A song that is as old as the band itself, “Halley’s Comet” is also a cover! Go figure. One of the band’s college roommates, living with them across the street from the Hood milk factory, wound up with a buddy’s cassette. On it was then-Goddard student, Richard Wright’s “Halley’s Comet.” Wright (a.k.a Nancy), wrote both the music and lyrics to the song, originally conceived as two separate tracks. Responding to the overwhelming media hype about 1985’s appearance of Halley’s Comet, Wright scribed “Halley’s Comet,” the repetitive part of the song, mirroring the overload of society. “Goin’ Down,” the verses, was conceived as a jovial response to the early-’80s revival of Motown. He spliced the two together, and the song was born.
Around Halloween in 1985, Phish went to Goddard to play a show that wound up getting canceled because the guys got way too high on LSD. But on this night, Trey introduced himself to Nancy, and soon asked if Phish could cover his song. Flattered, he immediately obliged and the rest is history. (Facts taken from this interview with Wright from The Phish Companion)
A seemingly nonsensical song, “Halley’s Comet”‘s lyrics may have more meaning than one might think. Combining an astronomical phenomenon with the very pedestrian idea of going downtown, the likening of the natural, human and existential realms emerge. The silly lyrical passes could be metaphor for the sheer absurdity of the world, the mind-bending nonsense that is commonplace. The line, “What is the central theme to this everlasting spoof?” seems to ring true as the song’s theme of man’s ultimate inability to comprehend and/or come to terms with his existence. Maybe I’m inferring to much. Maybe not.
Halley’s has an odd musical history. Played frequently between the early years of ’86 and ’89, the song was then shelved until the spring of ’93 (3.14). Played sporadically throughout the next few years (’94 would see the most appearances) it was generally used as a funk-rock launchpad into something bigger. A short ripping guitar solo transitioned into a jam vehicle, a la “Halley’s > Bowie” (6.24.95) or “Halley’s > Mike’s” (12.1.95).
Yet, on 12.14.95, at Binghamton, Phish let then loose on the song, creating a monster jam out of Halley’s into “NICU” amidst a standout second set. Many credit this version for opening the floodgates for the song’s jamming potential, but the best versions didn’t emerge until 1997 and beyond, when anything was fair game for profound exploration.
A full benefactor of post ’97 era of groove, Halley’s soon transformed into a jam vehicle. Many Halley’s became funked-out dance sessions, while others remained palates for uptempo rock. As Phish evolved, these genres fused into one jam, and then ambient movements were sprinkled in. While remaining a relative rarity, its appearances increasingly meant musical adventure in these years. Well-loved by all, the drop into Halley’s was always cause for immediate childish excitement, and wonder about where we were headed.
The following are five of the greatest “Halley’s Comet”s of all time in no particular order. (Not necessarily the five greatest…etc) Roll over links and press play!
11.22.97 Hampton, VA
Opening the legendary second set, this Halley’s was far and away the best jam in the show. Exploring full-band funk textures while soaring into psychedelic territory, this jam laid the groundwork for the fireworks that would follow. Morphing into a spiritual guitar confessional, this jam reached places we dream about. This is Phish at its finest.
LISTEN TO11.22.97 HAMPTON HALLEY’S NOW!
11.11.98 Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, MI
This Halley’s is a straight beast. Opening the second set of a stellar show with twenty-five minutes of deep improvisation, this version passes through many diverse musical segments. A great example of Fall ’98 Phish, this passage begins at a high pace, ripping through several minutes of guitar-led shredding before settling into a full-band jam. The gates are then opened for the show’s best improv, as Trey begins offering sick rhythm licks as the whole band gains a greater say in the musical direction. At this point, the power of Phish takes over, directing the jam through driving dance floors, ambient alleys, and aggressive asylums before crashing into “Simple.” This one is a keeper.
8.3.98 Deer Creek, Noblesville, IN
Following the surprise “Rhinoceros” cover to open the show, Phish wasted no time getting to business on the second night of their Deer Creek stand in 1998. This Halley’s served to open the show with a massively creative jam, sparking a phenomenal night in the cornfields. Beginning with some light day-time grooving, Trey then assumes the drivers seat with a solo that steers the band into more percussive-based playing. Crawling though a stunning ambient segment, illustrating a growing ’98 trend, this Halley’s got excessively deep while the sun was still out. A hearty welcome to the show, the band progresses into more amorphous psychedelic realms before ending this show opening epic with a funny transition into “I Didn’t Know.” Delving into soulful places early on, the band absolutely slaughtered this beautiful summertime version, highlighted by some sublime playing by Trey as the band confronts their maker.
8.16.97 Great Went Limestone, ME
In the summer that saw a global movement of raw unpasteurized cow funk, Phish’s travels culminated in Limestone for the first time. Opening the third set of the first-ever Limestone show, this Halley’s defines the music of summer ’97. Beginning a spiraling jam with a perfect tempo, Trey is ripping with his classic tone and phrasing of that summer, as the band sits in a quickly evolving backing groove. As Trey steps back, joining the whole rather than leading it, magic happens. One of the quintessential jams of the Great Went, this late-night odyssey moved from the central part of town directly to “Cities,” with a thick-as-tar transition into the Talking Heads cover. Some of the most exciting music of the summer, this sequence is a personal favorite.
7.10.98 Zeleste, Barcelona
This diamond in the rough illustrates club-style Phish at its finest. Growing a garden of grooves as soon as this jam sprouted, Phish engaged in some compelling dance music. Mike gets straight silly all over this jam as Trey provides yo-yo grooves to keep your booty moving. As he fades into his solo, the music takes on a new, more driving feel. Slowly crafting an artistic narrative over the band groove, Trey gradually builds his line into the melody of “First Tube” before anyone, except those at Higher Ground’s 8 Foot Fluorescent Tubes show, had heard it. Painting an infectious masterpiece of patient band improv, this Halley’s jam is something to behold.
LISTEN TO 7.10.98 BARCELONA HALLEY’S NOW!
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
Thirteen years ago today, Phish first stepped foot into the Spectrum. Playing a scorching show at the mid-point of their epic month, the band set the tone for the many return visits to this classic building. Before they stepped away in 2004, The Spectrum had become as Phishy a venue as any. In their debut, the band got straight to it with a “Chalk Dust, Hood” opening combo. The whole first set contained Phish classics while the second set was straight fire from beginning to end. Starting with the Reprise completing Binghamton’s “Tweezer” from the night before, the band was off creating a set full of phenomenal jams.
I: Chalk Dust Torture, Harry Hood, Wilson > Maze > Ha Ha Ha, Suspicous Minds, Cars Trucks Buses, Bouncing Around the Room, Free, Possum
II: Tweezer Reprise, Runaway Jim, It’s Ice > Bathtub Gin* > Also Sprach Zarathustra > David Bowie, Sweet Adeline
E: Good Times Bad Times
*With instrument switching (Fish – keyboards, Trey – drums, Mike – guitar, and Page – bass).Tags: Jams, Songs