel guitar, also recorded their self-titled debut album at Heider’s, releasing it in 1971. Another album recorded at Heider’s but pre-dating this period by a few months, Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1970 album Déjà Vu showcased Garcia’s pedal steel on the hit “Teach Your Children.”
Kantner brought together PERRO members (Garcia among them) for his 1971 album with Slick, Starfighter. Kantner assembled a similar group (Garcia again among them) for his 1973 sci-fi concept album with Slick and Frieberg titled Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun, which included the song “Your Mind Has Left Your Body.”
The “Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra” name was used by Kantner for this 1983 solo album that saw contributions from Slick, Casady, Frieberg and several other musicians. An accompanying novel written by Kantner was later published.