Grateful Dead – Anthem of the Sun (1968)

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The summer of 1967 would go down in history as the Summer of Love after the counterculture in San Francisco was thrust into the spotlight. During that summer and until the end of 1967, some of the most experimental albums in Pop music would be released. Bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and Big Brother and The Holding Company would become household names. Established groups like The Byrds and The Rolling Stones would reflect their own experiences with psychedelics in releases that year. Amongst the groups that would capitalize on pop culture that year, the Grateful Dead would not have a major release during that time. Having not entered the studio to begin recording their follow up until September of 1967, The Grateful Dead’s second studio album, Anthem of the Sun, wouldn’t be released until July of 1968. However, the Dead’s new approach to their sophomore follow-up would prove to be their most innovative during the psychedelic era.

In 1967 after the release of their self-titled debut, one major change that occurs within the Grateful Dead was a lineup change. Mickey Hart, a drummer and percussionist, joins the group after meeting Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann at the Fillmore. With the addition of another drummer, the Dead’s ability to jam had grown and it shows on their approach to Anthem of the Sun.

Grateful Dead at their home at 710 Ashbury St. in 1967. (L-R: Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, Pigpen McKernan, & Phil Lesh)

When entering the studio, the Dead had a more clear vision and determination for the album. In order to share with listeners what the experience of seeing the Grateful Dead was like, they devised a plan to blend both studio and live recording into each of their tracks. This vision produced five tracks, all written by members of the Dead which blend the sounds of studio and stage. This mixture proves to be exactly the kind of record the band needed to release. Anthem of the Sun clocks in at over 30 minutes long, despite containing only 5 tracks.

Side one on Anthem begins with “That’s It for the Other One”, which at the time was the band’s most ambitious foray into writing. The song begins structured, with Garcia singing softly over the melody, with a tone that invites listeners to come aboard. As the song breaks into the improvisation and back to structure, Weir comes in, singing lyrics that visualize a dream-like acid trip where he harkens back to Neil Cassidy and the Merry Pranksters. He narrates his own journey that led him to singing for the listener when he describes hopping on the bus Furthur that would eventually lead the band to playing at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests. The song invites the listener to hop on that same bus as it careens through the four part track and ends in overwhelming, bizarro studio sounds.

The song then transitions near seamlessly into “New Potato Caboose”. The track feels more like an extension to the previous song pulling the listener back into reality. The clean and tactile sounds of guitar and bells are inviting, but then the song makes multiple odd tempo changes both in the “blood red” section and when they break into harmony, before returning the the tactile sounds again. When the track finally breaks into the jam after the third chorus, it’s a muffled start before Garcia’s guitar breaks through like a light in the dark and begins to guide the band through the improvisation. This section is really where the interplay between Hart and Kreutzmann is first prominent. The track ends abruptly with Pigpen’s organ and the final track on side one busts in. “Born Cross-eyed” is the shortest track on the album and the only “radio-friendly” tune. However, the experimentation on the track in both structure and instrumentation make it incredibly un-”radio-friendly”. The dark toned chorus is near impossible to hum. The rest of the group’s back-up singing and harmonies float in and around Weir’s voice making it difficult to tell who is the lead on the song. It breaks down into this wild organ-lead carnival tune that crescendos with spanish-style horns. The track oozes of influence from other bands at the time, sounding like The Byrds at some moments and the Jefferson Airplane at other times.

Side two begins with “Alligator” the first time Pigpen sings lead on this album. The melody is lead by the interplay between guitar and Phil Lesh on the kazoo. When the track breaks into the chorus, underneath layers of guitar, kazoo, and percussion, there is a melodic clarity by the piano. A third of the way into the song, it breaks down into an incredible drum jam with Hart and Kreutzmann and contains a great moment where Weir tells the audience, “Come on everybody, get up and dance”. “Alligator” really gets going once Garcia finds his groove amongst the drums and then prompts Lesh’s bass to kick the rest of the band in. By this point the song barely feels at all like the song it started as, but it works as being the best representation of who the band was in late ‘67 and early ‘68. Unlike “That’s It for the Other One” it doesn’t feel like a semi-planned studio track, it gives off the feeling of pure improv played at its finest. As a note, “Alligator” is the first track where Robert Hunter receives writing credit, which would be the first of many in his long career as the Dead’s lyricist. The track also leads right into the final track “Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks)” which feels like a blues jam right when it starts. The live sound of Pigpen’s microphone, mixed with the call and response of Garcia’s guitar or Weir’s voice put the listener right into the club there with them. The drums continue to push forward at a lightning pace as the listener can hear the tape speed up and whirl out of control. Returning, the jam feels lost and like no one is on the same page. However when everything feels erratic and lost, Garcia once again punches through the noise and brings them all careening towards a crescendo of feedback. Out of the rubble, is a mess of feedback akin to Jimi Hendrix humping a speaker at Monterey Pop Festival. Though upon first listen it sounds like noise, it becomes clear that the Dead were truly experimenting here. They produce sounds that belong in a distant future, a reality where humans live amongst the stars. The end of “Caution” acts as the transcendent crescendo of the album, sounding like it would fit it into the climax of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike Kubrick, the Dead don’t let Bowman wake up in a room. They leave the listener out in sonic emptiness as if they’ve reached the end of the universe and nothing was there.

Overall, this album really feels like a learning process for the Grateful Dead. They begin to experiment in studio recording, much like The Beatles did in Revolver. However instead of building up slowly in odd sounds and instrumentations like The Beatles, they stuff a full semester course into a four-week summer program. The band tests out their ability to blend bizarre sounds into their already pastiche style by featuring such instruments as the kazoo, glockenspiel, chimes, and finally by using their own pre-recorded live performances as an instrument. The album is a strong release for the band that had been so heavily shoehorned in their prior album. It’s an absolute breakout for the young Bob Weir as a singer and songwriter. It’s a first-of-its-kind experiment that proves successful at blending studio and live recordings. Anthem of the Sun is the Grateful Dead pushing the sonic limits of eight track tape recording. The album reflects the groups misfortunes however. The Grateful Dead released their debut album too early to cash-in on the promotion of the San Francisco sound in the Summer of 1967. Anthem of the Sun would come out too late as most established Rock & Roll groups had already released their most experimental works and began to ditch the psychedelic sound by July of 1968. As the year rolled on and the post-Summer of Love counterculture clutched its hold tighter on American Pop music, the Grateful Dead would continue to search for their sound once more before the end of the 1960s.

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