Grateful Dead – Aoxomoxoa (1969)

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1969 would prove itself to be an interesting year in music. Most notably, American culture would remember the music festivals at Woodstock and Altamont. However within the music recorded in late ’68/early ’69 and released throughout that year, there is a stripping down of psychedelia. The Beatles would learn from their prior experimentations and release interesting rock/pop records The Beatles (1968) and Abbey Road (1969). The Rolling Stones ripped off their psychedelic facade and returned to their blues and rock roots on Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969). Few artists would continue to experiment with psychedelic music and new genres of music would be explored in pop culture. Newly formed groups like Crosby, Stills, and Nash, The Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival would release their first albums and foray into Folk-Rock and Americana. Once again though, the Grateful Dead would be just behind everyone else with their 1969 album, Aoxomoxoa.

The Grateful Dead entered the studio in September of 1968 and would spend the next eight months working on Aoxomoxoa before its release in July of 1969. Those eight months produced an album that comes in around 40 minutes in length across only eight tracks. Aoxomoxoa would prove to be an interesting release in the overall discography, it ditches the prior approach the band had to recording in favor of shorter length, radio-friendly songs. The eight tracks were all written by Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter with the exception of the first track, “St. Stephen” which was co-authored by the duo and bassist Phil Lesh. The album also comes off as bizarre due to the band’s new recording process. The group had access to a new 16-track recording system which gave them greater freedom and ability to experiment. However, that would force the band to stay in the studio for much longer and accrue a greater studio bill for Warner Bros. Records.

The Grateful Dead in Novato, CA 1969. (L-R, T-B: Bob Weir, Tom Constanten, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Phil Lesh, and Mickey Hart.) © Rosie McGee

Despite all this, the album works as a reflection of what the band was going through at the time. As they continued to delve deeper into looking for their sound and define who they were, each track in this album feels like a distinct recording. The album kicks off with “St. Stephen” which is a fairly straight up psychedelic rock song. The 16 track recording becomes noticeable as more of the instruments, like the piano on this track, don’t disappear into the mix like they had on prior Dead records. The way the melody breaks down into the guitar and chime driven bridge, portray how the Dead learned how to incorporate the odd sounds they explored on their previous album into a more palatable track. Though Garcia leads the vocals, the entire song is kicked up a notch when Weir breaks in with his vocal harmony. Despite the strong start, the song collapses near the end, as if they were going to improvise on the track but weren’t all the same page, Instead the track fades out leaving the feeling that something was missing.

The next two tracks on Side One, “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” and “Rosemary” are interesting blends of psychedelia and folk. “Dupree’s Diamond Blues” is an organ-lead tune that drums up the feeling of being at a Carnival. “Rosemary” is a short acoustic track with lute-like guitar playing and a whirring effect on Garcia’s vocals. This track serves as a good transition into “Doing that Rag”. The track is quite literally a ragtime song done in a rock style. The song is lead by the organ and drums while the guitars take a backseat until the chorus. Jerry’s vocals again become the focal point where he really pushes himself to hit high notes, then crooning at others. It proves to be a fascinating song overall with so many changes in pace and pitch, making it a technically difficult song to play but easy to sing along. “Mountains of the Moon” returns the band to the acoustic guitars. The melody is lead by Tom Constanten’s harpsichord playing which give the track a baroque style. What separates this track from tracks by other musicians like The Beach Boys, who were incorporating the Baroque style of music into their own a few years prior, is that Hunter’s lyrics echo those of an old time folk tune, placing the listener in a near forgotten era of music.

Side two begins with “China Cat Sunflower” which would become a staple for the band’s live performances and still is today. Again Jerry’s vocal effects have a psychedelic whirring. The lyrics are generic hippy fare. The rest of the group harmonizes behind Garcia, pushing his vocals to the forefront. The star of this song, however, is his guitar which plays an intricate melody that so seamlessly transitions into soloing. The next track however is absolutely jarring and is certainly the most experimental release the Dead had up to this point. “What’s Become of the Baby” is eight minutes of pulling teeth. The track contains no music or melody of any kind. It sounds as though Garcia spent eight minutes high on whippets, spinning in circles, whining nonsensical lyrics through a megaphone, all the while the rest of band stood 100 yards away with a boom microphone. This track is near unlistenable today and even Yoko Ono wouldn’t have found this track to be artsy enough to be avant garde. Despite this absolute dip in the album, “Cosmic Charlie” picks up the pieces and brings everything back in. The twanging country style guitars and Americana-inspired lyrics serve as a hint to where the Dead would be heading in their next iteration.

Aoxomoxoa ends giving listeners much insight into the Grateful Dead. The album is that of a psychedelic rock band, stripping away their sound, and finding their new direction. It’s a transition album that works as a bridge to the band that the Grateful Dead would be throughout the Seventies. The track “Cosmic Charlie” would best sum up what was next for the Grateful Dead when Hunter finished the song with, “Go on home, your Momma’s calling you…” Soon after, the Dead would “go on home” and find their biggest success to date.

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