The Grateful Dead


Staff member
One of America’s genuinely deluxe music institutions, GRATEFUL DEAD were an unlikely bunch of post-psychedelic country-rockers on a mission to capture the hearts and minds of the globe, while delivering hours upon hours of live jam shows in double/triple/multi formats enough to sink another Titanic. Stalwarts JERRY GARCIA, BOB WEIR, PHIL LESH, MICKEY HART, ROBERT HUNTER and every passing “Deadhead” under the sun, epitomized hippie-dom and the flower-power movement – and kept the motor running for decades to come.

Formed in San Francisco, California in 1965, one could trace their long, strange trip back to the turn of the 60s, when guitarist/banjoist Jerry Garcia (having spent nine months in the army), performed country-folk songs with fellow plucker and future lyricist extraordinaire Robert Hunter in the Thunder Mountain Tub-Thumpers. Along the way, this loose collective of musicians included soon-to-be GRATEFUL DEAD members Bob Weir (on guitar) and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan (keyboards), although bluegrass-loving JG found studio time in ’63 to cut demos as the duo, Jerry & Sarah Garcia.

It wasn’t until ‘65 that the earliest incarnation of The GRATEFUL DEAD, The Warlocks, set out on their “golden road to unlimited gigging”, when they took centre stage as house band for novelist Ken Kesey’s legendary acid tests. Created by KK – the man behind “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” – and his band of merry pranksters, the main objective of these hallucinogenic shindigs was to bombard the tripping hordes with as much sensory overload as possible; flashing lights, pre-recorded chants, hidden speakers hissing subversive messages and, of course, the ear splitting racket of The Warlocks. With crowd and band liberally dosed with LSD courtesy of acid-meister Augustus Stanley III, the events were clearly a formative part of their career. By this time, the band had gone electric, inspired by the raucous rock’n’roll of The BEATLES, while bolstering the sound with drummer Bill Kreutzmann and bassist Phil Lesh; the latter to supersede Dana Morgan Jr.
Changing their group name to the equally hoary sounding The GRATEFUL DEAD (picked at random from a dictionary), the band toured California alongside JEFFERSON AIRPLANE. In 1966, Garcia and Co issued a one-off 45, `Stealin’’ (for Fantasy off-shoot label, Scorpio), which led to Warner Brothers signing them up almost immediately.

Recorded in three amphetamine-fuelled days, the David Hassinger-produced THE GRATEFUL DEAD (1967) {*6} was released to an expectant hippy faithful the following March, an admirable but ultimately doomed attempt to recreate their fabled live sound in the studio. Creating a curious melange of covers and trad cuts amidst the Garcia-scribed garage A/B sides, `The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)’ b/w `Cream Puff War’, their direction was probably closer to The DOORS or the British Invasion of a few years back. Whether The ANIMALS or YARDBIRDS could give SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON’s `Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ a greasier treatment was questionable, but one’ll never hear better modern arrangements of trad songs such as `Cold Rain And Snow’ and `New, New Minglewood Blues’, or for that matter, JESSE FULLER’s `Beat It On Down The Line’, Lonnie Chatmon’s `Sitting On Top Of The World’, TIM ROSE’s (and BONNIE DOBSON’s) `Morning Dew’; the 10-minute eclipse of Noah Lewis’s `Viola Lee Blues’, stretched the Top 75 album out to suit all parties concerned.

After an impromptu guest spot at one of their early shows, percussionist Mickey Hart augmented the band’s rhythm section, creating a more subtly complex rather than powerful sound. The group also recruited keyboardist Tom Constanten, whose avant-garde influences included John Cage and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Adding to the Dead’s psychedelic stew, these two recruits further inspired the band’s live improvisation, partly captured on ANTHEM OF THE SUN (1968) {*7}. An ambitious collage of live and studio pieces, the album was another flawed attempt to seize the essence of the elusive beast that was the band’s live show; it also marked the entrance of one Robert Hunter, who threw-in lyrics for Lesh and McKernan’s lengthy `Alligator’ and a subsequent non-album B-side, `Dark Star’ – later the theme for TV’s “The Twilight Zone”. Of the album itself, the band were far from country-rock, instead relying on ethereal wig-outs on the weird and wonderfully segmented side one tracks, `That’s It For The Other One’, The BEACH BOYS-on-speed-like, `New Potato Caboose’ and the CREAM-like `Born Cross-Eyed’.

The experimentation continued with the palindromic, AOXOMOXOA (1969) {*6}, Garcia’s old mucker Hunter marking his first full collaboration, and helping to contain the explorations inside defined song structures. Given free reign to explore studio techniques and equipment (including the Ampex MM-1000), the self-indulgent GRATEFUL DEAD allegedly ran up a 6-figure bill, however, it did boast a number of prime cuts in `St. Stephen’, `Cosmic Charlie’ and the celestial psychedelia of `Mountains Of The Moon’.

In debt up to their necks and willing now to encapsulate the band as they were on stage, their fourth Top 100 set, the double LIVE/DEAD (1969) {*7}, finally silenced the critics of their previous output, who still couldn’t understand why the band were held in such high esteem by their fiercely loyal San Franciscan fanbase. On the opening, 23-minute reading of `Dark Star’, the band crystallised their free-flowing improvisation in breath-taking style. More than matching its marathon proportions, back-to-back covers of `Turn On Your Love Light’ (made famous by both BOBBY “BLUE” BLAND and GENE CHANDLER) and the REV. GARY DAVIS’ `Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, were as dynamic as anything that rivals JEFFERSON AIRPLANE and BIG BROTHER & THE HOLDING COMPANY could muster. Attracting multitudes of tie-dyed freaks, affectionately nicknamed “Deadheads”, the GD’s gigs became communal gatherings, where both the crowd and band could lose themselves in the spaced-out jams which would often stretch songs over an hour or more. Forget 15 minutes of fame (as Andy Warhol once gave us all), the ‘Dead needed 15 minutes just for the intro!

Ironically the band’s next two studio albums marked a radical new direction with pared-down sets of harmony-laden country-folk. With Constanten out of the picture by early 1970 and mounting debts, the group went for a simpler sound, clearly influenced by CROSBY, STILLS & NASH and Garcia’s part-time pedal-steel dabbling with his collaborative NEW RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE.

Their first Top 30 entry, WORKINGMAN’S DEAD (1970) {*8}, was symptomatic of the times as bands began to move away from the psychedelic claustrophobia of the late 60s; note `New Speedway Boogie’ about the end of the hippy dream: the Altamont Festival at which a ROLLING STONES fan was killed by a drug-crazed Hell’s Angel. The commercially-tinged `Uncle John’s Band’ (a minor US hit) and the controversial `Casey Jones’ (drawing complaints from radio stations for its use of the lyrics: “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine”) were hardly contenders for the Grand Ol’ Opry, but they cared little as they blended their own rootsy concoctions.
The classic AMERICAN BEAUTY (1970) {*10} carried on where the previous album left off; `Box Of Rain’, `Friend Of The Devil’, `Sugar Magnolia’, `Candyman’, `Ripple’ and Hunter’s autobiographical `Truckin’’, all highlights of this highly-regarded piece of country-folk rock. Old-timey but just as effective, `Operator’, was Pigpen’s vocal ditty, while the LP also boasted the talents of auxiliary part-timers, David Grisman, Dave Torbert, Dave Nelson, Howard Wales and Ned Lagin – names that would grace the future solo exploits of the main members.

By February 1971, due to anomalous activities by his then manager-father, MICKEY HART chose to leave the band, who were reduced to five core members.
Two live albums followed, the double GRATEFUL DEAD (1971) {*7} – aka “Skull & Roses”) – and EUROPE ’72 (1972) {*8}, the latter stretching to three slabs of vinyl. The first of these tied in country-rock with R&B, centring mainly on two fresh Garcia-Hunter tracks, `Bertha’ and `Wharf Rat’, with covers ranging from MERLE HAGGARD’s `Mama Tried’, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON’s `Me And Bobbie McGee’ and JOHN PHILLIPS’ `Me & My Uncle’, to Noah Lewis’ `Big Railroad Blues’, CHUCK BERRY’s `Johnny B. Goode’ and Luther Dixon’s `Big Boss Man’; the encore was provided by a medley of BUDDY HOLLY’s `Not Fade Away’ and the traditional, `Goin’ Down The Road Feeling Bad’. Also hitting the Top 30, and outselling its predecessor, the triple-live set matched up all their best-ofs so far with a raft of renditions from the likes of BO DIDDLEY, The YOUNG RASCALS, HANK WILLIAMS, ELMORE JAMES, TIM ROSE, etc.

GARCIA, WEIR, and the departing HART had all released lucrative solo sets, but where and when was the next studio album to be released?
Years of alcohol abuse led to Ron “Pigpen” McKernan dying on March 8, 1973; liver failure was the coroner’s verdict – he was only 27. He was subsequently replaced by Keith Godchaux, who had toured with them the previous year; his wife Donna also joined, taking up vocal duties. Around this time the band set up their own label, imaginatively titled Grateful Dead Records, releasing WAKE OF THE FLOOD (1973) {*6}. The Top 20 album was their most successful to date, although ironically, profits were lost to bootleggers. Still, Garcia and Hunter were back in fine fettle on the melancholic, `Stella Blue’ and the WINGS-like `Here Comes Sunshine’, while jazz-improv was the order of the day through lengthy ERIC ANDERSEN/BOB WEIR/John Perry Barlow collaboration, `Weather Report Suite’.
FROM THE MARS HOTEL (1974) {*7} was a delicately docile and fragilely funky set, combining country-rock pieces by Lesh and Bobby Petersen (`Unbroken Chain’ and `Pride Of Cucamonga’) with Garcia & Hunter’s `U.S. Blues’, `China Doll’ and the cod-reggae of `Scarlet Begonias’. ROBERT HUNTER’s lyrical contributions were subsequently tailing off as he too, went the solo way; but he maintained input on future recordings.

BLUES FOR ALLAH (1975) {*7}, signalled a jazzier, fuller sound, the returning Mickey Hart and Co spiriting themselves away from country and folk music; the group-penned title track (clocking in at 12 minutes), `King Solomon’s Marbles’ and `Help On The Way – Slipknot!’, very much in the mould of MILES DAVIS, `Franklin’s Tower’ a funky pop exception.

By this juncture the band were in financial deep water, resulting in their reluctant signature with United Artists. The source of much of their money problems was a concert movie which ate up most of their resources. STEAL YOUR FACE! (1976) {*5} was next in line and was intended for “The Grateful Dead (Movie)”, although the film went straight-to-video due to the double album’s relative critical and commercial failure; covers of JOHNNY CASH’s `Big River’, MARTY ROBBINS’ `El Paso’, plus CHUCK BERRY’s `The Promised Land’ and `Around And Around’, were hardly cohesive and gelling, and fans would wait a long, long time before the movie soundtrack itself was released in 5-CD format.

Signing to Arista Records and drafting in veteran Keith Olsen on production duties, GRATEFUL DEAD released mainstream-baiting TERRAPIN STATION (1977) {*4}, an album which showcased a lusher, fuller sound and cringe-worthy covers of MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS’ `Dancing In The Streets’ and the trad-sourced `Samson & Delilah’; its only saviour stemming from the obligatory epic title track.

For 1978’s SHAKEDOWN STREET {*4}, the band collaborated with LOWELL GEORGE, and what could have been an interesting pairing, came out sounding limp and uninspiring; a pale reflection of what the ‘Dead were capable of. A mix ’n’ match of different musical angles, their insistence to fire off Donna Jean Godchaux as a disco star (`From The Heart Of Me’ on this occasion) and the re-vamping of old tracks (`Good Lovin’’ and Hart’s “Happiness Is Drumming” re-title, `Fire On The Mountain’) were appreciated by only the few.

Despite the inconsistent quality of their studio work, GD were always a safe live bet and they played the gig to surely top all gigs with their series of dates at the Pyramids in Egypt. Still carrying a hippy torch (even through the punk days), they filled large venues wherever they played and became a multi-million dollar industry in their own right.

However, as they concentrated on live work, their studio outings suffered, their 1980 album GO TO HEAVEN {*2} being particularly disappointing, although it spawned a rare success in the US singles chart with `Alabama Getaway’. Dressed in heavenly white suits on the cover and joined by Munich-born keyboard-player Brent Mydland (who’d replaced both Godchaux’s), the ‘Dead sounded all washed up; they even went as far as to reprise a B-side from ’66, `Don’t Ease Me In’; sadly, Keith was killed in a car crash on July 26, 1980.

Another two double-live albums followed in relatively quick succession, an acoustic set of “unplugged” golden grates, RECKONING (1981) {*7} and the “electric” DEAD SET (1981) {*5}; the latter attempting to re-kindle WILLIE DIXON’s `Little Red Rooster’.

Soon afterwards, Garcia became a full-blown heroin addict, narrowly escaping death when he fell into a diabetic coma in July 1986. Group activities had been put on hold while the man recovered from self-indulgent drug-taking and junk-food supplements; pianist Merl Saunders would help him perform rudimentary pieces of music to whet his aspirations once again.

Once he’d rehabilitated, the `Dead came back to life with IN THE DARK (1987) {*6}, a spirited set that reached the Top 10 in the US chart, even resulting in a top selling 45, `Touch Of Grey’. Their tribute to growing old with pride, it was a first when the band agreed to make a video for MTV.

The awful “Dylan & The Dead” (yes with thee Mr. Zimmerman) was muted and dull, as was the equally droll studio 1989 offering, BUILT TO LAST {*3}.
Tragedy hit the band yet again, when Brent Mydland was killed by a hard drugs cocktail. BRUCE HORNSBY (yes, that solo geezer with The Range) was drafted in temporarily for touring commitments, while Vince Welnick joined full-time. The band released yet another live triple-album (double-CD) the same year, the hardly dangerous WITHOUT A NET (1990) {*6}, and also started issuing the “Dick’s Picks” series of archive recordings from great days of yore.

On August 9, 1995, the ailing JERRY GARCIA died of heart failure in a rehab unit after his arteries clogged up. It seemed inevitable that the long strange trip of the GRATEFUL DEAD had come to an end, Jerry’s guiding light relocating to find his “Dark Star” once again. The Dead left behind a rich musical legacy, including numerous solo outings and off-shoot projects, but will always be remembered, by the Deadheads at least, for their transcendental live performances. Weir, Hart and Lesh re-formed a new “Deadhead” outfit, The OTHER ONES, along with long-time associates, Hornsby (piano/vocals), Mark Karan (guitar/vocals), Steve Kimock (guitar), John Molo (drums) and Davis Ellis (sax), delivering a surprise live double-package, THE STRANGE REMAIN (1999) {*6}, that just bubbled under the Top 100. If one needed telling, the record revised former golden GRATEFUL DEAD nuggets with ease – you name it (`St. Stephen’, `Friend Of The Devil’, `Playing In The Band’, et al, they’re all here.

Spreading their groovy gospel by way of a plethora of multi-CD concert sets from the vaults, GRATEFUL DEAD had embraced fans old and new throughout recent times (“Dick’s Picks” et al), and it was therefore a breath of fresh air when a series of anniversary concerts were announced early 2015. While the initial sold-out performances took place on June 27 and 28 that year at California’s Santa Clara Levi Stadium, the audio and visual equipment seemed to be in full flow at Chicago, Ilinois’ Soldier Field a week later (July 3rd/4th/5th), the results of which were delivered late November in a number of formats. Dismissing a limited-edition, bank-busting dozen CD-set (+ DVD’s to boot), and concentrating on both a 3xCD set entitled FARE THEE WELL: CELEBRATING 50 YEARS OF GRATEFUL DEAD {*6} and THE BEST OF FARE THEE WELL… {*7}, weary discographers baulked; the latter was a more accessible double-CD to which fans bought into (Top 50 in fact). Joining Weir, Hart, Kreutzmann and Lesh on stage were ‘Dead worthies Bruce Hornsby (keyboards), Jeff Chimenti (keyboards) and PHISH’s Trey Anastasio (lead guitar), while one imagined the legendary GARCIA was looking down in approval? Dead & Company (without Lesh, Hornsby and Anastasio), toured at the turn of the new year; their off-shoot of previous live ventures, The Dead and Furthur.

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