Blues For Allah (1975)
Help On The Way/Slipknot!/Franklin's Tower/King Solomon's Marbles/The Music Never Stopped/Crazy Fingers/Sage & Spirit/Blues For Allah
This album, from 1975, was roundly criticised for being a bit of an uncohesive one, largely because of the final, sprawling track. Forget that, however, and there is a some excellent, quietly appealing funky/jazz/Latin-influenced material to be found in its first part.
Help On The Way/Slipknot! is laid-back, sleepily funky in a sort of Traffic meets the later period Eagles way, with a bit of Average White Band thrown in. Lovely guitars and keyboards feature in its cool vibe. There is a great guitar solo near the end along with some funky bass as it goes into the Slipknot section I love this track.
It seamlessly morphs into the slightly more upbeat but equally Traffic-esque groove of the exquisite Franklin's Tower. You can just get pleasantly lost in this stuff. It has heavy hints of Traffic's Feelin' Alright in it, for me. Once more it is melodically and gently funky.
The instrumental King Solomon's Marbles sounds as if early-mid seventies Santana had taken over with its infectious Latin percussion and Carlos-style guitar. It is thoroughly intoxicating throughout, particularly as it develops into an improvised jazzy phase half way through.
The Music Never Stopped starts like Stevie Wonder's Superstition and is a superb piece of white funk groove - totally irresistible. Great female backing vocals and saxophone are to the fore on this fine song. The lead vocal is subtly convincing too.
Crazy Fingers is a delightfully relaxing vaguely reggae-influenced number with a Steely Dan-esque rhythm and lyrical quality to it. This is the album's last great track, and to be honest, you could end things here, as it gets a bit indulgent from now on.
Sage And Spirit is a pleasant enough acoustic instrumental few minutes but the Blues For Allah suite of passages sounds like a trip back to 1967-68 to me. It is a directionless incongruity compared to most of the album. The percussion would not have been out of place on The Stones' Their Satanic Majesties. While there is a certain druggy appeal to it I feel it sticks out from the melodic ambience of the rest of the album. Although the bass in places is sumptuous there is a general feel of indulgence that makes me wonder who exactly was into it back in 1975 as people were listening to Blood On The Tracks, Young Americans and Katy Lied. Go back to the first five tracks, though, and you have a very good album.
Terrapin Station (1977)
Estimated Prophet/Dancin' In The Streets/Passenger/Samson And Delilah/Sunrise/Terrapin Station
From 1977, this is a highly appealing, multi-style album from The Grateful Dead that had nothing to do with any real contemporary musical trend. It is a complete one-off and quite addictive, particularly the two fine tracks that bookended it. The shorter, punchier material in between is good too as well.
Estimated Prophet is a superb reggae-influenced number that Sting must surely have been influenced by that features some killer Steely Dan-inspired wah-wah guitar. This is one of my favourite Grateful Dead tracks.
Dancin' In The Streets is a surprising, disco-ish cover of the Martha Reeves & The Vandellas Motown classic that is as catchy as it is completely off-the-wall. Did all those old hippy deadheads go for this I wonder? No matter whether they did or not, I think it's great. If you had asked me who this was a while back, however, I would never have said The Grateful Dead in a million years.
Passenger is another comparatively short number, this time a Doobie Brothers-style riffy and brassy chunky rocker. This is as commercially rocking as The Dead had got. Apparently, it was inspired by Fleetwood Mac's Station Man.
Samson And Delilah is also a comparatively short song with a gospelly, soulful and thoroughly infectious groove to it.
Sunrise is a beguiling, female-vocal-led ethereal but orchestrated number that is quite different to anything else on the album. It has a bit of a Jefferson Airplane feel to it, for me.
The album's centrepiece is, of course, the sixteen minute extended workout of Terrapin Station. The first part is a proggy but appealing slow bit of quiet , folky rock with a decidedly Pink Floyd-esque part around four and a half minutes in. The instrumental middle passage rocks harder, again, in a prog rock fashion, complete with Elizabethan-sounding woodwind parts, as if Jethro Tull have joined in. The next vocal passage is very Genesis-ish, to my non-prog rears anyway and the sweeping strings are classically-influenced. Check out that superb, slightly Latin rhythmic bit too. Great stuff.
Although some may consider it too lengthy, its instrumentation is simply outstanding to overlook. It is a totally unique, classic piece of music. God only knows how it was created, or under what influence. Lyrical nonsense too, but who cares?
Shakedown Street (1978)
Good Lovin'/France/Shakedown Street/Serengeti/Fire On The Mountain/I Need A Miracle/From The Heart Of Me/Stagger Lee/All New Minglewoood Blues/If I Had The World To Give
This was the album that must have really appalled many of The Grateful Dead's obsessive "deadhead" fans as they supposedly "went disco" in many people's eyes. Their psychedelic years seemed light years away and eve the folky, country AOR of earlier seventies albums had gone as The Dead got themselvres a bucketload of rhythm. Good for them I say. I love this album. It is a "soft rock" classic. Even an old punk like me likes a bit of soft rock, you know.
It was completely irrelevant to punk/new wave and employed some disco-ish grooves, but it was more funky, Latin-ish rock if you ask me.
First up is an utterly irresistible cover of the equally wonderful Youngbloods' Good Lovin'. It gets your toes tapping from its first note. Great stuff as far as I'm concerned.
Just as fine is the syncopated, Steely Dan style rhythms of France - a sleepy, summery number with some steel band percussion featued and a winsome vocal from Donna Jean Godchaux (incidentally, it was to be her last album, along with husband Keith).
The only track that really sounds "disco" is Shakedown Street, with its infectious beat, groovy hi-hat, funky wah-wah guitar and a an absolute serial killer of a bass line that surely to goodness inspired Queen's John Deacon to come up with the bass line on Another One Bites The Dust. Donna Jean Godchaux has suggested that the track was a sort of tongue in cheek response to the contemporary mania for all things disco. Either way it infuriated their traditional rock-country-psych fans but launched many groups-artists to dabble in disco-funk, such as The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Rod Stewart, ABBA, The Jam, The Clash and, of course, Queen.
The song was intended to crack the singles market but it failed, but its far-reaching influence cannot be denied.
Serengeti is a short bit of African-inspired instrumental rhythm, the like of which Talking Heads would utilise to great effect on the following year's I Zimbra. Their polyrhythmic drumming was surely influenced by this too.
Fire On The Mountain is a fetching, staccato number with hints of The Eagles' later work and a sort of reggae tinge to its appealing rhythm. It features a great bit of guitar half-way through.
I Need A Miracle is an amusing-ish and greatly appealing rocker that has a superb hook and great riffs, bluesy harmonica too - again, I love it.
Donna Jean Godchaux's romantic slow groove, From The Heart Of Me is sleepily beautiful in a hot summer afternoon way while Stagger Lee is a bluesy, slightly country, clavinet-driven and very Band-esque re-working of the old folk song.
All New Minglewood Blues takes a track from the band's 1967 debut album and re-visits it in rocking, chunky fashion. Again, there is nothing disco about this, with its fine rock guitar breaks. Too much emphasis was put on the earlier harmless, groovy fun of Shakedown Street, wasn't it? A track like this is proper muscular blues rock, for me anyway.
The album closes with the disarmingly romantic If I Had The World To Give. This is a lovely track, simple as that. This may not have been an on-the-nail, culturally relevant 1978 album but it sure sounds great in 2020, so there you go. Once more, The Dead had put out an album that was different from all their others and is gloriously unique. They really were quite special.
Go To Heaven (1980)
Alabama Getaway/Far From Me/Althea/Feel Like A Stranger/Lost Sailor/Saint Of Circumstance/Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber)/Easy To Love You/Don't Ease Me In
Two years after their over-exaggerrated descent into disco, The Dead kept up their wry take on the contemporary trend by appearing on the cover of this, their next album, in Bee Gees-style suits, with the hell airbrushed put of them. They didn't normally appear in person on their album covers, so this made things worse as far as fans were concerned. The joke didn't really work, did it, making them look like the dinosaurs that punk and new wave were supposed to rid the world of. No that any of that matters now, does it? This was another fine album, in my opinion. It is a powerful AOR/soft rock offering, completely out of time, of course, but full of verve and vigour. I like all The Dead's phases and steadfastly refuse to criticise this one. For me, it is superb album. Say what you like.
The Godchaux pair had now left the group and Brent Mydland had arrived on keyboards and some vocals. Donna Jean was missed, vocally, but not terminally.
Alabama Gateway rocks enthusiastically from the off - a great, rousing start to proceedings and, although I'm sure many fans loathed the Eagles-style AOR of Far From Me, I think it's great. The first thing you realise is how much Mydland's voice on this track (and the others he appears on) sounds like Don Henley.
Althea is a lovely, laid-back Dire Straits-ish number with lots of Knopfler-esque guitar and
understated vocals. It is similar to material on the first two Dire Straits albums. Love that guitar.
Feel Like A Stranger sounds like something from David Bowie's Young Americans album (Right or Fascination) and is an infectious piece of chugging white funk. Even the typically eighties synthesisers are funky as hell here. It does, however, come to a strange abrupt end.
Lost Sailor is a sleepy piece of jazziness, featuring some fine guitar and bass.
Saint Of Circumstance is a Steely Dan style jazz rock number. Both of these tracks are immaculately played and mightily appealing.
Antwerp's Placebo (The Plumber) is a short, gurgling instrumental before Mydland brings his best Don Henley to the table again on the Eagles groove of Easy To Love You. There is also a lot of Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers about it too.
Don't Ease Me In is a bluesy rocking cover to finish with, ending the album on a lively vibe. It has been a pleasure from the first note to the last. These two Grateful Dead albums may have attracted considerable opprobrium but I, personally, struggle to understand why - they're great.
In The Dark (1987)
Touch Of Grey/Hell In A Bucket/When Push Comes To Shove/West L.A. Fadeaway/Tons Of Steel/Throwing Stones/Black Muddy River
Seven years after two excellent albums, The Grateful Dead returned with this, an absolute killer of a rock album that is accessible, clever and all-round likeable.
Touch Of Grey is a really catchy opener, with great riffs and singalong hooks aplenty. As 1987 rock offerings go, it is up there as one of the best.
A rat-a-tat rum roll introduces the solid riffage of Hell In A Bucket which has a fair few echoes of Joe Walsh and Don Henley.
When Push Comes To Shove is a rollicking piece of bar-room blues rock driven along by some fine piano.
West L.A Fadeaway is pure Dire Straits in many ways with its Knopfler guitar sound and quiet, smoky blues rock ambience. It gets into its groove and just keeps going over its seven minutes. There is something Dylan and Clapton-esque about it in places, too.
Tons Of Steel is get out on the highway Eagles/Don Henley rock and is a copper-bottomed driving rocker, full of atmosphere and on the road melody.
Throwing Stones is another in this procession of top quality tracks. It is also Dire Straits in feel but with some of The Dead's own distinctive groove in there making it really attractive. It is sort of hard to describe just what it is but you just know it when you hear it. Lyrically, it also touches on political corruption in a more direct way than The Dead usually serve up. Their lyrics are often more obtuse than they are here. It features a great guitar solo in the middle as well. Let it never be forgotten that The Dead could play.
The album ends with a classic in the anthemic and beautiful Black Muddy River which is lovely piece of slow, solid rock with a bit of a sad country tone to it. I can't analyse it much other than it is uplifting and inspiring. Listening to its mournful Van Morrison-esque tones makes me feel good, in some strange way. Like its two predecessors, this was a really good album - varied, unique AOR at its best. Strangely enough, however, the more I like an album in an unthreatening way, like this one, the less I can write about it.
Built To Last (1989)
Foolish Heart/Just A Little Light/Built To Last/Blow Away/Victim Or The Crime/We Can Run/Standing On The Moon/Picasso Moon/I Will Take You Home
So here we had it - The Grateful Dead's final studio album after so many years packed full to overflowing with varied and wonderful music. For many "deadheads", I guess the final four offerings were their worst but not for me, I love all four of them.
This one is another intoxicating soft rock classic. Yes, it features the synthesisers of the period, but it doesn't get bogged down by them, there are guitars all over the place.
Foolish Heart is a delicious piece of laid-back, gentle AOR to begin with that, while typical of late eighties soft rock, still has that special something that The Dead always bestowed on their songs. Steely Dan had the same vibe about them. It is also sort of Bruce Hornsby-ish.
The next track, Just A Little Light, is another excellent one, with more than a few hints of Chris Rea in its guitar chug and lyrics. I am not a great lover of synthesiser in rock, but The Dead utilise it nicely here. The track carries with it a great atmosphere, for me.
Built To Last is a beguiling, intrinsically sad soft rock slowie that again reminds me in places of Bruce Hornsby.
Blow Away is also a killer ballad in the same tradition, enhanced by some brass and great, searing guitar. It is a track full of power and drama but, as with so many of the group's tracks, I don't quite know what the original Deadheads will have made of it. It is several solar systems away from that hippy/psych stuff. Still, groups mature and The Dead are certainly like a thirty year-old wine.
Victim Or The Crime is a chunky number that puts me in mind of Sting's later solo material, somehow. It ends with some more absolutely stonking guitar.
We Can Run is a marvellously anthemic Don Henley-style hands-in-the-air number. some may find it cheesy. I find it glorious. Brent Mydland's vocals are beautifully emotive and the guitar just soars, taking you to some sort of musical Valhalla. It serves as a fine farewell from The Dead, this challenging, inventive and innovative group of mini-genii.
Wait, though, there are still three tracks left - the slow and dignified Standing On The Moon is top class too, with a lyrical feel of Talking Heads' The Big Country as the countries that can be seen are rolled out.
Picasso Moon is a solid, muscular rocker while a final goodbye is said with the gentle, tender lullaby I Will Take You Home.
So, thank you then to The Grateful Dead - a group it took me over fifty years to find. Thank goodness I did. They're bloody superb, whatever phase in their career you listen to.
There are many "best ofs" available, but I find these two are the best way of accessing The Dead's material in one huge gulp;-