Following the release of the 1976 album, Terrapin Station, the Grateful Dead continued to hit the road as always. Having returned from their near two year hiatus, the group found their groove throughout 1977, performing at what many consider their best shows. Continuing to push boundaries, the Dead would also plan and play three nights in Egypt, in front of the Great Pyramids. These shows, which coincided with a total lunar eclipse, would prove to be the Grateful Dead and their most Grateful Dead, doing what others would never do, following the music off the beaten path, and being plagued with technical issues so the live recordings wouldn’t come to fruition for 30 years. The band continued to always screw up the big ones, so they moved on to finishing their next studio album.
By the end of 1978, the Grateful Dead was taking influences from the soft rock and disco that pervaded the airwaves. The band couldn’t be less on the same page. The core group began to resent Keith Godchaux for his lazy playing and difficulty to work with. They would bring in another outside producer, Lowell George from Little Feats, to produce their record. The resulting project, 1978’s Shakedown Street, continues in Dead tradition to make studio works that are completely out of left field.
The first side of Shakedown Street begins with the track, “Good Lovin’.” The fun, upbeat song is a cover that was first made famous The Young Rascals, reaching number one on the Billboard charts in 1966. Nearly 13 years after it was written, the Grateful Dead inject the tune with fresh blood, giving it a slightly harder edge and more modern instrumentation. It’s a great way to kick off the album and Weir’s vocals are inviting. The album takes an immediate left turn afterwards, with “France,” a Weir and Donna Godchaux-led track. The Caribbean-influenced percussion is an interesting departure from the group who seem to never stick to one schtick. Mickey Hart’s influence is clear and while his style lends itself to distinctive songs, “France” is a clear miss. The yacht-rock tune features sub-par lyrics by Robert Hunter, particularly the first line, “way down in the south of France all the ladies love to dance.” After four minutes of mediocrity, the band shifts into the title track, “Shakedown Street.” The Dead-meets-Disco song is once again, a foray into new sounds for the group. Garcia’s vocals are welcoming, considering he only appeared on one track on the previous album. Hunter’s lyrics are catchy and light, despite describing the urban decay of the inner city.
Following the title track the first side begins its conclusion with the instrumental, “Serengetti.” The aptly named song is inspired by African Rhythms. At just over two minutes, the track works at transporting its listeners into a new sonic space for just long enough to stay intrigued. Concluding side one, The Dead rip into their now classic tune, “Fire on the Mountain.” The writing features a unique partnership, Hart and Hunter. The song is catchy with touches of disco and funk, yet it’s secretly complex. The percussion and Phil Lesh’s bass line push the melody forward, but it’s a melody that is not simple enough to whistle. This allows the simple hook and easy going solo from Garcia to become so much more powerful.
After the flip of the record, the Dead return to rocking on “I Need a Miracle.” The ZZ-Top-esque track is a big blues rocker where Weir brings his power to the lead vocals. John Perry Barlow’s lyrics are hilarious, describing the impossible woman that Weir wants to be with. It’s a decent song, but overly dated now, and only really is notable to this day because of the Deadheads’ usage of the term “miracle” for when they are gifted a free ticket to a show. The track is succeeded by “From the Heart of Me,” a funky ballad written and performed by Donna Godchaux. It’s a forgettable track, with a boring vocal performance. This song should have been on solo album by Donna, so no one would have to attribute it to the Grateful Dead. However, the group picks it back up on “Stagger Lee.” The Americana track is a return to the sound that brought them so much success at the turn of the decade.
The Grateful Dead once again go back to a cover on “All New Minglewood Blues.” The song is a rework of “New, New Minglewood Blues” which appeared on their debut album. The updated sound features a slowed down tempo, more full-bodied tones in the guitars and bass, and a new verse. The omitted organs and Weir’s new vocals show how much has changed in the past 11 years since its original release. Pigpen’s death was over five years prior and they’ve all grown up so much. It’s a reminder that they are no longer that small band playing at Ken Kesey’s Acid Tests and running around Haight-Ashbury. No clearer is the band’s overall growth and expansion into different sonic avenues than in the final track on Shakedown Street, “If I Had the World to Give.” The Garcia/Hunter soft rock ballad is full of sweet percussion and lite piano playing. Garcia and Hunter’s approach to the romantic tune shows their prowess as writers, adding a whole new genre to their discography. The song is particularly beautiful in the bridge when Garcia sings, “I may not have the world to give to you, but maybe I have a tune or two.” Hearing Garcia and Hunter produce a track so different than any of their prior work is no new trend for the duo, but reaching into subject matter that’s more deeply personal and coming out with a ballad that’s better than most at the time is truly incredible.
On the Grateful Dead’s tenth studio album, they approach the end of a prolific decade. Unfortunately the record serves a reflection of the group in their state in 1978. Despite the great live shows of 1977, tensions were high and the drug abuse was getting worse in the group. The album is disjointed, featuring at two absolute missteps by Donna, and strays away from what the Grateful Dead do best. The production by Lowell George has moments that sound lower quality than some of the group’s live albums and it comes as no surprise the George passed away only months after the record’s release from drug abuse issues of his own. Despite all this, there are these shining moments like “Shakedown Street”, “Fire on the Mountain”, and “All New Minglewood Blues”, where the Grateful Dead deliver.
Released in late 1978, Shakedown Street would be the last record by the group in the ‘70s. It would also be the last studio record featuring Keith and Donna, who would leave the group in February of 1979. However as the group entered their 15th year and the ‘80s began, they would soon find some of their greatest success.