THE GRATEFUL DEAD
The late '70's version of the Dead
The Dead at 50: A Fresh Look at Their Old Studio Records
by Tony Sclafani
"Sometimes you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right" – The Grateful Dead, "Scarlet Begonias."
Let's admit this upfront: the Grateful Dead's studio albums don't get many people excited. Deadheads generally prefer to listen to old concerts and rock listeners don't count the band's records as innovative or interesting as those of most other classic rock bands.
The band's 50th anniversary and announcement of a reunion though, offers a good reason to take a second listen to the band's oeuvre and question why it's considered mediocre. In all, the group put out 13 studio albums: three in the 1960s, eight in the 1970's, and two in the 1980s. Their first two LPs of the 1970's, Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, are rated highly by just about everyone, while their comeback album from 1987, In the Dark, sold enough to belatedly make them a hot commercial property. Beyond that, most other Dead albums don't get much praise.
There are a bunch of reasons for that. The main one is that their fans came to listen to them like jazz musicians more than rock artists. Instead of prizing production and studio gloss, Deadheads revel in the improvisation and spontaneity. But like "Scarlet Begonias" says, sometimes you can find revelations in unexpected places.
Most of the Dead's recordings aren't predictable or cookie-cutter and have a low-key personality all their own. They could create a spiritual vibe (the majestic fade-out of "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo"), spin subtle grooves (Blues for Allah), and harmonize better than they did on stage. This especially goes for Donna Jean Godchaux, who started as a session singer and is best heard in this setting.
One of the many reasons Dead albums get little respect is the group didn't start out on a brilliant note, like the Velvet Underground or Frank Zappa. Most of their self-titled debut comes off as standard garage band fare. The follow up, Anthem of the Sun, was half-baked, with an ambitious song suite on its first side and an uninspired experiment in blending live and studio recordings on its second.
But starting with their third album, the group became great on record – and stayed great through six straight albums. The first must-have Dead LP is their pop psychedelic opus from 1969, Aoxomoxoa. This is the album where the songwriting partnership of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter came together, and that immediately put the band among rock's heavy hitters with songs like "St. Stephen," "Dupree's Diamond Blues," and "China Cat Sunflower." Intricate arrangements and intelligent keyboard work by short-lived member Tom Constanten give it a sonic quality unique to Dead discs.
Two more first-rate LPs followed with the aforementioned Workingman's Dead and American Beauty. A lot has been written about these albums and how they influenced '70s-era acoustic rock, and they live up to their reputations with shimmering acoustic guitars, resonant harmonies, and a plethora of great tunes ("Uncle John's Band," "Truckin,'" "Sugar Magnolia"). These were the albums that finally earned the Dead some real chart success and put them on the map commercially. Their singing never sounded better and you'll be hard-pressed to find acoustic guitars recorded more beautifully.
But after this crucial juncture of their career, the Dead failed to deliver a follow up effort and let three years slip by without a studio release (an eternity in those days). Instead, they parceled out lots of great new songs over the course of two multi-disc live albums and put the rest on solo albums by Garcia (his self-titled album) and Bob Weir (Ace).
They cultivated their cult, in other words. It's hard to complain too much, since one of those live albums was the beloved Europe '72 , but by the time the group dropped their next album, Wake of the Flood, in 1973 the style of music with which they were associated was going out of fashion and reviews were less than celebratory.
This is ironic, because Wake of the Flood now seems like the album that best defines their classic sound. There are slow, loping grooves, probing leads by Garcia and new keyboardist Keith Godchaux, and soulful harmonies by Donna Jean. It's a quirky LP that won't appeal to everyone, but mass appeal wasn't necessarily the goal of most '70s rockers who specialized in "album rock." The aforementioned "Mississippi Half-Step," "Stella Blue," and "Weather Report Suite" are all quintessential studio moments.
The same went for the next album, From the Mars Hotel, a fan favorite featuring two songs by seldom-heard from bassist Phil Lesh and a handful of classics in "U.S. Blues," "China Doll," "Scarlet Begonias" and "Ship of Fools." Play it now, and it almost sounds like a greatest hits album. What's more, the studio effects not only enhance the songs, but add a dimension that fans couldn't get in concert.
So that's five "must-have" studio albums in a row – equal or better to the track record of a lot of rock bands. But the Dead had one more classic album up their sleeves, the oddball Blues for Allah. This 1975 release showed the band could incorporate the funky new rhythms that were happening in black music and still maintain their identity ("Help on the Way," "Franklin's Tower"). They even had a minor hit with Weir's "The Music Never Stopped," one of their best songs. And if the experimental title track was a little too strange, well, it's at least a bold try and in the spirit of their old psychedelic selves. Besides, who puts things like that on a commercial album anymore?
After Blues for Allah, the band's cult grew even bigger. Once again, the time had come to make an important record. The Dead had the songs, but they didn't go on their next album, Terrapin Station. Instead, their best new tunes made studio debuts on the many solo albums that were coming out at this time. Some of these included Garcia's Reflections and Cats Under the Stars, Bob Weir's Heaven Help the Fool, and the debut album by Kingfish, on which Weir not only performed but contributed the Dead favorites "Lazy Lightnin'" and "Supplication." As with the Who, solo record deals diluted the power of the motherband.
Terrapin contained one side of an absolutely brilliant Garcia-Hunter composition (the title track) and another of group members' tunes that didn't gel together. Since this is the point that a new generation of Deadheads hopped "on the bus," a lot of Deadheads came of age with the band floundering on disc.
Shakedown Street, the next record, has its charms, but the great songs were now fewer, and the dance rhythms seemed forced (hence the album being called "disco Dead"). The group came off as unfocused, either because of or in spite of the guiding hand of Little Feat's Lowell George, who produced. Lack of inspiration marred 1980's Go to Heaven, which only had two new Garcia cuts and saw the group struggling to blend the soulful singing of new keyboardist Brent Mydland into their sound. Still, "Alabama Getaway," "Lost Sailor" and "Don't Ease Me In" remain great studio moments.
The Dead then temporarily gave up making studio records for seven years. This gave critics of their studio work even more ammo. It didn't help that the Rolling Stone Record Guides that came out in 1979 and 1983 largely trashed the band's recorded legacy.
When the group returned in 1987, they surprised everyone and placed a single and an album in the Top Ten. In the Dark wasn't a bad record. But neither was it a brilliant record. To cynics (i.e. all the kids who had come of age with punk) it sounded like classic rock "product." To Deadheads, these songs didn't really come alive until they were played on stage. This time they were correct in thinking the studio versions didn't always show the band at their best.
For their final effort, the ironically titled Built to Last, Garcia was hardly present, with only three songwriting credits, including the would-be hit single "Foolish Heart," which didn't chart at all. Mydland, who would die less than a year after the album's Halloween 1989 release, gets more songwriting credits than any other member -- not what most Deadheads came for. (Mydland can be heard to much better effect on his unreleased solo album, which can be found online easily enough).
That's all she wrote for the Dead's studio albums. But there's one final twist to this story. In 1994, the group gave it one last try in the studio, but failed to find inspiration. Had they pushed on anyway, they might have come up with a great last effort since they definitely had the songs. To hear an approximation of what that release would have sounded like, check the YouTube video Days Between (The Final Album That Never Was).
But all told, it's now looking like nearly half the albums the group made are first-rate, which is a better track record than a lot of artists. And if you can't see the light in all that, well, maybe the dark is from your eyes – as another song goes.
The 1985 version of the Dead; photo by Bob Seidemann
Tony Sclafani is the author of the book Grateful Dead FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Greatest Jam Band in History, which contains a more detailed look at the band's studio work. Visit his Web site at www.tonysclafani.com.
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