Monday, 14 September 2020

The Grateful Dead

"We're like liquorice. Not everybody likes liquorice, but the people who like liquorice really like liquorice" - Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead (1967)
The Golden Road/Beat It On Down The Line/Good Morning Little School Girl/Cold Rain And Snow/Sitting On Top Of The World/Cream Puff War/Morning Dew/New New Minglewood Blues/Viola Lee Blues

"Blues-based tunes played by musicians who came to rhythm late, expanded so they were equally suitable for dancing and for tripping out" - Robert Christgau

I must admit that until recently I had little or no knowledge of "The Dead"'s mighty canon of work. For whatever reason, these rock leviathans had completely passed me by. They came straight out of San Francisco's maelstrom of psychedelia in early 1967, and, although this album is very much one of learning on the hoof it is not without its fresh, vibrant appeal. Actually, I really like it, although I am sure long-time "Dead Heads" dismiss it. It is also, far more of a blues rock album than a psychedelic one, despite its opening blast.

The album starts in short but lively sixties psychedelic rock fashion on The Golden Road - madcap drums, Eastern-style guitar soloing, swirling organ, frantic vocals and a feel of Jefferson Airplane from the same era about it. Some rock 'n' roll follows on Beat It On Down The Line with an even faster pace and a distinctly early Elvis-influenced vocal. This is actually great stuff and a million miles away from the group's later material.

As it was 1967, the blues was still huge in the rock firmament and here we get a great version of the much-covered blues standard, Good Morning Little School Girl, delivered in a slow, brooding, effortlessly bluesy style, with a fine harmonica solo to boot. they sound like The Doors in places on this, particularly at the end. Cold Rain And Snow is a very 1967 number - with more Doors vibes, great drums and organ and a real groovy feel from its outset. I love it. Check out those sixties drum rolls and bass fills.

Sitting On Top Of The World is a no-holds-barred, wonderful serving of breakneck blues rock that has the band sounding like The early Rolling Stones speeded up. Cream Puff War taps in to the anti-war sentiments of the time on muscular organ and drum slice of short but aware rock. That guitar sound is spectacular.

Another much-covered track was Tim Rose's Morning Dew which is done here in extended blues rock fashion that again must have influenced The Doors. It is full of menacing, portentous atmosphere and is immaculately played. The bluesy vibe continues of the excellent, chunky rock of New New Minglewood Blues, which features some impressive organ breaks. The final number, Viola Lee Blues, is a ten minute blues workout of the sort so many subsequent bands would emulate. Once more, the atmosphere is palpable - this is thoughtful, finely-executed blues influenced rock of the highest order. The organ/guitar interplay near the end freaks out too, man.

Although this was very much a child of its spaced-out, psychedelic 1967 conception it is a bluesy, serious album with no pop pretensions, although it rocks royally on several occasions. It was played superbly well, has a great sound and, for me, is fantastic - far better than I expected it to be.

Anthem Of the Sun (1968)
That's It For The Other One/New Potato Caboose/Born Cross-Eyed/Alligator/Caution (Do Not Stop On Tracks)

"Nobody could sing [the new tracks recorded in NYC], and at that point they were experimenting too much in my opinion. They didn't know what the hell they were looking for" - David Hassinger - producer

The Grateful Dead had been dissatisfied with their first album, apparently (I'm not quite sure why - I think it's great) and, where that was one was rocky, psychedelic and, most importantly, bluesy, this offering was indulgent, experimental and, in many places, rambling.

It contained only five lengthy tracks and was recorded using techniques that took independently-recorded instrumentals and vocals, creating a patchwork quilt of sound when they were pasted together in the studio. All sorts of instruments were used - this being 1968, just as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, of course, had done recently. There was 'prepared piano' (whatever that was), harpsichord, various percussion instruments, kazoo along with Eastern and Latin American instruments.

The result is a challenging mish-mash of sounds and ambience that is something of a difficult listen, to be honest. It is nowhere near as instantly appealing as its predecessor, not at all, and the sound quality doesn't get anywhere close to the impressive standard of the debut album. Whereas I found that album to be exhilarating and energetic, displaying fine musicianship, this one, in contrast, I find directionless and lacking in cohesion or purpose. In many ways, it is a journey in studio experimentation made live and released straight to the public. The band were interested in trying all sorts of new things, but, by their own admittance, it lacked something in the quality control department.

That said, there are some bits where I think "yeah, that's a good bit" - various bass runs, drum parts, percussion or the occasional guitar lick, but, overall, I have to say that it struggles to hit the spot for me. It does have a strange capacity to grow on you, however but I still prefer the debut album.

Let me detail a few plus points, though - the bass, chunky guitar riffs, infectious drums and sharp organ breaks on the adventurous That's It For The Other One and the bass/guitar/drum combination of the most appealing of the album's tracks, New Potato Caboose. Then there are the organ and guitar chops on the short, hippyish romp of Born Cross-Eyed. The rhythmic groove of Alligator has some infectious percussion and a superb guitar solo at nearly six minutes in. The track merges seamlessly into Caution, which also has some excellent, improvised percussion, vocal and keyboard moments.

Perhaps the biggest plus point of all is the fact that the album was remixed in 1971 in order to make it more 'listener friendly' and there is, to my ears at east, a marked improvement. The sound is warmer, particularly the bass and the whole thing seems to have been really 'cleaned up', for the better.

Aoxomoxoa (1969)
St. Stephen/Dupree's Diamond Blues/Rosemary/Doin' That Rag/Mountains Of The Moon/China Cat Sunflower/What's Become Of The Baby/Cosmic Charlie

"Sometime in 1969, when we realized the colossal debt we got ourselves into with the decidedly indulgent making of 'Aoxomoxoa', we realised that we needed to get a handle on our finances. We were a group of altruistic troubadours, a traveling psychedelic circus" - Bill Kreutzmann

After their highly experimental second album, The Grateful Dead went even further, in some ways, on this archetypal psychedelic album from 1969. Many aficionados of the band and music critics love it but I find myself liking some of it and finding other bits of it pretty much unlistenable. While Was prepared to accept some of the previous album’s indulgence, on this one it becomes somewhat impenetrable, for me. Having that said, there are some impressive bits and some fine musicianship and several pieces of drug-inspired post-hippy inspiration as the sixties came to an end. The carefree optimism and love of two years earlier had been replaced by an edginess with war and violence all around in Vietnam and Altamont and this was expressed in much of the period’s music. Just take some drugs and block things out, allowing the music to become more introspectively experimental and off the wall.

St. Stephen is one of the album's better tracks - a chunky piece of psychedelia meeting embryonic prog rock, full of changes of pace and ambience backing beguiling lyrics about a first century saint. Dupree's Diamond Blues is a surprisingly country-ish, jaunty bar-room sway of a song. It carefree drunken singalong vibe sits a bit incongruously with the rest of the album.

Rosemary is very typical of its era - a dense, folky acoustic dirge with distorted, incoherent vocals that turn it into a bit of a difficult listen. It could have been much better. For some, no doubt, this murkiness contains its appeal, but not for me. Doin' That Rag is a more rocky song, albeit a slow-paced one with solid riffs and vague, ethereal vocals. Again, for me it is a song that doesn't quite achieve its potential, despite some excellent organ , drums, guitar and bass. There are hints of The Band in there somewhere - here and there, probably the organ and drum sound. Both of these songs sound so much better on their 1971 remix - see bottom of the review.

Mountains Of The Moon sees the band going all folky and medieval with one of those sixties Rolling Stones-style harpsichord backings. China Cat Sunflower, a perennial live favourite of the band, is the album's stand-out track, a virtually impossibly to categorise cornucopia of impressive sounds. Basically, it's a bit proggy, but it has a funky bass line and some bluesy guitar in places and some swirling, soulful organ.

Now, I apologise in advance to all the Deadheads who may love it, but I find What's Become Of The Baby to be virtually unlistenable, particularly in its original 1969 incarnation, with its feedback, strange noises and vocals played backwards or whatever. It is The Dead's Revolution 9.

Cosmic Charlie redeems things somewhat with a bassy slow shuffle enhanced by some piercing lead guitar.

Like its predecessor, Anthem Of The Sun, this album was remixed by the band in 1971, again to great effect, giving it a more polished, less 'home-made" sound. A lot of the sonic mess has been taken off What's Become Of The Baby, which makes it just about acceptable. St. Stephen sounds much improved too and Rosemary is much cleaned up. In fact all of them do - the 1971 version is the superior listen, for me - warmer, bassier and clearer. It almost makes it a different album. There are many who may love that ad hoc rawness, but I prefer the polish of the remix of both albums.

Overall, I find that while I liked the group's bluesy first album a lot, these two experimental, drug-addled offerings can be left for just the occasional listen. As the band underwent a sea change into country rock/Americana in the following year I find that it is very much to my taste. These albums are not without their freaky, trippy good points, but they need searching for. Several listens to the 1971 mixes helps.

Workingman's Dead (1970)
Uncle John's Band/High Time/Dire Wolf/New Speedway Boogie/Cumberland Blues/Black Peter/Easy Wind/Casey Jones

"The song lyrics reflected an 'old, weird' America that perhaps never was ... The almost miraculous appearance of these new songs would also generate a massive paradigm shift in our group mind: from the mind-munching frenzy of a seven-headed fire-breathing dragon to the warmth and serenity of a choir of chanting cherubim. Even the album cover reflects this new direction: The cover for 'Aoxomoxoa' is colorful and psychedelic, and that of 'Workingman’s Dead' is monochromatic and sepia" - Philip Lesh

In 1970, The Grateful Dead completely abandoned their psychedelic, adventurous, drugged-up style, took on songwriter Robert Hunter and re-visited their original folk rock roots, tapping in to the CSNY, Byrds and Bob Dylan-led country rock boom and The Band-driven Americana one of the time. It was a total change in style, one as shocking as any in rock music thus far. There were no longer any murky, edgy weird soundscapes, no feedback, no pasted-together individually-recorded sounds, no tapes played backwards - The Grateful Dead now offered CSNY vocal harmonies, immaculately-played country rock ballads, bar-room blues boogies and riffy country blues rock. The only thing to make people think they were The Grateful Dead were the often beguiling, perplexing lyrics.

With regard to CSNY, Neil Young said that 'Hearing those guys sing and how nice they sounded together, we thought, 'We can try that. Let's work on it a little'. So, the Dead clearly influenced their supposed influencers.

The band then gained a new generation of "Deadheads", who began the cult of following the band from city to city, revelling in hearing different songs played like aural train-spotters. I am unsure as to how the fans from the psychedelic era took to country rock , however - maybe they lost some of the the hippy cult fans from the previous three years. Whatever, I'm not really sure about the minutiae of the Deadhead thing, only that it became huge and carries on to this day. Anyway, I won't dare to comment any further because I really don't know too much about the whole phenomenon of these many disparate fans. On to the music, which is what matters to me.

Uncle John's Band is a delightful crystal clear acoustic and melodious bass-backed country rock number with full-on CSNY harmonious vocals. It features some infectious percussion too. High Time is also a lovely folky slow number, with another gently beautiful bass sound and a chilled-out vibe all over it. The druggy sixties freak-out merchants had become blissed-out bucolics.

The country vibe continues on the upbeat, finger-pickin' and steel guitar melody of Dire Wolf. God knows what early Deadheads were making of this - I can't see how it appealed to those reared on grungy, acid-inspired psychedelia. After this pleasurable bar-room take we revisit the blues of the 1967 debut album on the rocking groove of New Speedway Boogie. I love this, infinitely preferring it to those dense, psychedelic experimental workouts of 1968-69. Cumberland Blues is a Pure Prairie League-style energetic country romp with lots of CSNY in there too.

Black Peter is a dead slow piece of sleepy, acoustic blues while Easy Wind is a superb serving of early seventies, muscular blues rock. This is another one I really like, with its chunky riffs, solid drums and urgent organ. There is also room for a fine harmonica solo alongside some excellent guitar. Casey Jones finds the group dabbling in a vaguely funky feel on another robust piece of bluesy rock.

Of The Dead's albums thus far, this is easily my favourite, yet I found it easier to write more about the experimental albums than I do this one. I guess it is far more formulaic, not that that is a bad thing.

Incidentally, there is a fantastic live concert recording available on the 50th Anniversary reissue of this album.

American Beauty (1970)
Box Of Rain/Friend Of The Devil/Sugar Magnolia/Operator/Candyman/Ripple/Brokedown Palace/Till The Morning Comes/Attics Of My Life/Truckin’

"It was a surprise to us – as it was to everybody else: this machine-eating, monster-psychedelic band is suddenly putting out sweet, listenable material" - Robert Hunter

This was The Grateful Dead’s second album of 1970 and it was even more of a country rock one than its predecessor. Forget psychedelia, The Dead were a full-on country rock band now, something that is often forgotten when the names of the country rock boom’s biggest artists are trotted out. It was more of an acoustic-driven album than the previous one had been, which more bluesy and it concentrates even more on vocal harmony. Don’t underestimate the magnificent bass playing of Phil Lesh either.

Box Of Rain is early seventies country rock heaven - harmonious CSNY-style vocals, jangly but melodic guitar and that early Eagles meets The Byrds to jam with CSNY sound. It has a really appealing sound and is full of fine guitar.

Friend Of The Devil is an energetic serving of tuneful country rock, featuring some finger-pickin’ guitar and an infectious ambience all round. The sound is great too, clear and with a good stereo delivery.

The delightfully breezy Sugar Magnolia has the group going full on CSNY with large hints of the sort of thing Pure Prairie League and The Flying Burrito Brothers were doing at the same time. It is just a great song - beautiful melodies and hooks abounding. Operator is a lively, attractive country rock number with slight hints of The Ballad Of John And Yoko about it, plus a great bit of harmonica.

There is a lot of CSNY influence, although this undoubtedly cut both ways, as indeed David Crosby has acknowledged - “Sometimes they have given us credit for teaching them how to sing and that's not true. They knew how to sing; they had their own style and they had the most important quality of it down already, which is tale-telling. The idea is – when you hang out with other musicians – to sort of cross-pollinate your idea streams, and that naturally happened between us on a level that was very rare. We would listen to what they were doing with time signatures and with breaking the rules, and it appealed to us a lot”. The Dead’s Jerry Garcia had also played on CSNY’s Deja Vu.

Candyman is a sleepy drink-addled sounding maudlin country rock ballad featuring some fine organ and guitar while Ripple is a most fetching mid-pace, gentle number too. The laid-back, peaceful feeling continues on the deliciously bassy slowie Brokedown Palace.

The tempo ups again on the catchy and melodic tones of Till The Morning Comes. Attics Of My Life is just beautiful and that wonderful bass line just has me purring like one of my three cats.

The album closes with a Dead favourite - Truckin’ is great, lively, toe-tapping country rock chugger with a rockabilly edge, great guitar and a lovely rubbery, insistent bass line.

I love the previous album, but I appreciate this one even more. Really good stuff. Robust country rock at its best.

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