If there was ever a band that, to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman, contained multitudes, it’s the Grateful Dead. The vast sea changes that occurred album-to-album, studio-to-concert, and even concert-to-concert make most other musical entities, and even some scenes and genres, seem stagnant, unimaginative, and overcommitted to singular ethoses. In the 30 years between the band’s first performance at one of Ken Kesey’s acid tests in 1965 to guitarist/singer Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995, they truly ran the gamut. The Dead began as a folk/blues jug band, quickly became San Francisco’s premier improvisational psychedelic rock act, then went on to incorporate elements of country, jazz, prog, and even disco into their sound over the years, giving birth to and cementing the idea of a “jam band” in the process.
For that reason, any attempt to corral the Dead’s discography into a neat “best of” list is a fool’s errand. Most Deadheads (the band’s ride-or-die fans) will probably tell you that no studio album can capture the spontaneous glory of (insert concert from that particular fan’s teens or early 20s)-- in other words, you had to be there. More casual fans, especially younger ones, tend to pick and choose albums and tracks that allow them to enjoy snapshots of the Dead while still staving off the aggressively uncool stench of the jam band scene. Haight-Ashbury scenesters hated their folk albums, folkies hate the band’s jazz and prog albums, and nearly everyone who’s heard more than one Grateful Dead song hates “Touch of Grey.” Hell, even members of the Dead have disowned albums that some fans count as the band’s best. As Jesse Jarnow wrote in Heads, his excellent book on the intertwined histories of LSD and the band, last year, “one can fully love the Dead without accepting every last bit of them.”
In eras and scenes where leather, nihilism, “balls” and/or “intellect” prevailed in music, the Grateful Dead were perhaps the least cool name to drop in among your influences, but with their eclectic oeuvre now at everyone’s fingertips, their stock seems to have risen among even the hippest indie artists. Nothing cemented that like last year’s Day of the Dead compilation, which compiled five-and-a-half hours of covers from names like Courtney Barnett, Perfume Genius, Anonhi, Tunde Adebimpe, and even ambient noise musician Tim Hecker. The Dead are still inspiring greatness, whether it’s in the form of music or revelatory music writing.
Last week, the band’s self-titled debut album celebrated its 50th anniversary, so today, I share with you my own personal must-haves list. 1967’s The Grateful Dead is, somewhat paradoxically, not included. It’s a worthwhile listen, to be sure, but it only contains a fraction of the experimentation and genius songwriting that was to come. As drummer Bill Kreutzmann wrote in his autobiography, “We weren’t that good yet. We were still learning how to be a band." These ten ensuing albums from their career span a thirteen-year period from 1968 to 1981, and as only befits the band, include both live and studio recordings. Because Amazon currently lists some 250 Dead albums (with another on the way in May!), I limited my scope to official releases, so unfortunately for all of you true, blue Deadheads out there, that means no Dick’s Picks.
Listening to the Grateful Dead’s first two albums in succession is like chasing a PBR with absinthe. After recording The Grateful Dead in mono with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” engineer David Hassinger, the band, dead-set on more accurate replication of their less buttoned-down concerts, added a second drummer, played around with tape speed on a state-of-the-art eight-track recorder, and began splicing live and studio recordings together. This approach, coupled with the group’s flightiness, led Hassinger to bail midway through recording, and the band replaced him with one of their concert soundmen. “We mixed it for the hallucinations,” Garcia famously said, and as a result, the album achieved trippiness and experimentation that the Dead never topped with any of their following studio recordings. Rhythmically dazzling, tonally disorienting, and structurally confounding, centerpiece “Alligator” stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the band’s more famous ten-plus-minute-long epics.
With a meaningless palindrome for the title, artwork that only a Hell’s Angel could appreciate, and one of my least favorite Dead songs ever (“Rosemary”), Aoxomoxoa was an album whose genius eluded me for a long time. It was the band’s Spruce Goose (or in rock terms, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk), in that its excessive cost and prolonged recording process put the Dead in debt and in hot water with their label. But beyond the surface-level turn-offs, their third album contains the best marriage of the early, aggressively psychedelic Dead and the softer, sweeter, more roots-oriented band they’d become in the early ‘70s. It was the first Dead album to feature contributions from non-musician lyricist Robert Hunter on every track, and his mystical, folklore-rooted writing added mystique to straightforward jaunts like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Doin’ That Rag,” as well as narrative grounding to more quicksilver numbers like “China Cat Sunflower.” Aoxomoxoa is the sound of the Dead straddling eras in their career-- it’s awkward at times, but crucial to understanding their essence.
“In a scene where everyone has a million opinions and there is no consensus about anything,” Dead scholar Blair Jackson once wrote, “almost everyone agrees that Live/Dead is one ba-a-a-a-d motherfucker.” This reputation stems from the fact that the band’s first live album is, bar none, the the best existing replication of their live act at its most improvisation-heavy and deeply psychedelic. Originally conceived as a way to get out of debt and portray live musicianship rather than knob-twiddling prowess, Live/Dead pristinely captured a couple of early 1969 San Francisco shows. Not only was it the first live album ever recorded on sixteen tracks, but also the first to use a microphone splitter that fed into both the PA and record inputs. The focal point is 23-minute opener “Dark Star,” a composition so hallucinatory that it’s mentioned more than any individual Dead album in Jarnow’s Heads, but rollicking jam “The Eleven” and hair-raising experimental piece “Feedback” certainly give it a run for its lysergic money.
After the face-melting trips of the Dead’s early shows and most experimental albums, Workingman’s Dead is more like a bourbon sweet tea on a back porch, or, in Phil Lesh’s more imaginative words, a transition “from the mind-munching frenzy of a seven-headed fire-breathing dragon to the warmth and serenity of a choir of chanting cherubim.” Influenced by Bakersfield’s outlaw country scene of the ‘50s, the Dead started writing shorter, twangier songs with simpler, more direct lyrics that Robert Hunter said were inspired by listening to The Band’s first two albums. Not content at simply talking the talk, Jerry Garcia bought a pedal steel guitar (which he’d later use on collaborations with Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and focused on arranging crystalline country vocal harmonies, which previously weren’t a major element of the Dead’s sound. Some of the band’s best standalone tracks appear on Workingman’s-- the Altamont-referencing “New Speedway Boogie,” the cowboy tall tale “Dire Wolf,” and “Casey Jones,” an unprecedented radio hit that gained the Dead more college-aged fans nationwide.
Released just five months after Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty was the second and more resonant offering from this folky, song-oriented period in the Dead’s trajectory. A good deal of the twang was gone, replaced by the more plaintive strains of classics like “Box of Rain,” “Ripple,” “Brokedown Palace,” and “Attics of My Life,” all mystic ruminations on mortality inspired by the recent deaths of Lesh’s father and Garcia’s mother. The band’s harmonies were never tighter, their sweetness and precision enhanced by the fact that most the album is acoustic, and guest appearances from mandolin wizard David Grisman (the first of his many collaborations with Garcia) gave the album’s bluegrass vibe a dose of finger-picked authenticity. Simultaneously accessible and deep, American Beauty remains the safest bet for converting nonbelievers to Deadheads.
This triple-disc behemoth was the Dead’s second consecutive live album, following 1971’s Grateful Dead (lovingly referred to as Skull and Roses or Skull Fuck by Deadheads). Whereas its predecessor leaned heavily on covers, Europe ‘72 featured the recorded debut of several new tracks, which is unusual for live albums of any genre. The album includes keyboard player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan’s last officially-released recordings before his death in 1973, as well as the first Dead recordings to feature husband-wife duo Keith and Donna Godchaux, who would remain members of the band until 1979. The nearly two-hour set showcases the band, now fleshed out into a seven-piece, at its peak, as it seamlessly straddles every style they attempted in the early ‘70s and contains some of Garcia’s finest guitar solos. Truckin’ through Europe with a 43-person entourage and a 16-track recorder in tow, the Dead crafted as close to a magnum opus as they’d ever get, which also had the distinction of being the first triple album to go gold.
From 1969 to 1972, the Dead released five official albums, three of which were live recordings. Eager to change their fast-growing reputation as a band whose concerts trumped their albums, the band hit the studio for the first time since American Beauty for 1973’s Wake of the Flood. The changes in personnel that had occurred in the interim-- namely the jazz-trained Keith Godchaux replacing the band’s resident bluesman, Pigpen, and guitarist/singer Bob Weir starting a songwriting partnership (similar to Garcia/Hunter) with poet John Barlow-- wrought distinct changes on their sound and songcraft. In contrast with their last two studio albums, Wake plays around with off-kilter rhythms, longer songs, odd time signatures, and instrumentation that extended far beyond standard folk/bluegrass/country fare. Especially on the elegant closer, “Weather Report Suite,” the album has a distinct theme of seasonal cycles, death, and rebirth: “Winter grey and falling rain, we'll see summer come again/Darkness falls and seasons change, same old friends the wind and rain.” Even when playing around with funk and jazz signifiers like clavinets and horn sections, the Dead stayed true to their original, zen-like philosophical vision.
The weirdness present in the Grateful Dead’s early music was the product of acid and improvisation, but a decade into their career, they began to find different ways to let their freak flags fly. 1975’s Blues for Allah extended the band’s repertoire into “less definable music spaces, neither psychedelic nor traditional based,” according to Robert Hunter. Created during a rare touring hiatus, it was their first batch of songs not written on the road, and as a result it was more laid-back and focused on through-composed instrumental passages. The Dead pursued jazz further down the rabbit hole, even coming out sounding like acid jazz on songs like “King Solomon’s Marbles,” and incorporated Middle Eastern-style harmonics in an attempt to break with standard major-minor chord relationships. After 1974’s bland From the Mars Hotel, Blues for Allah was a breath of fresh, unpredictable air.
In a period full of divisive moves from the Dead, 1977’s proggy Terrapin Station is easily the most hotly-contested. The band had just signed with the relatively new Arista Records, and at the behest of label head Clive Davis, brought on an outside producer (Keith Olsen, fresh off of producing Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled comeback album) for the first time since David Hassigner ran out on the Anthem of the Sun sessions. Olsen’s desire to spruce up the band’s compositions with strings and choirs created a ton of tension during the recording process. The title track went through multiple incarnations as Olsen would delete various parts recorded by the band and add his own, only to come back to find them scrubbed from the mix. In the end, Olsen got his way, and as a result there are some great quotes from the band about how much they hate the album version of “Terrapin Station”: Kreutzmann wrote in his book, “It sounds really grandiose, like somebody’s ego is playing those strings”; Garcia said Olsen had "put the Grateful Dead in a dress"; Lesh described it as “gilding the lily.” To this outside observer with no distinct ties to one era of the Dead over another though, the sixteen-minute suite is magnificent, sounding like nothing else the band ever recorded. Garcia and Co. never fully jumped headfirst into the studio excesses and “Yes-ish largesse” of the ‘70s, but “Terrapin Station” shows how masterfully they could’ve dominated the prog rock era had they wanted to.
Many Deadheads are able to find things they like about the band’s post-1980 output-- perhaps it’s the gravelly yowl that new keyboardist/singer Brent Mydland brought to the band, or the band’s collaborative album with Bob Dylan in 1989-- but for my money, there’s no better postscript to the band’s glory days than 1981’s Reckoning. It was initially conceived as a half acoustic, half electric live double album, but predictably, the band decided to flesh out each into its own two-disc set, the latter becoming Dead Set, and the former becoming Reckoning. Here, you get the Dead at the most stripped-down they’d been since American Beauty-- for example, Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart’s usual thirty-piece percussion setup is reduced to six pieces. The band tackles their most campfire-ready classics, as well as many traditional pieces from their pre-Dead jugband days, with the sort of quiet dignity and devotion that’s lacking from their heady, sometimes garish compositions of the mid-to-late ’70s. Of course, this wouldn’t be the last we’d hear from the band, who’d mount a successful comeback with 1987’s In the Dark, but with its gentle nostalgia, Reckoning is the perfect epitaph for one of the most inventive, fruitful 15-year spans a band has ever had.
Patrick Lyons is a music and culture writer from Washington State, currently living in Portland, Oregon. Equally enthralled by black metal and hip hop, catch him making maddeningly eclectic choices on the aux cord.
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