The Grateful Dead became the biggest American band in history while remaining part of the counterculture, Getintthis’ Andy Holland attempts to discover why.
If there is any one band that seemingly captures the whole hippy, counter-cultural aesthetic it has to be The Grateful Dead.
Their status is on an almost mythological level, which can make it difficult to separate fact from legend, from reality, from hallucination.
The Grateful Dead have always been paradoxical though.
This is a band whose reputation was based primarily on live performance; they jammed relentlessly and improvised freely with a profound unwillingness to show any compliance to the demands of ‘the man’, lest they become ‘some kinda sell out’. Yet the catch is that there is now an entire business-model based on their career and managers in the music business employ it to lucrative effect.
How did this happen?
The Grateful Dead seemed to have such a lax attitude to the business that it probably defies logic that they made any money at all. They were famously blasé about fans recording their live sets, and even actively encouraged it and built a whole a community around themselves.
Fans could even directly plug into the band’s equipment to make sure that their recordings were of the very best quality. A whole bootleg industry grew up around them. Now those fan recordings have become commercially available as part of the band’s back catalogue; ‘reissues’ for all intents and purposes.
The band even had a history of being extremely lenient about the right to use their image, artwork, and logos. Onstage, band members were more likely to wear bootleg t-shirts than the official versions. Despite all of that they became the most successful US band in history while Jerry Garcia was still alive. Indeed, a whole industry became based around The Grateful Dead, who are perhaps now more famous for their ice-cream – which seems a long way from acid-drenched psychedelic rock.
It was not always thus. Firstly there is the band’s name. We’re all used to it now but in the 60s it was unprecedented for a band to call itself something so nightmarish and raw, particularly during a time when people were genuinely fearful of imminent nuclear apocalypse having just lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Grateful Dead (usually shortened to The Dead) seemed to be a very dark name for a band and it conjures up lots of powerful imagery; it has been the gift that keeps on giving to the artists who create the band’s artwork, which has become some of the most memorable in rock’s history. This has definitely been a huge help for the band who were never the best looking bunch of lads – they certainly needed a strong image that would attract fans.
Another drawback that they had was that none of the band were particularly good singers. Vocalist and keyboard-player Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan’s voice was convincing on some of the bands more bluesy material, but his tuning was never that reliable, and his heavy drinking only made that worse (he typically drank cheap wine like Thunderbird and Ripple too).
Bob Weir had a voice that was most suited to country-blues but it wasn’t particularly outstanding. The band’s de facto leader, Jerry Garcia’s vocals had the most character, but they tended towards the thin and reedy; a more fragile version of Roger McGuinn’s vocals.
It was such a problem that their debut album’s producer Dave Hassinger complained to their label, Warner Brothers that none of the band could sing. He needn’t have worried though, because none of their fans cared. Furthermore, Jerry Garcia in particular, had charisma to burn and would become a mythological counterculture figure in his own right. He became spoken of in the same reverential tones as beatnik, outlaw heroes like Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs.
It is worth mentioning at this point that the band’s native San Francisco played a huge part in their development. The acid-rock bands of the city sounded very different to those from those in Los Angeles, much heavier and less rooted in pop. One reason for this it that the clubs in the Bay area tended to be larger, remodelled old ballrooms and bands were expected to play long sets that the audience could dance to. This resulted in Bay area bands being associated with long-winded songs and loud amplification.
They looked a lot different too. Hippies from the city became associated with art deco/nouveau, feather boas, and faded Hollywood glamour. This was partly because such clothing was cheap and easy to find in the junk shops around the city. The same thrift shops had old records in them, some were old blues, folk, country, and other were jugband music. Most San Franciscan musicians started out in jugbands or similar. Before becoming involved in what would become The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia’s main instrument was bluegrass banjo which he was highly proficient at.
Few would dispute that Garcia was that rarest of things; the complete musician, who had the ability to play multiple instruments to an extravagantly high standard and was thus truly ‘in it for the music’. His drive to play it, particularly the weird old American kind, was the only real constant in his life. He seemed very likeable too, with an offbeat, self-deprecating sense of humour.
It’s impossible to talk about The Grateful Dead without mentioning the drug that they were associated with; LSD. Of course, the whole of the psychedelic rock movement was inspired by the effects of the drug, but no band was more synonymous with it than The Dead. This was largely as a consequence of their benefactor being Owsley Stanley, who was the West Coast’s biggest supplier of LSD.
The drug maintained the band in the early days and also catapulted them into the annals of counter-cultural history; the band – called The Warlocks at the time – provided the live soundtrack to the so-called Acid Tests that The Merry Pranksters organised. The event became so infamous that the legend ‘Drink the Kool Aid’ was born and still exists today.
Therefore, even before they even had any records out, The Grateful Dead already had counter-cultural baggage. People were expecting a lot from their first album, particularly in their native San Francisco. In many ways it is the least typical of the band and barring a few tracks they were unsatisfied with it.
Part of the problem was their freewheeling stage performances were ill-suited to the recording studios of the time, it confused the producers the producers and engineers they worked with who were looking for conventional rock singles. Despite having a lot in common with fellow San Franciscans Jefferson Airplane, The Dead didn’t have anything like Somebody To Love or White Rabbit in their set. This may have been something to do with their lack of vocal prowess, which was something they didn’t really address until the early 70s.
These shortcomings aside though, their eponymously titled debut is still a classic of its time. Plenty of what would come to define The Dead is there in its grooves and they already sounded completely unique, with their undulating, swirly rhythm section and Garcia’s lightning fast, bluegrass-inspired lead runs. The band’s fascination with Americana was also already noticeable.
The most evident thing about the album is that, in contrast to most of The Dead’s recordings, practically everything on their 1967 debut sounds as if it is being played far too fast. The first track, Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion) is a case in point. The lead vocalist on this track was Jerry Garcia and pace of it seems frantic and scratchy, making it musically quite messy.
Pigpen’s organ on the intro sounds like a demented organ-grinder at a fairground, and the whole thing ends with on a dissonant chord and some nasty feedback. It’s hard to tell if the crash landing at the end was intentional or not, given that the band seem to be fumbling through the whole song as fast as they can, but it seems to work. Mainly because the song seems too bright and breezy for The Dead and the sour note seems appropriate and ominous. The title of the track bears little or relation to the contents of the vocal on the track.
It’s an unusual song for The Dead, because it has always reminded me of the punkish sort of material that Lenny Kaye compiled together on the Nuggets double-album, given that has a garage band feel to it, which is untypical of the band (Cold Rain And Snow on this album has it too).
It also has a very Summer Of Love hippy-pop atmosphere and even has a ‘come and party’ invitation in the chorus, which suggests that the band might have been coerced into writing it. Thankfully The Dead stopped of asking you to ‘wear some flowers in your hair’. Despite the writer’s credit, it may not have been entirely a Dead original, though, it has been suggested that it may have been adapted from a jug-band song that they used to play in their early days, called Stealin’.
Beat It On Down The Line is sung by Bob Weir, and it is essentially a Texas blues style song, again played at a frantic pace. The Dead sound very country here for a rock band of this period and it could be argued that they were one of the first bands to show that ‘country rock’ could be a marketable thing. One of the strengths of the band was their ability to be able to adapt a wide variety of American styles while still sounding like themselves.
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl is the first Pigpen vehicle. Needless to say, the contents of the lyrics would be contentious today but at the time the song was a blues staple, originally recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson, revived by Don and Bob in 1961, and then in 1964 The Yardbirds had a watered-down hit with it. The Dead slowed the whole thing down and made it sound far more sleazy and sinister. Pigpen was a competent blues-shouter and he could provide a lot of entertainment; judging by this he had considerable charisma too. His harmonica playing here was also very impressive. The baby-boomer sexual politics on this track are pretty nasty by present day attitudes; ‘I’m a-gonna put a tiger, baby, in your sweet little tank!’ YUCK!
The tempo is much more suited to The Grateful Dead’s fluid rhythmic style and it is the first time on the album that they sound comfortable. The rhythm-section is sinuous and moves like a snake, changing emphases to meet the demands of the soloists.
Drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, and bassist, Phil Lesh, had an unorthodox, intuitive style which was partly based on jazz, but both had a fascination with the avant-garde too. This came across in their playing; they were never afraid to take risks which more often than not worked.
This was the first track that demonstrated to the world The Dead’s formidable improvisational techniques and the seemingly effortless way that each member could instinctively adapt their playing to suit the rest, even mirroring off-the-cuff licks and musical phrases.
Jerry Garcia returns to the vocals on Cold Wind And Snow. This is a song that The Grateful Dead returned to again and again throughout their career so they obviously had a fondness for it. It is essentially the band’s own arrangement of a jug-band song.
Garcia sings it well in a melancholy way and provides a deep, rather countrified twangy guitar figure that recurs throughout the track. The heavy vibrato he uses is also striking; it combines with Pigpen’s organ to unsettling effect and does indeed reflect the chilliness of the lyrical subject matter.
The peak comes in the instrumental section which reveals the band in showing off mode, playing a relatively complex musical pattern in unison, which, although short, is very memorable. After that, the track seems to speed up. There is an audible mistake on the drums (did Kreutzmann drop a stick?) halfway through the final verse, it is recovered quickly, though.
Garcia also sings on Sitting On Top Of The World, which was originally written and recorded by The Mississippi Sheiks in 1930, who were the archetypal jugband. It was a popular country blues song and another that The Grateful Dead played at a breakneck pace on their debut album. It seems to primarily present to showcase Garcia’s guitar playing, which is very flashy on this track.
Cream Puff War is a very unpromising title but it’s better than it suggests. It’s again sung by Garcia and is even a Garcia original. The song seems to be modelled on the arrangements of Hey Joe which were commonly being played by Californian bands of the period, for example; The Leaves, Love (it’s particularly similar to theirs), and so on. It does hint at what was to come with The Dead though, because it changes time signature briefly, slipping into a slightly Elizabethan three-to-the-bar section on the chorus.
The lyrics have an anti-war theme (or is about a couple breaking up?) and Garcia actually sings it pretty well. His guitar solo is really good, even playing what I’d guess is an homage to Link Wray on the intro. Pigpen’s organ riff is distinctive and the rhythm section is psychedelic rock at its best.
Morning Dew was written by Canadian folk singer Bonnie Dobson. Being about the world post-nuclear holocaust it suited The Grateful Dead down to the ground and they would include it in their sets frequently. Garcia sings it a melodramatic fashion and the whole band create a mesmerizingly hypnotic backdrop. Pigpen’s organ is funereal as if it’s drifting out of a deserted cathedral. The chords from the guitars chime like church bells sounding a death knell.
The slow pace of the track seems to be more comfortable for the band too. It provides adequate space for their musical inventiveness. The Dead always worked best when they could work with the dynamics of a song, finding its emotional depth and working together as a unit to express it. Few rock bands could function in such a supple and flexible way and that’s what marked The Dead out from the start. They could be roaring like thunder one moment and be extremely subtle the next.
Morning Dew is the first track The Dead recorded which truly showed their emotional range. Garcia’s guitar solo on it is magnificent but it wouldn’t have worked half as well if the band hadn’t been able to compliment it so well. None of the band seemed to want to overshadow the other, despite having accomplished soloists in the line-up egos were well and truly kept in check.
New, New Minglewood Blues was yet another jug-band blues song, this time written by Noah Lewis. Bob Weir sang it and it has an engaging Pigpen keyboard riff throughout. It offers light relief after Morning Dew and is similar in mood to Cream Puff War. The beat has a rhythm and blues feel and Bob Weir even goes ‘Huh!’ occasionally to confirm it.
Viola Lee Blues was another jug-band tune written by Noah Lewis and it was the first song that The Dead turned into a massive freeform jam. The song was about sentences being handed down in an old-time courtroom and it fascinated the whole of the band, in particular, Jerry Garcia whose obsession with antiquated folk-blues ephemera would never leave him. The lyrics are hard to hear because of the mix and the vernacular they are written in.
Both Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia sang the song in unison and it begins at rather a slow, lazy pace. The whole track sounds rather stoned at the beginning, with slurred guitar phrases and a stuttering rhythm. This laziness is deceptive though because the band jump into immaculately timed, angular pick-ups and triplets. The drumming has a jazzy feel, and there seems to be a standard walking bass that follows it – however, this being The Dead neither player does it conventionally and occasionally wander off into more melodic, random structures.
The guitars and keyboard start off fairly choppy but as the track develops break off into freer movement. The first guitar solo is relatively conventional except for a repetitive circular guitar lick which Garcia plays; the whole band groove on it hypnotically, building a considerable amount of attention.
Garcia was one of the first guitarists to play dotted patterns that left ‘traces’ behind them. In fact, that was the aim of the whole band; to reproduce ‘trips’ when they played. This track is best understood that way; when the band begin to build up into the ‘freak out’ section, the effect is very unlike the sort of thing The Who or The Yardbirds were doing only a year before. What those bands were doing were amphetamine-fueled rave-ups, The Dead were attempting to change people’s entire consciousness. This may have been naive but they felt they were on a mission.
What is heard here is an example of acid-rock at its most raw but The Grateful Dead were one of the earliest and finest exponents of it. Each member of the band seems to instinctively follow the other in a serious of repeated musical licks and rhythmic phrases, which all seem to interconnect seamlessly, building upon each other. The music hits you like a rush, becoming more and more intense until it seems to erupt into a pillar of feedback, breaks down and finds the original groove of the song again, and then the band repeats the final verse.
By that time most of the instruments sound slightly out of tune, but it’s little wonder, given how furiously the instrumental was played. What this does confirm is that the whole thing was performed live.
Another amazing about it is how closely the instrumental section resembles Acid House, which arrived twenty years later. Of course, that similarity is only cosmetic since The Dead were a rock band and house music was synth-based, but it’s there all the same. Both types of music were attempting to mimic the effect of a drug, relied on repetition, and were designed to encourage social interaction.
The Grateful Dead would always struggle to capture their live sound on record. On their second album, Anthem Of The Sun, they would ambitiously attempt to segue live performances into those recorded into those recorded in the studio, but the experiment proved to be hit and miss. The venture wasn’t helped by the fact that the band were using two drummers at the time; an exciting prospect live but in the studio, each struggled to play in time the other. For the first time, they experimented with modernist music, influenced by John Cage. The results were what Garcia called a ‘sound collage’, rather than what was expected from rock music at the time. The album remains a classic of its time, even if some of it is a little too dense, mix-wise.
Their third album on Warners, Aoxomoxoa, is considered the best of their 60s studio albums. It was recorded on 16-track which seems to have more adequately suited the band’s requirements. There were things about it that Kreutzmann didn’t think worked, feeling that it encouraged the band to spent too long overdubbing instruments, such as; harpsichords, a choir, and so on. He explains this by claiming that the band were ‘on the sonic frontier’, pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved with recorded sound at the time.
It is telling that the first album the band successfully recorded in the studio would eschew psychedelic rock and its attendant experimentalism entirely in favour of country rock (for Workingman’s Dead and the similar American Beauty). They even went as far as enlisting Crosby, Still and Nash to teach them how to harmonise. This might appear cynical until one considers that the band started out playing that sort of music anyway, and so it was a natural thing for them to do.
The band would continue to perform acid rock at its finest throughout their entire career, with country blues always alongside it. They even flirted with disco for a while. It was all just music to The Grateful Dead.