When I was 16 years old, I stumbled upon an album that somehow had ended up in my iTunes library. This album that would unknowingly affect the future music I would fall in love with, was the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty (1970). This seemingly simple album cover was just a rose on a wood background. At this point I was near unfamiliar with the works of this band. I had known the song “Touch of Grey” from being fairly popular on classic rock radio and only knew of Jerry Garcia from the references to him in the movie “Half-Baked”. I don’t know what drew me to hit play on that album and listen. And to this day, it remains one of the best decisions I ever made. I became enamored with the songs on that album and amassed a decent amount of knowledge on the band over the course of the next few years. However, I wouldn’t view myself as a deadhead. At 22 years, I still have so much of this band to discover. I am still only familiar with the studio albums and only a handful of their more seminal live albums.
This project is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’ve wanted to push myself to really consume the music of this band that I admire so much. I want to bring others into this journey and share my findings and thoughts. The cover of their debut album has a quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead stating, “In the land of the dark, the ship of the sun is drawn by the Grateful Dead”. For over 30 years this band served as the ship of the sun for many people. Once a week, I will listen to a random Grateful Dead album that I pick out of a box and dissect it, letting the universe guide me as I ride the ship of the sun drawn by the Grateful Dead.
However, it doesn’t make sense for me to pull a random show out of the box and expect to be thrilled with a 14 minute of “Morning Dew” without context. So the next 13 weeks will consist of the studio history of the Dead. Starting with their 1967 debut album, The Grateful Dead, and working through to their final album, 1989’s Built to Last, I will lay a groundwork for which all their other work can be put into context. That being said, welcome to my Long Strange Trip.
Album Review: The Grateful Dead (1967)
The Grateful Dead released their first album on March 17th, 1967 over fifty years ago. This album would mark the beginning of a long career and an intense culture built around music and sound. However, this piece of work wasn’t the first rodeo for the Grateful Dead. Their true beginnings were 2 years earlier.
In early 1965, rhythm guitarist Bob Weir had met the future lead guitarist and frontman, Jerry Garcia, in Palo Alto at a music store and they began jamming. Starting as a jug band along with blues pianist and harmonica aficionado Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, they wouldn’t become the first iteration of the Dead until later that year. Upon switching to electric instruments and adding members Phil Lesh on bass and Bill Kreutzmann on drums, they had become The Warlocks. After one more name change, they had become the Grateful Dead and began playing shows around the San Francisco Bay Area. After a stint as the house band for Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests, their instrumental expertise was increasing and experimentation with both music and LSD was increasing as well. The birth of the “jam” band really begins here where they experimented with live improvisation, which was uncommon in Rock n Roll and taken from Jazz.
With this sound and the buzz around them in the Haight-Ashbury, Warner Bros. signed them to their label as their only rock n roll artist. Soon after the Dead went to Los Angeles to record their first record in January of 1967. The nine-track album now seems bizarre in the collection of their music. But at the time, this was the first exposure those outside of the Bay Area who couldn’t see the band live, would have.
The album now seems so immature and rushed. Only two of the nine songs were written by members of the Dead, leaving the rest of the album with seven cover songs. The album has touches of their past and the music they come from, leaving listeners with one song that provides a sense of who this band would become. The Dead written track, “The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”, is a typical mid-60’s garage rock song and works as a great introduction for the band. The next two tracks “Beat it On Down the Line” and “Good Morning, Little School Girl” are a glimpse at their roots in Jug and Blues music. The tracks sputter along quickly, as the whole album clocks in at over 34 minutes. Side one finishes with “Cream Puff War” a Jerry Garcia written song, which serves as a double entendre for a couple breaking up and also Garcia’s own anti-Vietnam war sentiments.
The album really doesn’t give a real idea of who this band is until Side Two. (Note: Today we would listen straight through, but in 1967 this would be the other side of the vinyl record.) At the top of side two, the band goes into “Morning Dew” which would become a staple for the band’s live shows. Jerry’s voice and guitar sound young and vibrant and at five minutes in length, it gives a taste of what is to come for that song’s ability to grow in a live improvisational setting. The next track is a short, beyond radio friendly iteration of “New, New Minglewood Blues”, a track that the band would come to retool differently in the future. Finally the band leaves with a ten-minute jam. The final track, “Viola Lee Blues” is the only true mark on the album of who the Grateful Dead were outside of the confines of a studio. The song is a moving psychedelic jam built upon an old jug tune. Jerry’s solo on the song is punchy but soft. It’s one of the few songs on the album that resonates as though this were a song perfected long before entering the studio. The track also contains great moments from Pigpen’s organ playing as he moves along with the song improvising away without ever pulling focus away from Jerry’s solo. Overall it leaves the album on a high note with a taste of what this band is capable of. “Viola Lee Blues” was and remained a staple of live performances for the band for years and it shows as being the most polished song on the album.
One area where this album really falls apart though is in the overall tonal quality. The production feels very rushed. There are moments where there is feedback with the guitars. The mixing feels random across all tracks. Lesh’s bass lines fall too deep into the background for a majority of the tracks. On multiple songs like “Beat it on down the Line” and “Cream Puff War”, Pigpen’s organ is too bright which date the tracks. Though neither Garcia’s or Weir’s vocals are particularly polished yet as singers, there are moments on “New, New Minglewood Blues” and “Morning Dew” which sound as though were sung through a toilet paper tube. All these minor production flaws really seem quite bizarre when the viewing the length of most the tracks. They clock in at radio friendly times, which would suggest the record label would’ve liked to promote their songs on the airwaves. But with sub par production, it seems as though Warner Bros. only gave a half-assed attempt at making the Grateful Dead into the kind of psychedelic rock group that could chart on the Top 100.
Despite all this, the album still excels when viewed in their total studio discography. It provides groundwork for whom the band was. This eclectic group of musicians who were raised on Blues, Jazz, Bluegrass, R&B, and early Rock & Roll were beginning to find their niche. Potentially, Warner Bros. mediocre attempt to keep the band radio-friendly may have been the reason they could use up so much money and studio time to experiment and grow into the band they would be. Though this debut effort may fall short compared to other offerings in Rock & Roll released later that year such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced?, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, and The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, this young iteration of the Grateful Dead managed to produce an album that still echoes a unique sound and cements them at the forefront of music and counterculture that would grow to define the upcoming Summer of Love.