Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Grateful Dead album by album

(Work in progress. If you like the article, leave a comment or click on an advert - it helps the motivation!)

The Dead are a respected band with a large and devoted following. They put more emphasis on playing live than most bands, and are known for their long sets involving extended jams. The music is an odd mix of Americana and psychedelia, pitching the band very much in San Francisco 1968 time warp from which they appear never to have escaped. Those who like them seem to like this hippie timelessness.

I was surrounded by the Grateful Dead when I was a hippy. It seemed that everyone had an album, but - perhaps thankfully - these albums were not played much. Respected though they were by my fellow hippies, they were, it seems, not hugely enjoyed by UK hippies. There was this sense that you couldn't really call yourself a hippy unless you had a Dead album and acknowledged that they were far out, though that didn't mean you had to actually play the albums. Of course I listened to Dead albums now and again, and I had one friend who was especially hip and read the NME from cover to cover each week, so he would get out a Dead album now and again and attempt to convert me away from Led Zeppelin and Man. Anyway - I thought it was time to get more familiar with them, and see what it is that Dead Heads get so excited about.


The Grateful Dead was an American rock band formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California. Ranging from quintet to septet, the band is known for its unique and eclectic style, which fused elements of rock, folk, country, and psychedelia,  for live performances of lengthy jams, and for their devoted fan base, known as "Deadheads". These various influences were distilled into a diverse and psychedelic whole that made the Grateful Dead "the pioneering Godfathers of the jam band world". The band was ranked 57th by Rolling Stone magazine in its The Greatest Artists of All Time issue. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and a recording of their May 8, 1977, performance at Cornell University's Barton Hall was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012. The Grateful Dead have sold more than 35 million albums worldwide.
The Grateful Dead was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area amid the rise of the counterculture of the 1960s. The founding members were Jerry Garcia (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Weir (rhythm guitar, vocals), Ron "Pigpen" McKernan (keyboards, harmonica, vocals), Phil Lesh (bass, vocals), and Bill Kreutzmann (drums). Members of the Grateful Dead had played together in various San Francisco bands, including Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions and the Warlocks. Drummer Mickey Hart and nonperforming lyricist Robert Hunter joined in 1967. With the exception of McKernan, who died in 1973, and Hart, who took time off from 1971 to 1974, the core of the band stayed together for its entire 30-year history. After the death of Garcia in 1995, former members of the band, along with other musicians, toured as the Other Ones in 1998, 2000, and 2002, and the Dead in 2003, 2004, and 2009. In 2015, the four surviving core members marked the band's 50th anniversary in a series of concerts that were billed as their last performances together. There have also been several spin-offs featuring one or more core members.
The Grateful Dead's early music (in the mid-1960s) was part of the process of establishing what "psychedelic music" was, but theirs was essentially a "street party" form of it. They developed their "psychedelic" playing as a result of meeting Ken Kesey and becoming the house band for the Acid Tests he staged. They did not fit their music to an established category such as pop rock, blues, folk rock, or country & western. Individual tunes within their repertoire could be identified under one of these stylistic labels, but overall their music drew on all of these genres and, more frequently, melded several of them. Bill Graham said of the Grateful Dead, "They're not the best at what they do, they're the only ones that do what they do." Often (both in performance and on recording) the Dead left room for exploratory, spacey soundscapes.
Their live shows, fed by an improvisational approach to music, were different from most touring bands. While rock and roll bands often rehearse a standard set, played with minor variations, the Grateful Dead did not prepare in this way. Garcia stated in a 1966 interview, "We don't make up our sets beforehand. We'd rather work off the tops of our heads than off a piece of paper." They maintained this approach throughout their career. For each performance, the band drew material from an active list of a hundred or so songs.
The 1969 live album Live/Dead did capture the band in-form, but commercial success did not come until Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, both released in 1970. These records largely featured the band's laid-back acoustic musicianship and more traditional song structures. With their rootsy, eclectic stylings, particularly evident on the latter two albums, the band pioneered the hybrid Americana genre. In a retrospective, The New Yorker described Robert Hunter 's verses as "elliptical, by turns vivid and gnomic", which were often "hippie poetry about roses and bells and dew", and critic Robert Christgau described them as "American myths" that later gave way to "the old karma-go-round".


Rock's longest, strangest trip, the Grateful Dead were the psychedelic era's most beloved musical ambassadors as well as its most enduring survivors, spreading their message of peace, love, and mind expansion across the globe throughout the better part of three decades. The object of adoration for popular music's most fervent and celebrated fan following -- the Deadheads, their numbers and devotion legendary in their own right -- they were the ultimate cult band, creating a self-styled universe all their own; for the better part of their career orbiting well outside of the mainstream, the Dead became superstars solely on their own terms, tie-dyed pied pipers whose epic, free-form live shows were rites of passage for an extended family of listeners who knew no cultural boundaries.

The Grateful Dead (1967) 
Debut album is attractive. Has some jugband, some blues, some folk/folk-rock, hints of country, a bit of Yardbirds, a bit of West Coast psychedelic. It's OK.

Score: 5

Anthem Of The Sun (1968)

A much more interesting, experimental and clearly psychedelic album than the debut, but less pleasing and less successful. Garcia spliced together various live versions of songs along with the studio recording. This is kind of fun, and there are parts where this seems to work. But the songs themselves are not that strong, so having several versions of simply OK songs is not quite as good as having one sublime version of a really good song. Also, I think to really understand what the band were doing, you'd need to know that's what they were doing, so this was an introspective album for the band and their fans. Those coming to the band without an awareness of these songs would not be aware that they are different versions. After all by 1968 most listeners would be familiar with the concept of jamming, and would simply assume that the songs were the band jamming, and sometimes  the jam got a bit sticky....  Compare, from the same year, Cream jamming live on Wheels of Fire: "Spoonful".  However, I like the idea. So I don't find this album as attractive or accessible as the debut, but it is more interesting.

Score: 5

Aoxomoxoa (1969)
This is like The Band on acid. It's not quite working for me.

Score: 3

Live/Dead (1969)

Extended jams on various Dead songs. I can get into this. Extended jams was a thing for serious rock bands during the period 1968 to 1974. My favourite bands who used utilised extended jams during this period are Man and Cream. Particularly Man, who are sadly little known.

Score: 5+

Workingman's Dead (1970)

More Americana and less psychedelia than other albums, this is probably the band's most popular album. It was the album I recall as being the one I found the most accessible and likeable back in the day. I find it worthy though less satisfying and interesting than the other Dead albums so far. And not really representative of the band as a whole.

Score: 4

American Beauty (1970)

Rather tedious country/folk-rock. I'm finding this a trudge. This leans closer to The Byrds and The Band than Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or The Eagles. You pays your money and takes your choice. I'm more in the CSN&Y and Eagles camp.

Score: 3

Grateful Dead (1971)

I like this. The band sound like a proper rock band. There's little of the self-indulgent psychedelic lengthy jamming, though there is the obligatory early Seventies drum solo, and there's little of the hill-billy music. There are playful covers of songs by country artists, Mamas and Papas, Buddy Holly, etc, which indicate the band's interest in areas other than rock, but they manage to inject enough energy and RnB into the proceedings to produce a very listenable and attractive album that not surprisingly became their biggest seller.

Score: 6

Europe '72 (1972)

This is more of the same. This is an extended continuation of the previous album - but more like a proper concert. This is easy going music, a bit like early pub rock bands such as Brinsley Schwarz, Eggs over Easy, Bees Make Honey, and Ducks Deluxe who were probably taking ideas from The Band and the Dead.   It's an OK album, but rather long, and nothing exciting happens during that length.  They're a likable good time band, and fans no doubt like their easy going manner and lack of structure and bite, but I would appreciate less width in favour of more quality....

Score: 4

I think I may pause here for a while....

Best Album Lists

* Ranker   
* UCR   
* EW  
* BV

1037 March 2019 

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